By Vanessa Salvia

The trend of online learning has been gaining steam for the past few years, but recently it’s taken a large jump in popularity. According to U.S. News & World Report, enrollment in online courses increased significantly – 5.6 percent – between 2015 and 2016.

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Based on federal data from more than 4,700 colleges and universities, more than 6.3 million students, primarily undergraduates, took at least one online course in fall 2016 – out of over 19.8 million total students.

In another closely watched sign of online learning’s increasing impact, the recent acquisition of Kaplan University by Purdue University gained its final approval in March. Nearly a year earlier, Purdue announced that it intended to purchase Kaplan from Graham Holdings for a dollar and convert it into a nonprofit organization. The organization is now called Purdue University Global and is a sign of just how seriously educational organizations are taking the trend of online learning.

While some colleges considered online learning a little later in the game, others, such as Arizona State University, were early adopters of the trend.

In 2012, Harvard and MIT announced a nonprofit partnership, known as edX, to offer free online courses from both universities, but ASU began offering online classes two years earlier in 2010.

Early on, we saw the shifting dynamics of students and the need to provide access to education through multiple pathways, including online learning,” said Nancy Cervasio, Senior Director of Student Success for EdPlus at Arizona State University. “The needs of today’s students are evolving and online learning is evidence of our commitment to provide access to education.”

Over the last eight years, ASU has moved from simple online courses to very complex online programs that bring the latest technology to their students. The school offers more than 150 online undergraduat and graduate degree programs. Programs range from a Bachelor of Arts in Business – Sustainability, to one they recently announced – an online World War II Studies Master’s Degree Program. ASU Online programs have grown with a 60 percent increase in freshmen enrollment since the fall of 2016, with that growth expected to continue.

Increasingly, students are approaching online learning because the traditional college setting doesn’t work for people’s complicated lives. As Cervasio notes, many students who take advantage of online classes are working full time, raising a family, or are possibly serving our country overseas.

“An online education is a solution that provides the access and flexibility that on-campus courses do not,” she said. “With numerous degree programs available, online education is a great option for those who need to find a flexible way to study on their own time – when and where they can.”

For students who are considering an online program, check to ensure that the program holds the same accreditations as the university’s traditional program, as ASU’s does. When students learn online through a university such as ASU, students can enjoy a full university experience with faculty interaction, library access and the benefits of an alumni network.  

There’s sometimes a perception that online classes are easier, when in fact, many programs advise students that online classes are more challenging than campus-based courses, Cervasio said.

“Obtaining an online degree requires self-discipline, time management skills and commitment,” she said, which can all be more challenging when there are no set in-person class meeting times.

As more and more colleges create online options, it’s clear that the traditional college experience is becoming the nontraditional one. “Students are attracted to the flexibility online learning offers and are comfortable with an online modality,” Cervasio said. “They are the new normal.”

A June 2015 article in the MERLOT journal of online learning and teaching, written by Tuan Nguyen of Vanderbilt University, described “a large number of studies that find positive statistically significant effects for student learning outcomes in the online or hybrid format compared to the traditional face-to-face format.”

When faculty is committed to a robust online learning experience, it’s clear that both in-person and online learning can be just as effective in delivering education. According to Cervasio, “We need more large-scale colleges and universities to take bold steps to harness this technology and break the barriers to student access.”

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