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Accredited online colleges on the rise

20th Feb 2012
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Nick Johnson discusses the adoption of accredited online courses and programmes in higher education institutions in the United States.
In 2010, enrollment for accredited online college courses rose by 10%, which far exceeds the less than 1% growth in the overall student enrollment in higher education institutions generally. In the fall term of 2010 alone, 6.1 million students took at least one course online, an increase of 560,000 students — or 9.2% — over the previous year. These students accounted for 31.3% of total student enrollment in postsecondary education for the term.
The proportion is even higher amongst older students. With an average U.S. unemployment rate of 9.64% for 2010, many working adults are returning to school for additional education to both increase job security and future career opportunities. As many of these individuals already have work and family commitments, the flexibility of online programmes provides an opportunity not available through traditional college programs. Consequently, surveys indicate that 42% of students who are thirty or older are taking entire programs through distance education.
Online learning has become such a prominent topic in the academic community because there's a growing sentiment that the personalised learning environment offered by online courses may be more effective than the traditional classroom experience. Recent research conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group indicates that 67% of chief academic officers reported learning outcomes for virtual environments, compared with in-classroom experiences, were "the same", "somewhat superior", and "superior". This is a notable increase from the 57% reported in 2003.
"As many of these individuals already have work and family commitments, the flexibility of online programmes provides an opportunity not available through traditional college programs."
Certain faculty members such as Dr. Clayton Christensen, professor at Harvard University, have been instrumental in educating others on the benefits of online learning. He advocates that the "rise of online learning carries with it an unprecedented opportunity to transform the schooling system into a student-centric one that can affordably customize for different student needs by allowing all students to learn at their appropriate pace and path, thereby allowing each student to realize his or her fullest potential."
Just how significant is personalisation in education? Education scholar Benjamin Bloom conducted research in 1984 which demonstrated that students given one-on-one attention reliably performed two standard deviations better than their peers who stay in a regular classroom, the difference between an 'average student' and one in the 98th percentile. However, in 1984, the idea of providing personal attention to each individual student was unthinkable simply due to the staggering costs involved. But now with online learning, customising education for every student is no longer beyond the scope of possibility.
Online learning will enable not only the pace, but also the delivery of the course to be tailored to each individual student in ways that traditional face-to-face education cannot accommodate for. Students have unique learning styles and interests, and increased customisation can make the learning process more engaging and effective. One student may learn calculus derivatives faster by walking through numerous example problems; another may prefer to have it explained more visually; and still another student still might better grasp the concept if it is taught within the context of physics.
Accredited online colleges have also been gaining increasing acceptance by educators as well as employers. A 2010 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 87% of 449 randomly selected HR professionals viewed online degrees more favorably than they did five years ago, and 79% said that they had hired a job applicant with an online degree over the past year. In the present recession, as more professionals seek to further their education to improve job security and prospects, and as more prestigious higher education institutions begin offering degrees online, online learning will become an even more integral part of the worldwide education system.
Will online learning shift the present education system from the custodial, teacher-based format to one that is student-centric? The grand promise of online learning is that it will one day deliver to every student personalised content, tailored to each individual's learning style and contextualised to the individual's interests, at a pace determined by the individual's proficiency and according to the individual's availability. Online learning promises to make education more engaging, more accessible, and more effective, so that anyone can learn from anywhere at any time and master the material better than if they were to attend a brick-and-mortar institution.
"Online learning promises to make education more engaging, more accessible, and more effective, so that anyone can learn from anywhere at any time and master the material better than if they were to attend a brick-and-mortar institution."
Whether such a grand promise can be delivered is surely a topic that will be laboriously tested and debated over the next few years. However, what is certain is that ever since the arrival of the Internet, more academic information continues to become more readily accessible to more people at a lower cost, and that pattern is not about to change.
More professors will offer their courses online. More education institutes will offer degrees online. Even while people debate over whether distance education is better or worse than traditional classroom education, more and more people are using the Internet to teach and to learn. For this reason, accredited online colleges and courses are here to stay. What is taught will inevitably become free (if it is not free already). How it will be taught will make all the difference.
Over the last 15 years, the Internet has revolutionised countless industries including retail, music, publishing, and communication. In a similar way, it will continue to revolutionise how we view education.
Nick Johnson is a writer and content editor for Accredited Online Colleges, providing insight and resources on elearning in postsecondary education

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