5 things you should know about online education

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By Erin Eagan



student studying online

Courtesy of Northcentral Technical College

The advent of online education has drastically changed the education landscape. It has opened up a world of new opportunities for anyone interested in learning — and the skyrocketing numbers reflect that. In the last 15 years, enrollment in online courses in the US has more than quadrupled. In fact, in an article by BroadbandSearch, "How Did the Internet Change the Way We Learn?" more than five million students are now taking at least one online class per year. 

With its rapid evolution, there is still a lot to learn. We know where we’ve been with online education, we know where we are today, but do we how much do we know about where we’re headed? 

Best Colleges conducts annual surveys of school administrators, current and prospective students and online program alumni to study current trends in relation to demand and motivations for online learning. Their 2019 Online Education Trends Report offers insight into what we can interpret from recent findings. Here are a few of the highlights: 

1. Online learners are becoming more diverse in age, as students are getting both older and younger. Thirty-seven percent of administrators reported a trend toward older learners with more adults enrolling in online courses. Meanwhile, 28% reported a trend in younger learners. For the first time, we are seeing more of a balance in traditional students and adult learners.

2. Convenience and flexibility are students’ top reasons for studying online. Almost half of the students surveyed enrolled online because existing work and family commitments didn’t allow for campus-based attendance. For these students, online programs can work around their schedule and at a place of their choosing. 

3. Online students are still part of campus life. Just because students are enrolled in an online course doesn’t mean they aren’t part of campus life. On the contrary, almost two-thirds (63%) of students who are currently enrolled in an online degree or certificate program visit a campus location either by choice or because their program has an in-person requirement. Online students also participate in discussion forums, webinars and collaborative projects to stay engaged and interact with other students.

4. The two biggest challenges cited by online students are both financial in nature. “Estimating actual costs (tuition, books, etc.)” was listed as the number one challenge followed by “applying for financial aid and identifying sufficient funding sources.” Sarah Kavanaugh, Education Director of Information Technology, Arts, AV and Communications for the Wisconsin Technical College System has some advice for prospective online students. “Research, research, research,” she says. If not online, then seek out other resources offered by the colleges. “Only 17% of students rely on a college website for information about online programs. That means students likely need more access to people than technology when making decisions about their education.” Kavanaugh also adds that the onus for information dispersing shouldn’t fall solely on the students. “Colleges are tasked with finding more robust ways to connect with students about the financial realities of higher education,” she says.

5. The satisfaction of online education remains high. Eighty-eight percent of online students said they have seen or will see a positive return on their investment, with 88% saying they would recommend online education to others. Kavanaugh attributes this to institutions like Wisconsin’s technical colleges having put a bigger emphasis on online learning in recent years, with all 16 of Wisconsin’s technical colleges now offering online learning options for students. There are more options to choose from than ever, with new programs continuing to be offered. “Our colleges have done a tremendous job balancing the competing forces of expanding distance education opportunities while humanizing teaching at a distance,” she says. “This student-centered approach has helped to change the perception that distance education is second-chair to the traditional classroom leading to sustained growth and success within the Wisconsin Technical College System.”