Online learning still on the rise

As students’ schedules become more full, more people are taking advantage of online learning instead of a traditional college experience. With the spike in popularity has come questions about benefits and disadvantages of online learning.

A new report from the Bluegrass Institute discusses the successes and challenges of digital learning, specifically in high school, but the recommendations outlined in the study pose the same questions about online programs at the college level.

The report, “Digital Learning Now,” looks at the advantages of online learning at the high school level. It lists recommendations on how to take the right steps to move toward more digital options for students.

Northern Kentucky University also recently compiled its own set of 24 guidelines for each online course to follow that were meant to improve the digital experience for students.

Since creating the guidelines, NKU’s student satisfaction and retention rates for online majors have increased, according to Online Learning Assistant Director Kristen Lovett.

The program has grown to 1,080 students from the 650 it had when the program began in 2009, when Lovett began working at NKU.

Every semester, the number of available online courses grows from 21-28 percent, and section sizes have increased by 16 percent, Lovett said.

Lovett and Natalie Nickol, Online Learning coordinator, attributed the increase in online learning popularity not to the economic hardships many students face, but to a “paradigm shift” that is happening in the workplace.

Employers today want to see their employees receive their bachelor’s or master’s degrees, but do not want them to leave the workplace to complete them. With this shift, Lovett said she has seen a “huge change” in adults who want to further their education while still working.

Provost Gail Wells said “opportunities to take online courses can often help students make more timely progress toward graduation,” which could add to the program’s growth.

Erin Burton, an online communications studies major, said she chose to take online classes so she could be free to travel to work and because it is easier for her to learn on her own time.

“The great thing about taking classes online is that they are available for you to work on homework 24/7, which is great for people with a hectic work schedule or for those who are night owls, like myself,” Burton said.

Online learners have 20 associate, undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degree programs to choose from, including one of the five online doctorates in nursing programs in the United States.

Although the online programs are growing, the questions and disadvantages still appear in the uncertainty of technology, campus support and in the cost-effectiveness of online learning.

Technology, although beneficial to the students who live off campus, can still be unpredictable, Lovett said. It is not uncommon to lose Internet connection in the middle of an exam or while working on an assignment on Blackboard, where all online courses are based.

Switching to a strictly online program is not an easy experience, Nickol said. Beginning students “don’t know the gist of it,” so it can be tough for some.

To help with student support, NKU recently created an online orientation students must complete before taking an online class, which shows them how to work Blackboard and other standard computer programs.

Despite the orientation, some students do still prefer to be in a face-to-face classroom setting, listening to a professor’s lecture, according to Nickol.

But Lovett said the cost-effectiveness of online learning outweighs the need for the traditional college experience.

For any student taking an online class, the university charges a $35 fee per credit hour. But students enrolled in an online-only program are charged in-state tuition no matter where they live. For example, an online student living in Kentucky would pay the same rate as an online student living in California.

Online-only students pay $347 per credit hour. For out-of-state, full-time students, tuition is $624 per credit hour.

The in-state tuition is a perk, according to Lovett, because many students are living too far from campus — in rural areas, in the military or internationally — to make the trip every day.

Wells said for online students, the cost effectiveness of online learning “depends on a student’s life circumstances,” but is seen by reducing travel time and a lesser need for other expenses, such as child care.

Burton, who lives in Nicholasville, Ky., said it does even out. “Yes, I may pay more per credit hour; but I save money in gas, room and board, and meal plans,” she said.