There's nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. For online higher education, that time is now.
That's what the numbers appear to argue, at any rate. Digital distance learning has been grabbling ever larger shares of university enrollment, and this trend shows no sign of stopping. "The most recent estimate, for the autumn of 2010, shows an increase of 10% over autumn 2009 to a total of 6.1 million students taking at least one course online for that semester, reports a November 20, 2011 University World News article.
This is an almost four-fold increase in students taking courses online since our first survey in 2002, and represents a compound annual growth rate of 18.3% over the nine-year period. By comparison, the overall higher education student body in the US has grown at an annual rate of just over 2% during this same period.
This arithmetic shakes out into a state of affairs in which online students – defined for the purposes of the survey as any matriculant who takes at least one course online – comprise nearly one third of total higher education enrollment.
Some enrollment fluctuation occurs among the various programs offering online courses. Engineering, for example, experienced an early surge in popularity among digital distance learners, but this popularity has since waned a bit. Taking up the slack, however, are online programs in the allied health professions, the popularity of which has never been greater. Also putting up higher enrollment numbers are programs in other disciplines in the arts and sciences.
With greater popularity comes greater legitimacy. Attitudes towards online higher education are changing – and for the better. A November 10, 2011 post on The New York Times' blog The Choice reports that "positive perceptions of the medium have continued to rise, albeit slightly, by single-digit percentage points, each year." Currently some "32% of academic administrators agreed that faculty at their particular institution accepted 'the value and legitimacy of online education,'" to use the phrase that appears in "The 2011 Survey of Online Learning," the study cited in the post.
Digital higher education is so much the rage that it has taken hold of Dixie. "Students at the University of South Carolina's two-year regional campuses would be able to get a bachelor’s degree through online coursework under a plan the university is developing," reports a November 16, 2011 article in The State.
Offering students a chance to get a four-year degree through online coursework would put USC in more direct competition with for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, Webster University and Virginia University. Those schools long have made flexibility a core part of their efforts to appeal to non-traditional, often older students.
"Flexibility" is certainly a watchword in the higher education industry – and for good reason; economic churn and volatility in the labor market means that a looming reality for many workers is the prospect of re-training at various points in their careers. This means that an increasing number of college students are no longer of the conventional sort – aged 18 to 24, and generally occupied only with completing school – but are working adults in their 30s, 40s, or 50s who are hoping to increase their marketability or to burnish their skill sets in order to win a big promotion.
This knowledge is not lost on higher-ed bigwigs in The Golden State. "The California State University system has now joined with the University of California to offer entire degree programs through online instruction," reports a November 4, 2011 NBC Bay Area story. "Students are already able to access a few master's degrees online, but the new effort from both institutions offers the possibility that tens of thousands of students will be able to earn degrees without ever stepping into a traditional classroom or campus environment."
Of course, the greatest attraction is that of cost reduction. Nothing trims overhead like relief from having to invest in physical infrastructure. In the brave new world of online education, server space trumps classroom or dorm space. "Online instruction is an incredibly inexpensive way for the university to enrich its coffers for a minimal investment," the NBC Bay Area story observes. "Instead of spatial limitations associated with a classroom or even an auditorium, the same class could be 'offered' to thousands of students simultaneously – thousands of students paying the same tuition as those on campus."
Digital instruction allows for greater economies of scale, thereby increasing returns on such investments as the salaries of instructors and their subalterns, graduate student graders.
There lurks, then, the danger that digital distance education will come to be regarded as merely a cynical ploy on the part of universities, whose increasing obsession with the bottom line makes them liable of committing the worst abuses of private corporations. This danger is perhaps overstated, but the fact remains that many kinks need to be worked out before online higher education supplants the traditional brick-and-mortar residential kind as the standard model of instructional delivery.