In a 2007 report published by the Sloan Consortium, most universities stated that the main reasons they continued to expand their online education programs were because such programs improved student access to education. For example, when universities offer courses online, they can work around limited classroom space, instructor shortages, and conflicting course schedules to offer more students more classes.
Similarly, in taking an online course that allows them to complete assignments at their own pace, students can work around their busy course and work schedules, as well as tailor their coursework to their own personal learning styles. Students increasingly enroll in online courses over their summer break while they live with their parents and work summer jobs. Additionally, more and more international students choose to enroll in online courses, forgoing the obstacles associated with arranging visas and international travel.
More importantly, however, online courses allow universities to reach out to students who have been traditionally unable, for a variety of reasons, to enroll in classes on campus.
Online Education’s Historical Counterpart
Online education’s predecessor, distance education, became popular in the nineteenth century precisely because it offered people from rural, working class communities access to higher education.
Distance students could receive via mail the same kinds of materials their often more privileged peers enrolled in campus-based colleges had access to – without relocating or forgoing their employment – for a fraction of the cost of annual tuition. These distance education programs promised their students a piece of the American dream: everyone, regardless of their personal circumstances, could obtain a higher education.
Similarly, online education programs offer the same opportunities. For those who cannot commit to full-time enrollment on a college campus, the chance to take a course online is certainly appealing. The single or stay-at-home parent can complete online courses in the evenings without arranging for a babysitter. The elderly can continue their education without worrying about the awkwardness of being in a classroom full of teenagers and twenty-somethings. Military personnel can continue their education while being on active duty.
Similarly, students with disabilities can take online courses at their own pace. For those with mental disabilities such as ADD, an online course can offer a self-pacing environment, free from the distractions of the classroom and the anxiety of hard deadlines. For those with physical disabilities, the online classroom can be easier to negotiate. And finally, the full-time employee can take online courses without taking vacation days or compromising a work schedule. In some cases, employees might even be able to convince their employers to pay for part of all of the costs of continuing education, especially if the courses will directly contribute to job improvement or a promotion.
Online Flexibility Empowers Many
As all of these examples demonstrate, online education provides a high level of flexibility. Similarly, online courses offer financial flexibility. For the student who cannot afford an annual tuition, most online programs allow their students to pay by the course.
If you can’t manage the costs of a full twelve or fifteen hour semester, you can get a jump on your college degree by taking one or two courses at a time. This method of enrolling in college can be especially successful when students choose to enroll in core curriculum courses online. Often, students can take online versions of standard courses that are required at almost every university such as English 101, Math 101, and Sociology 101.
Frequently, the credits the student earns in these courses are transferable. Consequently, if the student decides later to enroll full time on campus at a university, these courses will count towards their degree, saving both time and money. At some institutions, students can earn entire degrees online, paying course by course and completing the work at their own pace. This is often far more economical than continuing to eek out annual tuition payments, especially if personal circumstances mean that the student will take more than the expected four years to graduate, or the student only needs a couple of courses or an advanced degree or certificate for a job promotion.
Words of Caution
While universities celebrate online education’s potential to enfranchise previously disenfranchised students, such as nontraditional students, minority students, and students with a limited income, they also bear great responsibility for ensuring that those students are truly empowered by online education programs.
Undercutting academia’s laudable claim that online courses give disenfranchised students a chance to earn a college degree is the fact that increasing university enrollments can increase the university’s profits. This was as true in the nineteenth century distance education programs as it is in the twenty-first century online classroom.
While most have a legitimate interest in educating its students, some distance and online education programs have historically taken advantage of as many students as they have empowered. In the nineteenth century, correspondence courses were offered largely without national oversight. As many online courses do now, these correspondence programs promised their students that after paying for and completing their coursework, students could expect to have more and better job opportunities. Frequently, this wasn’t the case. Employers continued to privilege those job candidates who had degrees from traditional institutions.
Research has shown that this continues to be true in the twenty-first century. While many employers are increasingly willing to consider applicants who have earned their degrees either partially or entirely online, there are those that would rather give jobs to those who have degrees from traditional colleges. However as more and more brand name colleges and universities offer online options to their students, the distinctions between online and traditional programs are beginning to blur.
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