Pay a visit to any lecture hall on just about any college campus nationwide; chances are you’ll notice a few empty chairs. Two years ago, most professors would simply have chalked these absences up to illness or, perhaps, just plain sloth. But, according to a new national survey, more students than ever are opting to get their learning online, trading in early morning lectures and long walks across campus for grades handed down in cyberspace.

Released Nov. 12, the second annual Sloan Report on Online learning entitled, “Entering the Mainstream: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2003 and 2004,” is based on a survey of 1,100 colleges and universities. Its findings suggest that enrollments in university-sponsored online courses are spiking at average rates of 25 percent year over year.

The study was sponsored by the nonprofit Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and conducted by the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C), a group dedicated to pursuing the benefits of online education in schools. The survey looks at the factors contributing to the rapid expansion of online learning in postsecondary education, and the study’s authors project the trend will continue through 2005.

The survey is not the first of its kind, nor is the phenomenon limited to colleges. In September 2003, Boston-based Eduventures Inc. released a report that tracked a veritable explosion of virtual courses in K-12 schools.

At the K-12 level, the Eduventures report “What can Virtual Learning Do for Your School?” suggested institutions are using virtual courses to provide both supplemental and advanced instruction to students who otherwise wouldn’t have the option of taking such courses. Going a step further, some states–including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Florida–have developed full-fledged virtual schools, where students can take some or all of their courses online.

Now the trend is picking up at the college level as well. According to the Nov. 12 survey, approximately 2.6 million postsecondary students are currently enrolled in online courses through various colleges and universities nationwide, marking a significant increase compared with the 1.9 million students taking classes online in the fall of 2003.

But as students continue to flood online learning programs, opponents of the trend have remained critical, especially when it comes to a perceived need for more face-to-face contact among faculty members, students, and classmates. The Sloan-C authors, however, report such concerns are overblown. According to the survey, students enrolled in online courses say they are as satisfied –if not, more satisfied–with the instruction they receive over the internet as they are with the instruction in traditional classroom environments.

The survey states that 40.7 percent of online learners are “at least as satisfied” with their virtual teachers and courses as they are with their other classes. Students who attend large schools such as those offering Doctoral/Research, Masters, and Associates degrees tend to have a higher opinion of online courses than those attending small, Baccalaureate schools (enrollments of 1,500 or less), the study finds.

One school that says it’s making significant inroads through the addition of online courses is the University of Central Florida (UCF). An institution with more than 42,000 students, Central Florida offers numerous undergraduate- and graduate-level courses for completion over the internet.

“At the University of Central Florida, we have found that online education compares favorably with face-to-face instruction,” said UCF President John Hitt. “Today’s students are comfortable learning and communicating online, and we can increase our enrollment and diversity without burdening our already crowded classroom schedule.”

And UCF is not alone. Large universities such as the University of Maryland at College Park and the University of Massachusetts also have been aggressively expanding online opportunities for students.

In fact, 53.6 percent of the responding schools said “online education is critical to their long-term strategy,” according to the report.

Larger institutions seemed to be the most adamant about the need for more virtual opportunities in schools, with 65 percent pushing for greater emphasis on internet-based instruction in the future. Small schools, on the other hand, were less enthusiastic. More than 20 percent of all private nonprofit schools that responded to the survey said they did not consider online learning an essential part of their future.

Elaine Allen, professor of statistics and entrepreneurship at Babson College and co-author of the Sloan report, said online learning is providing schools with a means to attract students who wouldn’t normally attend a four-year college.

Though an increasing number of undergraduate students are enrolling in online classes, Allen said, “the kinds of [learners] most attracted to these types of courses tend to be older students.” These are mainly people with families and full-time jobs who seek to fit schooling into their already busy schedules.

Despite the enthusiasm, she said, it isn’t likely online courses will eventually replace the demand for traditional classroom instruction. “The area in which we’ve seen the most push-back is in traditional four-year liberal arts colleges,” she said. All indications are that the majority of these types of students still prefer the four-walls of the classroom to the convenience of cyberspace.

In fact, personal preference might now be the most important distinguishing factor when it comes to a student’s choice of learning experiences.

“One of the earliest perceptions about online learning was that is was of lower quality than face-to-face instruction,” the report explains, but today, that perception has changed dramatically. “When asked to compare learning outcomes in online courses with those for face-to-face instruction, academic leaders put the two on very close terms, and expected the online offerings to continue to get better relative to the face-to-face option,” researchers said. “Schools continue to believe online learning is just as good as being there.”

Links:

Executive Summary: Entering the Mainstream: “The Quality and Extent of Online Learning in the United States 2003, 2004”
http://www.sloan-c.org/resources/survey.asp

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
http://www.sloan-c.org

Eduventures Inc.
http://www.eduventures.com