According to the most recent SLOAN online learning survey, 33.5% of all higher education students take one or more online courses. This is the highest percentage in the history of the survey. Expect to see this exceed 50% within a few years. What does this mean for learning organizations? As I see it, they have three options.
1. Start or continue offering online courses, allowing students to self-blend face-to-face and online courses to fit their academic program needs and schedules. The inflexible, prescribed higher education learning path is less tolerated by students. Since students have more higher education options than ever before, saying “no” is often just an invitation to go elsewhere. If the school that one attends does not offer a course that a student wants/needs at time that works for her, she is less likely to wait, instead opting to find an online version of the course at another school and then transfer it back. For schools that increasingly depend upon tuition to fund faculty salaries and the overall operations of the school, such inflexibility tightens the budget and has the potential to shrink the funding needed for faculty, especially those who teach general education courses.
2. Accept that students will be taking courses at multiple schools for their degree program. If a school chooses not to offer online courses, then for most that means more transfer credits. Traditional undergraduate students are already coming to college with more college credit than in the past thanks to things like AP and dual credit courses. If schools choose this option, it likely means that more students will take the smallest number of required credits to graduate from an institution or a given major. Again, at schools depending upon tuition to fund faculty salaries and a large percentage of the general operations budget, this has serious implications. With that in mind, some schools are at least joining consortiums with other schools, allowing the school to get a small part of the tuition, even when a student takes an online course at another institution in that consortium.
3. Do not accept transfer credits for online courses or limit the number of online courses accepted. This has a challenge. Unless a school is exclusive with a waiting line, is the only viable option for a given student, or it has niche programming not available at other places, this may well result in students going to another school. Establishing such a policy requires a compelling justification. Simply claiming that online learning is inferior is often inadequate given the massive body of research indicating otherwise (at least for many course topics). However, there are ample reasons to require face-to-face coursework for specific academic purposes (music performance doesn’t go well online, the lab element of some science courses may well be better-suited in-person, and we probably want healthcare workers and others doing internships in a physical location).
Online learning growth continues. Students are getting comfortable with online environments, more schools are offering online courses, research continues to support the benefits of online learning, and there is an increased demand for flexible learning options. Amid these four realities and the recent statistics about the continued growth in online course takers, it is wise for schools to revisit their plans and policies.