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The Future of College: How Online Education is Changing Everything

Aug 20, 2007 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Online learning is making a big splash in higher education.   According to a study by the Sloan Consortium in 2006, the number of online students in America increased by a third between 2004 and 2005—going from 2.3 million to 3.2 million.

Many regionally accredited schools offer online classes exclusively.   Thousands of traditional colleges are getting into the act as well. Some offer all-online degree programs, while others incorporate online classes into traditional programs.

This is a big change in a very short time. Here are just some of the ways a growing online education industry might change traditional college—and our world.

“Non-traditional” students will become the norm

There’s a reason why “traditional” students are young adults who live on or near campus, go to school full-time, and are supported by their parents: because without that time and financial support, it’s very difficult to get an online degree.

Today, you can get a degree from a regionally accredited school in another city without leaving your hometown.  You can also arrange class time around work and family obligations.  This makes a degree possible for millions of students who never could have found the time or made the commute before.  It’s likely that as these students continue to have access to online education, they may become more common than their “traditional” counterparts.

Online education will become more accepted

Respected traditional schools now offer some degree programs 100% online, while others integrate online and traditional learning in hybrid classrooms or offer partial online programs.  Some schools offer online classes only, and many of these are accredited by the same agencies that accredit Ivy League schools.

Even so, many still don’t consider online education as valid as a traditional degree.  But as more and more students log on each year, programs continue to improve, and top-tier universities go online, this is almost certain to change.  It’s likely that in another ten years, online degrees in most fields will be just as prestigious as traditional degrees.

Even traditional classes will incorporate online components

This change is happening even now.  According to the Sloan Consortium study, 98% of large Midwestern universities used online learning in some way—and almost half of smaller universities did as well. 

The advantages to incorporating online learning into a traditional classroom are numerous.  Students have more flexibility without sacrificing face-time with the instructor.  Schools can offer some classes online and others in-person to accommodate a wider variety of students. With all the benefits, it’s likely that even if you attend a traditional school, you won’t be able to escape online education. Some unversities such as this one are changing the classroom and offering online programs never thought such as M.S. in Nursing, Ph. D programs, research oriented degrees and many more.

The proscribed life path will become more varied

When we look at job expectations of times past, they seem hopelessly outdated now.  People don’t stay in the same job for decades, and employers can’t be depended upon to take care of us after we retire.  Today, most people can expect to have dozens of jobs and a number of careers, in their lifetimes.

But life is still a bit rigid in our time

Young adults are expected to go to college before getting a serious job or getting married and having kids.  This is because traditional colleges demand too much time to accommodate childcare or a career-track job as well. 

In another ten years, this might change. With the added flexibility of online education, students will have the freedom to have kids, get married, work full-time, start their own businesses, or even travel the world while getting an education.  It sounds far-fetched now, but our current ideas about the proper order of things may seem rigid and outdated to future generations.

Traditional colleges will not become obsolete

Not every course of study lends itself well to online education.  And not every student is suited to it.  Although online education is likely to grow and become more established in future decades, traditional education is not likely to disappear.  Many students still value in-person contact with professors and peers, and young people still want the on-campus  “college experience.”

But college debt is rising, and many students are taking financing into account when choosing a school.  Tuition at online schools is not always less expensive, but students’ cost-of-living, books, transportation, dorm-room furniture, and “college experience” costs will certainly be lower—or nonexistent—at an online school.  In the future, it’s likely that more students will choose an online education for financial reasons. 

Brick-and-mortar colleges aren’t going away, but it’s possible that online education will start to eclipse traditional class time.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the flexibility of online classrooms may just make our lives more flexible as well.


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