Online Education Grows in Popularity

An increasing number of Americans are choosing to get a degree online, according to a study by the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board.

The report reveals that 29 percent of college students, or 5.6 million people, took at least one course online in the fall of 2009, which is up from 10 percent in 2002. The overall college population increased by 1 percent from 2008 and 2009, while the share of those individuals who took an online class rose by 21 percent over that stretch.

The annual survey is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The complete report is called Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, and it includes a detailed analysis of the factors that impact the growth in online education.

Of the 2,500 colleges that were surveyed, nearly two-thirds reported that web-based education is a “critical” part of their long-term strategy. Many universities are offering digital classes in some of the most popular fields, as some institutions have added distance learning human resource management courses. In addition, the number of colleges that view web-based learning as equivalent to campus-based education has risen.

“In the first report of this series in 2003, [about half] of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face,” the report states. “That number is now 66 percent, a small but noteworthy increase.”

Elaine Allen, a co-author of the study, told Bloomberg News that the sluggish economy has contributed to a spike in online enrollment. She added that for-profit colleges are embracing a digital curriculum because it attracts students who are seeking lower costs and flexible class schedules. Most campus-based schools also offer some of their programs online, but many school officials are worried that new federal regulations on financial aid could negatively impact campus-based enrollment.

The growing trend of distance learning education is also beginning to spread across the globe. For example, a California-based institution recently announced that it has added online business degrees for students who are unable to afford tuition at a traditional college. As part of an initiative to assist underprivileged individuals, the school is offering its online business courses to scholars in Pakistan, the UK and India.

The university will offer bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees to students overseas, and the outreach efforts have been supported by UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.