Online courses offer genuine advantages
Distance learning was born in the mid-19th century when correspondence courses first thrived in the slipstream of a true communications revolution: the postal service. In the 20th century it struggled in the wake of another, as radio and then television stimulated huge appetites for entertainment rather than education. Today, it is resurgent, finally liberated from the frustrations of the physical world by the greatest communications revolution of them all: the internet. Distance, or online learning, is now the fastest-growing area of higher education worldwide.
Enrolments for online courses in United States universities and graduate schools grew by 17.2 per cent last year, according to the Sloan Consortium's annual survey of distance learning, compared with only 1.2 per cent for the higher education sector overall. More than a quarter of all US college and graduate students now take at least one of their graduate degree courses online.
Distance learning is a natural fit for the internet. Globalisation and the development of increasingly sophisticated online platforms by the universities for research, communication and collaboration offer genuine advantages over, for example, time-consuming visits to campus libraries, unstructured use of precious face-time with faculty staff and inaccurate classroom notes.
The result is that greater numbers of mature students are now committing to graduate degree projects which would formerly have been abandoned due to the need to hold down a job with uncompromising time constraints or the desire not to uproot an entire family on grounds of distance from a place of study.
Another significant catalyst to online learning's rising popularity is that for the vast majority of students entering higher education, life in the virtual world, with its constant toggling between multiple applications and access to wide communities of contacts via a whole spectrum of communication channels, is as natural, comfortable and reassuring as the scrawled-upon legal pad and coffee-shop chat were to an earlier age.
Despite the successes, and the many testimonials of students and the employers who have sponsored them, the issue of how online learning's effectiveness compares with traditional methods continues to pose challenges.
Online learning has a particular appeal to older students, and the online discussions held are often cited as being more robust than in real classrooms (and exchanges better argued due to the need to articulate them in writing).
And, despite the improving image of online learning and generally excellent satisfaction scores from its students, some faculty staff and employers retain lingering concerns over the intrinsic value of the distance learning concept.
According to the Sloan Consortium study, less than one-third of chief academic officers believe that their faculty accepts the value and legitimacy of online education, noting that this result has changed little over the past six years and may therefore be considered a stable value.
Similarly, the attrition rates of distance learners remains a concern. Of all the institutions surveyed, those with the longest experience with online learning agree that student drop-out rates are a greater problem for online than face-to-face courses. And most tellingly, although there is no direct evidence to suggest the learning outcomes of online or distance study are inferior to those of face-to-face students, the perception from faculty staff and employers is that they are. Response rates may vary, but studies tend to concur that a majority of employers prefer to hire students with 'traditional' degrees.
Online higher education is of increasingly high quality and for the most part delivered by reputable, accredited universities in addition to their traditional curricula. It is not necessarily cheaper than a campus-based degree and all potential students are advised to search extensively before committing to a choice.
Not all faculties are equal, nor are their methods or resources. The great benefit of spending some time on the internet comparing courses, contacting ex-students and researching faculty details, is that it is an excellent preparations for the two or three years of life in the virtual world that lie ahead.