Universities just starting to tap huge online degree market

One report puts the number at more than 7 million students and predicts that more than half of all students will take at least one online course within five years.

Meanwhile, in the past year, free online courses — once considered a force that could reshape higher education — have lost some of their luster. Increasingly, academic leaders are questioning whether massive open online courses (MOOCs) are sustainable, because they don’t lead to a degree and cost the university money.

Opens doors

But traditional bachelor’s degree programs taught in novel ways, using the latest technology and online instruction, are a growing field.

Traore, a family-service worker at a state-funded preschool program in Mukilteo, was one of 54 students who enrolled in the UW degree-completion program this fall.

She has an associate degree and many years of work experience in early childhood education, mostly through ECEAP — Early Childhood Education Assistance Program — which is similar to Head Start, serving low-income children and their families.

“For me, it’s about changing the way I see things,” Traore said about earning a bachelor’s degree at the age of 45. “I’m trying to be able to support families (in the ECEAP program) in a better way. And, it’s personal because I always wanted to get my bachelor’s degree.

“But, of course, it opens doors,” she added. “I’m not planning on going anywhere, because I love my job and I love what I do. But if my job wasn’t there, I wouldn’t be worried. I’d be confident.”

Part of her coursework includes taking videos of herself as she teaches students in the ECEAP preschool program, trying out various concepts she’s learned through online lectures, then posting her videos for feedback from instructors and from two of her peers.

Traore thinks she and her fellow students have more communication and conversation than she had while getting her associate degree in-person at a community college. “You’re not really as guarded — you’re online, you’re just this name,” she said. “You get to talk about your deep thoughts, and really share.”

To be considered for admission, students must have completed at least 70 college credits and meet some other requirements, including a 2.5 college grade-point average.

The early childhood education program sets the stage for a bachelor’s degree in social sciences the UW hopes to offer in fall 2014. The social-sciences degree is expected to appeal to a much wider audience — perhaps 800 or more students after a few years.

It’s getting a close look from the UW Faculty Council on Academic Standards, which has put the program up for review for faculty members at all three of the UW’s campuses.