More students are taking exclusively online college courses.

The number of college students taking online college courses will equal the number of students who attend classes in a traditional classroom by 2015, according to a market research firm whose research contradicts another recent study suggesting a possible leveling off in online learning.

The research firm, Ambient Insight, released a report this month that focuses on the varying demand for educational technology tools in K-12 schools and universities. The report also details growth trends that suggest the recent spike in online college courses likely wasn’t a passing phase.

In four years, the report said, there will be more than 25 million postsecondary students taking at least one online course. But the more jarring statistic might be Ambient Insight’s projections for traditional courses.

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The number of college students taking traditional face-to-face classes will plummet from 14.4 million in 2010 to 4.1 million in 2015, according to the report. And with the population of only-online students expected to triple during that time, so-called traditional learning will be level with online learning.

The research firm said the five-year spike in online college courses would owe, in part, “to the proliferation and success of for-profit online schools” such as the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, which draw millions of students with flexible internet-based class schedules.

Colleges and universities that specialize in online courses have seen enrollments skyrocket since the U.S. economy fell into recession in fall 2008. The Ambient Insight research shows that, more than two years later, many institutions are still reporting near-record enrollment increases.

California-based Bridgepoint Education, which runs the for-profit Ashford University and University of the Rockies, reported a 40-percent jump in online enrollment from 2009 to 2010. The massive increase, however, pales in comparison to the 100-percent enrollment spike Bridgepoint experienced from 2008 to 2009.

Included in the fastest growing online schools was Liberty University, a small private campus in Lynchburg, Va., where the online student population grew by 24 percent last year after growing just 15 percent in 2009—a small increase among universities included in the Ambient Insight research.

Ambient Insight’s projections are much brighter for educational technology advocates than a report released in November that said fiscal pressure and government regulations aimed at for-profit schools could curb the meteoric growth in online learning.

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As it did in 2009, Babson College’s annual survey of online education in the U.S. showed that more Americans are turning to flexible online college courses during tough economic times, when college enrollment typically rises.

However, accommodating a massive influx of students looking for online classes could prove untenable for many publicly funded schools that project more budget cuts in the coming years, Babson researchers said.

“There may be some clouds on the horizon,” said Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group. “While the sluggish economy continues to drive enrollment growth, large public institutions are feeling budget pressure and competition from the for-profit sector institutions.”

Although “there is no compelling evidence that the continued robust growth in online enrollments is at its end,” the Babson study concluded that the way online instruction has grown could mean the enrollment momentum soon could slow.

Impending federal regulations on for-profit colleges—known as “gainful employment” regulations—could hinder enrollment at some of the most popular online colleges, according to Babson researchers.

Federal officials and whistle blowers from the for-profit college industry have accused for-profit schools of shady recruitment practices that burden students with loans they can’t afford to repay.

News that shook for-profit investors this month could mark the start of an online learning decline. The University of Phoenix, a for-profit giant under federal scrutiny of questionable recruitment practices, saw its student enrollment plummet more than 40 percent from October to December.

The university’s parent company, Apollo Group, reported an overall enrollment decline of 3.8 percent from 2009.

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