Online learning is increasingly becoming more mainstream, contributing to a reinvisioning of American higher education.

Online learning is increasingly becoming more mainstream, contributing to a re-envisioning of American higher education.

While online learning is often seen as a way for adult learners to prepare for a change of career or advance skills in their current field, it is increasingly becoming the learning method of choice for younger, more traditional students as well, education experts said during a recent forum—and colleges and universities would be wise to prepare for this shift.

In the fall of 2008, 1.8 million students were enrolled in fully-online degree programs, compared with only a few thousand in 1995, said Peter Stokes, executive vice president and chief research officer for Eduventures, a higher-education research and consulting firm. It’s estimated that 4.6 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in the fall of 2008, he said.

Of the 15 institutions with the largest numbers of fully-online students, 11 are for-profit institutions.

“For-profits have about 9 percent of all higher-education enrollments, but 42 percent of all fully-online enrollments,” Stokes said during a day-long American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI) forum on June 3 that discussed the many facets of reinventing the American university.

“The University of Phoenix online division had 364,000 fully-online students in the fall of 2009. That’s eight times the size of NYU.”

Stokes argued that online learning is not yet considered a disruptive innovation.

Disruptive innovation is the business idea that, every so often, a new innovation comes along that completely changes the marketplace, knocking the old market leaders from their perch and giving rise to new ones.

“Is online learning really a disruptive innovation? Online learning isn’t for everyone, but neither is innovation,” he said.

Stokes said Eduventures estimates that 20 percent of all postsecondary students will be in fully-online programs by 2014, with perhaps another 20 percent taking courses online. He said the increased usage of online courses could lead online learning to become a truly disruptive innovation.

Gregory von Lehmen, provost and chief academic officer at University of Maryland University College, argued that online learning is already a disruptive innovation—thought it might not be a breakthrough.

“Online learning, as it’s conducted by and large, is still very traditional. Still at its center is the faculty member and his or her teaching and interaction with the student. It’s not surprising that this model is very much reflected in the design of online learning management systems,” he said. “So this is where it’s not a breakthrough as it’s conducted.”

The event was spurred in part by President Obama’s call for a significant increase in the number of students earning postsecondary degrees, which puts colleges and universities under greater pressure to increase their student enrollment and graduation rates.


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