The Boom In Online Education

In Aaron Walsh's course on Collaborative Computing at Boston College, students learn how to work in teams to program software. It's not an easy class, but Walsh sees his students only once at the start of the semester. After that, they work in a virtual 3-D world, which Walsh—a former videogame programmer—helped design. Logging in via their PCs or laptops, professor and students interact and work together as digital avatars—just like they would in programs like Second Life, using voice-over-Internet to talk or ask questions. The class is part of a fast-growing movement to apply state-of-the-art computer-game technology to U.S. college learning. Similar experiments have been conducted at Harvard, Amherst and MIT.

Long gone are the days when "online education" meant little more than digitized correspondence courses. Today it features videos and podcasts, blogs and live chats, Webcams and wikis, and online courses are becoming ever more popular. This fall, more than 4 million students in the United States will take at least one course online, says Frank Mayadas, an expert on education technology at the Sloan Foundation in New York. America's biggest online school, the University of Phoenix, has grown from 80,000 students in 2000 to 345,000 students today and is on track to reach 500,000 by 2010.

Already popular with universities, which see such programs a way to boost enrollment and revenue, and with students, who love the flexibility and the lower tuition costs, online learning has gotten another big boost from the high price of gas. Four out of five U.S. college students now commute to campus every day, and admissions officers say fuel costs have helped push up online enrollment by 100 percent at some colleges in the past year.

Many such programs are also shedding their second-class status. Elite U.S. colleges like MIT and Stanford have begun offering a growing number of degrees online. Stanford alone now boasts more than 50 different online master's programs, most of them in engineering and science, which have no physical classroom component but which Stanford claims are just as good as its on-campus offerings. A few schools, like the State University of New York and the University of Illinois, have abolished the separation of online from campus programs entirely, awarding the same degree for both. The next step: allowing students themselves to mix and match campus and online coursework at will.

Employers have been slow to catch on; while 83 percent of U.S. hiring managers said in a June survey that online degrees are more accepted today than five years ago, only 35 percent considered them equal to traditional degrees. Indeed, there is no good virtual replacement yet for hands-on study in subjects like physics, biology or anatomy, which require physical contact materials. Some educators are also skeptical, complaining about the for-profit nature of many online programs and the fact that they fail to replicate free-flowing conversations. "You lose something by not having human contact," says Anita Levy of the American Association of University Professors.

Yet other experts argue that Web-based learning is actually closer to students' future on-the-job realities. "Much business is now conducted online," says Mayadas. "Education is mimicking the way we conduct business, communicate and exchange ideas today."

The future of online learning, Mayadas says, lies in "blended" programs that combine faculty face time with the flexibility of online teaching. The move to such hybrids will be driven by students questioning why they should sit in lectures taking notes three times a week when they can go once and do the rest at their own pace online. Universities and colleges, for their part, like the fact that mixed programs allow them to cut down on physical classes, saving money and creating space for more students.

Blended programs will also go a long way toward meeting the critics who contend that digital learning will never replace the campus experience. By combining face-to-face interaction with new online options in more powerful ways, these programs should offer the best of both worlds—rendering moot today's debate over whether virtual or in-person degrees are best.