The online learning revolution

Computer-based education programs growing fast

If you’ve decided to use your computer to pursue a college degree, you’re not alone. More than 6.7 million people, roughly a third of all postsecondary students, took an online course in 2011, according to the Babson Survey Research Group’s annual Survey of Online Learning.

Year-over-year online learning enrollment has grown steadily and sometimes explosively (23 percent in 2003, 36.5 percent in 2005 and 21.1 percent in 2009) during the last decade . About 70 percent of public and for-profit colleges offer full academic programs online and almost half of all private nonprofit colleges do, according to the survey.

There are many reasons for the online learning revolution, said Chris Chavez, president of DeVry University-Atlanta.

“We’ve been offering online courses for over a decade and the technology has continued to improve, as has the delivery,” he said.

DeVry, like many institutions, trains and supports its faculty to teach online. The school also continues to improve the quality of the content. In Atlanta, the university launched a “writing across the curriculum” initiative pilot program to improve its students’ communication skills, which are in high demand by employers.

As the technology has advanced, so have the students.

“A lot of today’s population has grown up using the Internet as a learning tool. In Decatur schools, they are giving iPads to fourth- and fifth-graders now. Technology is an everyday part of society,” Chavez said.

More students turn to online learning because it’s interactive, personal, convenient and flexible, but also because it helps meet their goals.

“At the end of the day, students earn a degree to find a career or advance in their career, so we measure graduate employment and employer satisfaction through feedback from our advisory boards.

We find that — regardless of the learning modality — our students are finding jobs and performing well,” Chavez said.

DeVry’s Academic Annual Report from 2011-12 found that 88 percent of its bachelor’s degree graduates found jobs in their fields within six months of graduation.

Once skeptical of online education, employers have grown to value it. Seventy-seven percent of chief academic officers in companies now rate online learning outcomes the same or superior to face-to-face courses, according to the Babson survey.

“The nontraditional student is becoming the traditional student at many institutions, as more adults return to school to sharpen skills or find and advance careers,” Chavez said.

Working adults

One of them is Donna L. Stewart, who is working toward a  bachelor’s degree in computer information systems with a concentration in computer forensics. She takes classes online and on the DeVry University-Atlanta campus once a week.

“I was in the Navy for 13 years. When I got out I decided to earn a degree in the field I’d been working in the military — computer analysis and network security,” Stewart said. “Computer forensics is a hot field. With everyone using technology and becoming mobile, we need people who can protect our data.”

Blended learning, which combines online and face-to-face instruction, fits Stewart’s busy life. She has three daughters and a part-time job.

“The online experience has been awesome,” she said. “I did my research and knew that this degree would give me excellent value. I’ve had the opportunity to be in class with some extraordinary professors and learned different perspectives from students who live all over the world.”

DeVry  chose Stewart to participate in a three-month internship and a cyber security simulation event at Georgia Tech that was sponsored by the Technology Association of Georgia. She was one of three students who worked with experts to restore a technology system after it had been hacked.

“Working with people who do this for a living taught me a lot,” Stewart said. “Now DeVry’s career services department is helping me apply for an internship with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.”

She plans to graduate in October and is excited to start her career.

Power of flexibility

Online learning gives nontraditional students access to schools and programs not in their geographical area while giving them the flexibility to balance school, life and work. But traditional college-age students are also  discovering the benefits.

"We are seeing a huge number of college students take our eCore courses in the summer time and during the school year," said Melanie Clay, dean of USG eCore and executive director of extended learning at West Georgia University. "Students who take courses in class and online find it easier to get the classes they need to stay on track and are up to twice as likely to graduate on time, which gives them a considerable financial savings."

A collaboration of nine University System of Georgia schools, eCore (short for electronic core curriculum) began offering courses in 2000 with nontraditional students in mind. The schools — Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, Coastal College of Georgia, Clayton State University, Dalton College, Fort Valley College, Middle Georgia College, Southern Polytechnic State University, West Georgia University and Valdosta State University — found it more cost-efficient to collaborate on an online program rather than launching individual versions.

“The program now offers 24 courses, making it possible for students to complete the first two years of a college education completely online,” Clay said. “They must meet the requirements and be accepted by one of the institutions, but the tuition is only $189 per credit hour. Once accepted, there is always a seat available and the courses will generally transfer to all USG (University System of Georgia) institutions.”

Taught by USG faculty, eCore courses are as rigorous as traditional college classes, and are fully researched and assessed for learning outcomes.

“We design these courses to be a true community and are proud that we have completion rates above the 80 percent range,” Clay said. “Georgians have so many online options open to them now to get a higher education. We just want them to know about the quality and value they can find right here in their own public university system.”