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By Paul Bradley  /  
2008 May 6 - 12:00 am

3. Leading the Way

 Special Report: Distance Education  

Leading the Way
Online Enrollments Tilting Toward Community Colleges

By Paul Bradley

Community colleges, with their legions of non-traditional students, are leading the way in providing distance education opportunities of all kinds.

That is the conclusion of a study conducted by the Sloan Consortium, which promotes standards of online learning and has been tracking distance education for the past five years.

The study found that that in fall 2006, about 3.5 million college students were taking at least one online course. That figure represents almost 20 percent of the nation’s 17.6 million college students.

While growth in distance education is being experienced by colleges across the board, online education enrollments tilt heavily toward community colleges, the study found. In 2006, there were 1.9 million community college students enrolled in at least one online course. That’s about 54 percent of all online enrollments.

“Two-year associate’s institutions provide the largest share of online enrollments, with more online students at these institutions than all other types combined,” according to the study.

Traditional baccalaureate institutions, by contrast, enroll less that 5 percent of the online student population and have the lowest rates of growth in online enrollments.

Community college educators say the findings come as no surprise. Distance learning is a natural, necessary fit for community colleges, because many of their students are enrolled part-time and need the convenience of learning online. Their lifestyles demand it, educators said.

“We need to reach out to students and meet their educational needs, ” said Laurence D. Scaggs, president of Broome Community College in southern New York state.

Distance education takes numerous forms, including audio/video broadcasting, video teleconferencing, computer-aided instruction, hybrid courses and the latest thing, podcasting.

Still, colleges face numerous barriers in expanding online education opportunities, the study found. Topping the list of hurdles for administrators is winning the acceptance of faculty members, who often prefer traditional educational approaches.

“Faculty acceptance of online education has been consistently cited as an important issue for academic leaders since the first survey,” the study found. “Only one-in-three academic leaders currently believe their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education.”

Faculty members complain that online study and a lack of face-to-face interaction engenders a lack of discipline in academics, the study found.

But Ray Schroeder, head of the Office of Technology-Enhanced Learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said online learning can actually enhance interaction. He favors blogs for his courses, allowing students to comment on academic material, and also facilitating exchanges between students that would likely not take place in a lecture hall.

Among the study’s other findings:

  • The 9.7 percent growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the 1.5 percent growth in the overall higher education student population.
  • All types of institutions cited improved student access as their top reason for offering online courses and programs.
  • Nearly 70 percent of academic leaders believe student demand of online learning is growing. 

  Related stories: 
Education on the Run
The Virtual College

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