Distance learning is hardly a new concept. Prior to the internet, individuals were able to request learning materials which were delivered via mail. All course materials and even subsequent degrees & diplomas were delivered by postmen across the country.
Today, online learning has become an increasingly popular options for students looking to earn their degree. The Sloan Consortium reported that in 2010, over 6.1 million students were taking at least one online course in the fall semester alone. This was an increase of 560,000 students in comparison to 2009. While the overall growth rate is roughly 2% for the higher education sector, online learning programs have seen a 10% growth rate.
More and more top universities which once only offered campus options are now turning to online learning as a way to reach a larger student audience. Combine these options with schools dedicated solely to online learning and the possibilities are nearly limitless to those who wish to pursue distance learning.
Online Colleges and Degree Programs
The National Center for Education Statistics refers to online learning as a formal educational process in which a student can gather knowledge even if he/she and the instructors are not in the same place. Via this avenue, students are able to obtain degrees and diplomas without the need to physically attend a class or college campus. The popularity of these online colleges is growing day by day since 1989 when the University of Phoenix introduced the first online university program. Today, 75% of all community colleges have developed their own content for online courses, and many four year universities have followed suit.
Online learning provides unmatched flexibility for first time college students as well as adults looking to re-enter the higher education world. A whopping 71% of students surveyed via the 2011 CDW-G 21st-Century Campus Report said they believe that virtual learning provides increased flexibility. Online learning means that students may learn at their own pace, on their own time, and via their own venue. Students can choose to study and participate in class at work, home, or essentially anywhere with an internet connection. This is typically referred to as Asynchronous Learning, where there is no such requirement to be present virtually in order to learn and access study materials, quizzes, tests, etc.
Types of Online Learning
There are three types of online education available today:
- Web Facilitated
- Blended Learning
In Web Facilitated courses, web-based technology is mostly used. A course management system (CMS) is initiated. Web pages and chat rooms are provided along with many other Internet tools to provide information.
In Blended Learning, online learning is blended with face to face learning. So actually, it's like a hybrid type of education. In these types of programs, students may need to visit a campus for some portion of time in a week, while during the rest they can enjoy the flexibilities of an online course.
In Online Learning, as the name suggests, roughly 80 % of the entire curriculum is covered online. This type of learning arguably offers students the most flexibility.
Types of Online Colleges and Universities
There are two types of organizations:
- For-profit institutions: These types of colleges are actual businesses. They provide a service, education, and have an end goal to make money for their owners and shareholders. These colleges are owned and operated by private organizations or corporations. The end objective of a for-profit college is to make money. While the myth is that for-profit schools only consist of large, online schools, the truth is that traditional institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale are for-profit institutions as well.
- Non-profit institutions: Unlike for-profit institutions, non-profit colleges were designed and function to serve the needs and interests of its students. Generally, these institutions include state universities and community colleges. A bulk of their funding comes from the government as well as private donations. Rather than paying out its shareholders and owners, non-profit institutions typically put money back into the school to fund student activities, academics, faculty, and research.
Another distinction can be made on a basis of the nature of their governing bodies. Some may be private or public. On the other hand, public colleges are mostly administrated by state governments and are generally supported government funding.
The Importance of College Accreditation
Per the U.S. Department of Education, the end goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality. Private education associations of regional or national scope, known as Accrediting Agencies, conduct evaluations based on criteria they personally develop to determine whether an institution and/or its programs are up to par, so to speak. It is interesting to note that an institution must actually request accreditation from these agencies; the agencies do not simply offer or revoke accreditation.
The United States has no actual centralized authority of accreditation. Rather, it must rely on various Accrediting Agencies. The result is a plethora of institutions which can vary greatly in the quality of their actual programs.
Some functions of accreditation include:
- Verifying that an institution meets established criteria and standards
- Assisting prospective students in locating and identifying qualifying institutions
- Establishing criteria for professional certification and licensure
- Providing one of several considerations used as a basis for determining eligibility for federal assistance
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the following is the accrediting procedure:
- Standards: The accrediting agency, in collaboration with educational institutions, establishes standards.
- Self-study: The institution or program seeking accreditation prepares an in-depth self-evaluation study that measures its performance against the standards established by the accrediting agency.
- On-site Evaluation: A team selected by the accrediting agency visits the institution or program to determine first-hand if the applicant meets the established standards.
- Publication: Upon being satisfied that the applicant meets its standards, the accrediting agency grants accreditation or pre accreditation status and lists the institution or program in an official publication with other similarly accredited or pre accredited institutions or programs.
- Monitoring: The accrediting agency monitors each accredited institution or program throughout the period of accreditation granted to verify that it continues to meet the agency's standards.
- Reevaluation: The accrediting agency periodically reevaluates each institution or program that it lists to ascertain whether continuation of its accredited or pre accredited status is warranted.
Advantages and Disadvantages:
There are many advantages of online learning. It is more convenient, could be more cost-effective, and is flexible. Because students do not have to attend classes or college campuses, students may be able to save time by learning online. Because students do not need to attend an actual campus when learning online, scheduling classes is not as rigid and thus leaves ample time for students' professional and personal lives.
Although online learning offers unparalleled flexibility, there are also some disadvantages. Many learners may miss the interaction and feedback that comes with a traditional classroom environment. Immediate feedback from instructors and classmates is not always available via online learning, and students are missing out on key social growth as a result of learning online, which may be isolating at times. Students also must possess a self-starting skill set to learn successfully online, as supervision is extremely limited.
* Sources: Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011, The Sloan Consortium