Coventry University in the UK recently announced that it will offer 50 online degrees over the next five years. Students can start taking courses for free and complete a series of short courses before deciding if they want to enroll full time, using a pay-as-you-go pricing model. While online learning is hardly new, this announcement a giant step in the shift from traditional, on-campus learning to an exclusively online experience.
Online education is growing in popularity because of the benefits it delivers to both higher education institutions and students. Online education provides greater flexibility, which is in high demand for an increasing number of adult learners who are trying to juggle work, family and higher education. It allows colleges and universities to expand their reach to virtually any geographic area. Rather than simply viewing pre-recorded lectures, online learners can participate in live classes and engage with professors and students. On the most basic level, online education allows students to avoid housing and transportation costs, while schools can accommodate more students without adding classrooms or housing.
Of course, online education has its disadvantages. Schools often require major technology upgrades to deliver high-quality online learning experiences. Degree completion rates are lower with online education. While courses can be interactive, it’s impossible to fully replicate the in-person experience before, during and after class. If there’s a technical issue, a student can watch a recording of the class but will miss the live experience. Financial aid can be more complex to obtain, and some institutions aren’t eligible for federal aid. Schools that offer strictly online programs are sometimes accredited differently, so students seeking to earn a license or certification must make sure the program is properly accredited.
Fortunately, many of the negatives of online education are correctible, and the options continue to proliferate. Even for traditional students, online education makes it possible to take courses over summer break without staying on campus. Many schools provide online access to course materials and recording of lectures. In some cases, it’s easier to gain acceptance into online programs than traditional programs, making higher education accessible to more people. In addition to online-only programs, more schools are offering hybrid programs that include both online and in-person classes.
With more options come higher expectations. Students want faster answers to their questions about financial aid, credit transfers and career assistance. They expect to access this information and other resources on their mobile devices. The recent Online College Students report from Aslanian Market Research found that the number of students requesting information from at least three schools jumped from 29 percent to 52 percent. Nearly six in 10 students would change part of their search if they could turn back the clock, and 23 percent of current and former online education students wish they had contacted more schools. Almost three-quarters of students are now aware of competency-based programs.
This data suggests that students feel as if they should have been more demanding. As a result, recruitment is getting tougher. Student experiences need to get better. Retention and degree completion rates need to get better. Because students are becoming more knowledgeable every day and can pick and choose their options, colleges and universities have to raise their game and meet increasing demands for a flexible, high-quality online learning experience.