Online schools clicking with students
Flexibility, technology key to e-learning
By Greg Botelho
(CNN) -- With your pajamas snug, your feet clad in bunny slippers, and a tub of ice cream on the desk, your computer glows in front of you. The clock reads 2 a.m.
In other words, time for class.
This isn't a dream, but a reality for hundreds of thousands of students. Although brick-and-mortar institutions still dominate the educational landscape, a new form of schooling -- called online or e-learning -- has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years.
The Peak Group, an education technology research and consulting firm, expects that more than 1 million students will take advantage of "virtual schools" this school year. Another research firm, Eduventures, predicted the online distance learning market will grow more than 38 percent in 2004, taking in $5.1 billion in revenue.
"In the last five years, the acceleration has been amazing," said Billie Wahlstrom, a vice provost on technology issues at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. "If you look at these things longitudinally, the curve is moving to the vertical."
The movement has taken hold particularly in higher education, where 90 percent of four-year public schools and more than half of four-year private schools offer some form of online education, according to the United States Distance Learning Association.
"The question that you have to ask is not who is offering distance learning, but who isn't," said USDLA Executive Director John G. Flores.
Learning anytime, anywhere
For Janet Farmer, class runs from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., or whenever else she finds time away from working her full-time job at Hewlett-Packard and raising her three children.
"There's absolutely no way that I'd sacrifice my children's emotional and mental well-being to participate in a traditional educational setting," said Farmer, who is eight courses shy of earning a bachelor's degree in business/management at the University of Phoenix, which bills itself as the nation's largest private university.
"It's not for everyone. You have to be determined to do it; you have to do it because it's important to you."
Farmer studies with international and elderly students, troops, even fishermen logging on from offshore. A statistical analysis of the school's approximately 110,000 online students -- just more than half its total student body -- shows a profile much like her: working, married women in their 30s or 40s, who are reimbursed by employers and looking to boost their career prospects.
"If it doesn't lead to a particular position or help them do a current job, it's not necessarily worthy of the time," said University of Phoenix President Laura Palmer Noone. "The major issue is not money, it's time. The biggest difficulties are when life gets in the way."
Prospective students have endless opportunities to learn online, whether it is for career or personal reasons. The Web abounds with credentialed degree programs featuring courses on a wide variety of subjects, such as criminal justice, psychology, nursing and education.
Many such programs have both brick-and-mortar and virtual campuses. The University of Phoenix, with 151 learning centers in 31 states, heads a list of "for-profit" schools focused on e-learning.
"The for-profits that are increasing their market share are market-driven and not caught up in the bureaucracy you see at many nonprofit universities," Flores said. "They have the means and wherewithal to be a very formidable alternative ... As a result, they raise the bar."
"Historically, higher education has taken a one-size-fits-all mentality: That if you want to get a degree, you must leave town, stop working, live in a dorm," Noone said. "But we are way past that. We have to be engaged in lifelong learning, especially if our society is to compete globally."
Embracing the medium
Online instructors say they embrace technology not just to reach those who otherwise may not be able to take classes, but also to engage students.
Historically, higher education has taken a one-size-fits-all mentality: That if you want to get a degree, you must leave town, stop working, live in a dorm. But we are way past that.
-- University of Phoenix President Laura Palmer Noone
That sentiment and an appreciation for reality shows like MTV's "The Real World" spurred University of Massachusetts Professor Jim Theroux to experiment with his business classes for undergraduate and MBA students.
After years teaching "case studies" -- real and embellished examples of business problems -- he planted a writer inside a company to sift through reports, interview employees and set up chats and videoconferences as students tackled a new, real-time problem each week.
"Most distance learning classes are just regular classes put on the Web," said Theroux, referring to professors who post syllabi, discussion questions, images and more online. "But this could not have been done before the Web."
The approach gave students an inside look at a company in a way no other class did, said Keith Richardson, who attended one such class and later assisted Theroux in another.
"Students appreciated the connectivity of getting to know the players," he said. "We began to feel as if we were a part of the company, and the solution to their problems."
Administrators say they must juggle the desire to embrace new technology with the need to keep costs down, especially given the precarious nature of state and federal aid.
"We have to really stay alert as to what's available, but we can't make premature decisions," Wahlstrom said. "We're not after getting what's cool, although it's a nice bonus."
Graduate and college students aren't the only ones using online learning.
Nationwide, about 25 percent of K-12 public schools offer some form of e-learning for students and teachers, according to Education Week. And Eduventures says the market for such curriculum materials should grow 10 percent this year.
Although some programs allow students to earn a high school diploma entirely online, in most cases students take cyber classes to supplement or complement their education.
An online assignment for art history at the Florida Virtual School combines diagrams, photos and instruction.
"Students come to us to fill gaps [and] meet needs not met in their own schools, because the school doesn't have the course they need, there's a scheduling conflict or they need to make up a credit," said Florida Virtual School CEO Julie Young, noting that more than 97 percent of her cyber school's students take one or two classes.
The Bush administration has endorsed such virtual schools as a legitimate way for school districts to satisfy one key aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires giving students options if their school is deemed underperforming.
E-learning supporters laud the method as an opportunity for people of all races, ethnicities, ages and nationalities to attend quality classes. Minorities make up 30 percent of Florida Virtual School's enrollment, for instance, and 39 percent of the University of Phoenix's students are "nonwhite," according to data provided by both schools.
"That's the best part: Age and those other things don't matter," said University of Minnesota e-student Patricia Welde, who noted that 11 of her 12 online classes involved group projects. "You work with all types of people, [and] you're all there to learn."
"You are not bounded by time or geography," Noone said. "People aren't going to judge you by anything but the quality of your ideas. It's highly democratic."
Room for everyone
Some educators criticize virtual schools, especially "for-profits," saying they drain resources and students from schools embedded in their communities.
"You'll see the nonprofits raising their eyebrows -- it's them versus us -- but I think there is room for everyone to be successful," Flores said. "Students will want to go away to college and have that experience no matter what."
And it isn't easy for virtual programs, either, Noone said. Many schools "rushed in," hoping e-learning programs would reap revenues without the expenses of maintaining a brick-and-mortar institution.
"But to build infrastructure and support students is expensive," she said.
Students also invest time and efforts in online classes, which may be harder than traditional ones, said Jane Hancock of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities' continuing education program.
"The student has the advantage of flexibility, but that's not necessarily easier than coming to a classroom," said Hancock, program director for distance learning. "You must be more responsible for your own studies, and disciplined."
With high school, and likely university, enrollments expected to rise in the coming years, Noone predicted "huge growth potential across the entire higher education spectrum."
"It's important for students to realize that lots of options are available," she said. "And it's the quality of the academic experience that will make a program successful. The students we deal with are far too sophisticated to be simply buying a piece of paper for a degree."