Community colleges turn to online classes as enrollments spike

Distance learning enrollment continues to outpace overall college enrollment numbers.
Distance-learning enrollment continues to grow faster than overall college enrollment numbers.

Distance-learning enrollment in American community colleges jumped by 22 percent during the 2008-09 academic year, an increase fueled in part by an influx of nontraditional students who require the flexibility of online courses, according to a survey conducted by the Instructional Technology Council (ITC).

The ITC, which is affiliated with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), collected 226 responses from community colleges in its annual survey, “Trends in eLearning: Tracking the Impact of eLearning at Community Colleges,” which revealed the 2008-09 increase in online enrollment. Last year’s ITC survey reported an 11-percent uptick in web-based class enrollment at community colleges.

The survey also highlighted the closing gap in course completion rates among online learners, which traditionally has lagged behind that of traditional face-to-face students. Seventy-two percent of web-based community college students completed their class last year, compared with 76 percent of on-campus students.

More students and faculty are more willing to embrace online college classes as technology evolves and distance learning is enhanced by streaming audio and video, for example, but community college instructors said the unprecedented enrollment spike during the economic recession has forced decision makers to find ways to expand class sections.

Tammy Peery, chair of the English Department at Montgomery College’s Germantown, Md., campus, said she has tracked a steady increase in online offerings since 2007, when there were 23 online sections available in nine English classes. By next fall, she said, Montgomery College will have 32 online sections in 16 English classes.

“It’s not really a new fad now; it’s more established, so people are more willing to give it a try,” said Peery, who was named Maryland’s top online college instructor on March 4. “[Community colleges are] facing space problems … and you’re limited in the number of classrooms you have and the number of people who can teach them.”

Management of distance-learning programs has moved away from the campus IT operations and toward the college’s academic infrastructure, according to the ITC survey. Online instructors said that has made online teaching more inviting to faculty members who’ve taught in traditional classrooms for years and were hesitant about teaching web-based classes.

“You don’t have to be a computer science major or have that heavy kind of technology background to do things correctly,” Peery said. “And now you’ve got more faculty who are excited about online learning.”

Melora Sundt, an associate dean for academic programs at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, said expanding online course offerings has been a way for community colleges to cope with surging enrollment and dwindling operating budgets in recent years.

“I think institutions are trying to figure out how they’re going to serve greater and greater numbers of students with fewer resources,” Sundt said.

Community colleges in some parts of the country are now catering to students who live three or four hours away from campus, she said, meaning their daily commute would make a college education untenable.

“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

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