Community colleges turn to online classes as enrollments spike

“Having students drive all that way is just not realistic,” Sundt said, adding that the lingering “stigma” of an online degree has diminished as evolving technology allows greater student-instructor interaction, eliminating the asynchronous model of communicating only through eMail. “Some people think of [web-based classes] as a static, alienating experience, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” she said.

In a section outlining typical traits of online community college programs, the ITC survey said the average two-year program “struggles to obtain understanding, acceptance, and support from campus leaders, who often lack direct experience with this method of teaching and learning,” a phenomenon caused perhaps by a “generational disconnect.”

Other common traits among survey respondents were online programs that offered 160 class sections each semester and were consistently “under-staffed, working in cramped conditions, [with] an inadequate budget.”

The ITC survey is the second report released in 2010 that shows significant jumps in online enrollment, especially when compared with overall enrollment across higher education.

The 2009 Sloan-C report on online education, based on responses from more than 2,500 colleges and universities and funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, reported a 17-percent increase in online course enrollment, with more than one-fourth of U.S. college students taking at least one web-based class during the fall 2008 semester.

Higher-education enrollment increased by 2 percent during that time overall, according to the Sloan study, which was released in February.

Three-fourths of campuses with online programs said demand increased over the past year, and two-thirds of colleges that don’t offer web-based courses said students had requested online learning.

Last year’s 17-percent jump trumped 2008’s 12-percent increase in online class enrollment.

Online course enrollment “really is what’s driving the growth of higher education in the U.S.,” said Elaine Allen, research director at Babson College’s Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship. Allen helped compile the Sloan-C report.

Despite the massive gains in online enrollment in recent years, many faculty members remain skeptical of online education, according to the Sloan-C report. Only a third of chief academic officers surveyed in the report said their faculty “accept the value and legitimacy” of online learning, a number that has remained steady since 2002.

The remaining hesitancy to embrace online classes, Sundt said, usually stems from a lack of understanding about modern virtual classrooms, complete with video chats and interactions with fellow students.

“The largest reason [for skepticism] is people’s view [that] online education is behind the technology,” she said. “They’re thinking about what was possible five or 10 years ago, not what’s possible right now.”


“Trends in eLearning: Tracking the Impact of eLearning at Community Colleges”

Sloan-C study