- Public Universities Leading the Way in Online Learning - Public Universities Leading the Way in Online Learning

By Nina Silberstein -

The common perception of online education is that it is dominated by private, for-profit institutions like those you see advertised on late-night cable TV and on the Internet. As eLearning has gone mainstream and grown, however, that perception is changing. Today, nearly all public institutions offer online programs, as do about half of private, non-profit schools, according to the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C), an association of institutions and organizations aimed at providing quality online education.

So what does this say about the future of online learning? One thing's for sure: As more and more public universities design cyber courses, the number of eLearners will continue to increase. In 2005, nearly 3.2 million students were taking at least one online course; Sloan-C estimates an increase of about 25 percent a year.

"With the growth of very large university programs such as the State University of New York Online Learning Network, UMass Online, University of Maryland University College, Penn State World Campus, and the University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS) Online programs," says Ray Schroeder, director of the Office of Technology Enhanced Learning at UIS Online, "I believe that most people recognize that many degrees are available online from traditional schools."

What's Behind the Trend


On the flipside, universities are recognizing the needs of their students. George Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison College, thinks that what's driving the decision of colleges and universities to go online is taking a hard look at their student body. "Distance education gets used very differently depending on the mission of the institution and the clients for which they are intended," he notes. "We're a specialized institution, serving self-directed adults. They can't put their families and careers on hold and go sit in a classroom Monday through Friday. The use of technology to be able to create portable access that can be accommodated around their lifestyles and circumstances is an extraordinary and valuable thing," he says.

The value of online learning at UIS Online, says Schroeder, is integrated into the fabric of the institution and is an important part of the strategic vision. "This past academic year, 32.4% of the credit hours at the campus were in online classes. Enrolled students were living in 49 states and nine foreign countries."

Similarly, online offerings are expanding at other large public universities. "We have 148 online degree or certificate/license programs," says Alan Mabe, vice president for academic planning and university school programs at University of North Carolina (UNC). "We have around 35 master's degree online programs and close to 40 undergraduate completion degrees. We're building new degree programs because we expect this to continue to grow," he says. "To bring education closer to people, we have to use the online methods."

Making Online Learning Work


While public universities have certainly embraced the online platform, it's not likely to overtake their campus-based offerings. For one thing, says Schroeder, some classes, like chemistry labs, are more conducive to in-person learning. In addition, offering online courses is a big investment for schools. "One of the biggest myths about online education is that it's cheap," says Pruitt. "To produce high-quality distance education courses, it's very expensive."

Still, most institutions are finding the investment worth it. "Building online programs-if you have the resources to build really good ones-can be a very effective learning strategy. Students get immediate feedback about what they know and don't know," Mabe adds. "They have mechanisms for making progress better. You can build in self-assessments and ways to link back to modules that go through the tutorials again. You can really exemplify some of the best educational practices in an online environment."

So is an online degree earned from a "traditional" public university as solid as one earned in the classroom? "A careful analysis of the average grade earned, course completion rates, etc. has found that the online classes are very much the same in terms of quality and rigor as those offered on campus," says Schroeder.

"The quality of the instructor and his/her approach to teaching and learning makes far more difference in learning outcomes than the medium through which the class is delivered," he adds.

Pruitt agrees. "The research is pretty conclusive that for a well-done online course, the learning outcomes are, in many cases, better than the traditional experience."

Ultimately, the hope is that offering the distance learning option will create learning opportunities that didn't exist before. "We come across students who say they couldn't have gotten their degree unless it had been available this way," says Mabe. "We're providing access to people who otherwise couldn't attend."

And because of that, eLearning at public institutions continues its growth. "I expect it to be a permanent part of the educational landscape," Pruitt concludes. "It's evolutionary with a new set of strategies that weren't available before."

Date: 09/17/07