Online learning is on the rise everywhere. A 2008 survey by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation found e-learning increased more than 12 percent in 2008 and predicts even more interest in 2009 as Americans seek to retool skills because of the recession.
Smack in the middle of the Internet learning trend are women, who make up the majority of online learners. Not only did an American Association of University Women (AAUW) survey find that 60 percent of online students are women, it discovered that the majority are over 25 years of age.
“Anyone with a busy lifestyle-and women do have busy lives, trying to balance work and family-benefits from the flexibility offered by online instruction,” said Susan Gibbs Goetz, associate professor and director of undergraduate and graduate education programs at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul. “But I would be careful not to generalize that online courses are more attractive to women.”
In class at home-a student view
“I really enjoy online learning,” said Nancy Meints, a full-time teacher and mother of two who lives three hours northwest of the Twin Cities. “There is no way at this point in my life I would be able to travel to Hamline to do the classes,” said the 44 year old. “I feel very fortunate to be able to earn an ESL teaching license, and hopefully master’s degree, from Hamline through their online classes. I teach full-time, have two children, I’m an active church member … the list is endless!”
But it’s far from easy. Meints rises before dawn to get her children off to school and to drive herself to school, where she teaches first grade. After a full day as a mom and teacher, she then fires up her computer to begin her role as student. Typically she takes one class per term.
“Finding the time to study is difficult-after teaching all day, it’s hard sometimes to focus. First graders really wear me out!” she said. But the rewards-moving toward licensure in English as a second language-have kept Meints going. “I find I’m a better teacher and I love how it has helped me connect with my English-language learners in the classroom,” she said, adding that she studies-and in turn likely learns-more than in a traditional classroom setting.
“I enjoy the discussions with the other students,” she said. The only downside is that she sometimes misses classroom lectures. And, when the family’s DSL service goes kaput, “it can be pretty frustrating. … Then I have to drive somewhere to get to a working computer!”
But is it legit?
Exclusively online degrees, once considered suspect by many employers, have become credible. Once the business of only private, for-profit, educational entities such as the University of Phoenix or, locally, Capella University, exclusively digital degrees are now offered by longstanding academic institutions. The two biggest public university programs offering online degrees are Penn State World Campus and UMass Online.
“There is growing respect for an online degree, particularly from the better-known institutions. This was not always the case,” Goetz said. As recently as 2003, many Minnesota school districts were skeptical of allowing teachers to pursue an online master’s in education. Goetz said that the College of St. Catherine met with numerous superintendents and human resource directors throughout the state to assure them of the credibility of their online education program.
Locally, the University of Minnesota has been a leader in digital education. Its Crookston campus first offered an online bachelor’s degree in 1996 and now has five undergraduate degree programs offered fully online. The University’s colleges of Public Health, Nursing and the Institute of Technology have strong online options, from exclusive online courses to hybrid offerings that require on-campus labs or classes.
Benefits on the teacher side
While flexibility is a key attraction, some say the quality of online coursework is an overlooked benefit. “As a faculty member at the University who has taught both classroom-based and online courses, I can tell you that I have had far richer interactions with my students from the online courses,” said Billie Wahlstrom, vice provost for Distributed Education and Instructional Technology at the University of Minnesota. The department heads up the University’s Digital Campus.
Online learning, Wahlstrom continued, “benefits anyone who is trying to manage multiple responsibilities,” and added that online courses “often attract a more diverse student population who bring with them rich life experiences, which make classes more engaging.”
Goetz, of the College of St. Catherine, agrees. She enjoys getting to know her online students, sometimes better than her in-classroom students. But she’s had to learn to set limits; online learning lacks the tangible boundaries of a class that physically meets during a specific time slot on campus. “It is possible to find yourself ‘teaching’ 24/7, so online instructors need to define how often they will be responding to assignments, questions and concerns,” Goetz said.
“Online learning can offer exposure to the rest of the world in special ways,” said Ranae Hanson, associate dean and professor of English, area and culture studies and philosophy at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
“In my world religions classes,” Hanson said, “I’ve had students who are on active duty in Iraq, a student who was on a missionary trip to Russia, students who were home waiting to give birth or home with newborn babies, a student who was traveling back to Ghana to visit his families, a student who was on the road to, then at and then returning from attending a Sun Dance. In each of these cases I’ve been able to adapt the material to give particular and appropriate challenges,” Hanson said.
On the downside, according to Hanson, national statistics show that students complete web-based courses at lower percentages than traditional classes. “The discipline and the volume of reading and writing make it much harder to catch up when one has fallen behind,” said Hanson. “Still, the advantages outweigh the new challenges presented by online learning.”
Among the latest local online initiatives involves the University of Minnesota, which recently partnered with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MNSCU) to bring more online offerings to students. This “Minnesota Learning Commons” program will go live later this year.
In November, Gov. Tim Pawlenty called for students in the MNSCU system to earn one-fourth of their credits online by 2015. He believes online education is a more efficient use of taxpayer-funded higher education. Ostensibly, an online course casts a wider geographic net, eliminating the need for two of the same courses-and two different instructors in, say, Crookston as well as St. Paul.
Nationwide, there was a 13 percent increase in online college and university courses taken in fall 2007 compared to fall 2006, according to the Sloan Foundation. At MNSCU, 9 percent of all registered credits are online-and expected to grow.
With its growing popularity, will online learning eventually replace on-campus education? Colleges and universities in the future may actually have more online students than those who physically attend class, Goetz said, “[but] I do not think that all students will one day go to college on their laptops. Particularly at the undergraduate level, there will continue to be students who want face-to-face exchanges with not only faculty but peers.”
Online Resources: Online Learning Update
A wide range of papers and research about online education. http://people.uis.edu/rschr1/onlinelearning/blogger.html
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Sloan Survey of Online Learning, www.sloan.org, http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20081113150731746
American Association of University Women, The Third Shift: Women Learning Online by Lisa Goodnight, firstname.lastname@example.org
European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning report: Gender, Intrasexual Competition and Online Learning, http://www.eurodl.org/materials/briefs/2008/Fisher_Cox_Gray_GBA.htm