As the digital age continues at a rapid speed, the Internet is moving beyond its role as an entertaining pastime to that of a more life-enhancing tool, especially within higher education.
According to a report conducted by The Learning House Inc. and Aslanian Market Research, in 2014, 3.4 million students were enrolled in full-time online programs, making up 17 percent of all college students. The report projects this number will reach 25 percent by 2020.
With online education on the rise, colleges and universities are taking advantage of this versatile method of learning to provide a range of opportunities for students across the spectrum.
The University of Central Florida (UCF) — the second largest university in the nation, with 60,810 students across its 13 campuses — offers an array of online course options, both full- and part-time, allowing students to create a degree path that fits their schedule and situation.
“Our goal with online learning is the same as with face-to-face education,” says Joel Hartman, vice provost for information technologies and resources at UCF. “It’s to offer students access to a high-quality education.”
UCF has several learning models for students interested in online courses: World Wide Web, video streaming, video streaming with some on-campus time, and mixed mode, which combines Web-based coursework with classroom time. These methods are aimed at providing students with options that fit their unique learning styles.
“Given the ever-increasing use of online courses, even in high school, students from all experiences and backgrounds are coming to UCF with an [understanding] that at least part of their degree requirements can be met through online-only or hybrid classes,” says Karen Morrison, chief diversity officer at UCF.
Unfortunately, for many students who come from lower-income households, a college degree may still seem out of reach. Data from the Pew Research Center show that, as of 2012, college enrollment among students from low-income households was at 50.9 percent, down from 58.4 percent in 2007.
The high cost of attending postsecondary education limits what these students consider possible. However, online education offers an option through which expenses can be significantly reduced, allowing students the opportunity to pursue their degree while limiting the amount of debt they accumulate.
For example, at UCF, the cost of on-campus and online courses is the same. However, students can opt for online courses to avoid the extra expense of on-campus housing — saving them nearly $5,000 a semester — and a meal plan. This extra money can go directly toward their education.
Students enrolled in online programs also have more flexibility to tailor their class schedules in order to accommodate their other responsibilities — whether those include working a full- or part-time job, raising children, or taking care of a loved one.
With a virtual classroom, students can participate in classes from anywhere, as long as they have a computer and an Internet connection. Being able to do coursework, listen to a lecture, or watch a seminar at their convenience helps them balance life as they pursue their education.
“Online classes provide flexibility to those students and allow access to degree courses to help them pursue their educational goals,” Morrison says.
While online education offers an affordable way to earn a degree, some opponents argue that the dropout rate for students in online programs is high while their grades are low. However, Hartman disagrees, stating that at UCF, online courses are just as effective as traditional courses.
“Withdrawal rates for UCF online classes are very low and [are] nearly identical to those of our face-to-face classes — typically in the 2 to 4 percent range,” he says. “Although there may not be face-to-face contact in online courses, we design them to be highly interactive, and many students communicate heavily with their fellow students and instructors.”
Additionally, Hartman explains that despite UCF’s positive enrollment numbers and online retention rates, online courses aren’t overflowing, so students in these classes are still getting proper attention — and a quality education.
“There are relatively few very large Web-based classes at UCF,” he says. “For the fall term, the average enrollment in our fully online Web courses is 54 [students per course], and for our blended-learning classes (Web plus classroom time), it’s 45.”
UCF has been studying and assessing online courses for the last 20 years, and according to Hartman, this research has confirmed that online education works just as well, if not better in some cases, than traditional face-to-face courses.
“Tens of thousands of our students enroll in fully online and blended courses each year,” Hartman says. “The impact is significant.”
UCF’s efforts to reach students of all backgrounds and financial situations seem to be working. Since 2000, the university has seen a 90 percent increase in the number of undergraduate students, indicating that quality does not have to come at the cost of convenience.●
Madeline Szrom is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.