The State of Online Education

09/03/2009  |  ERINN LAKE and ANDREW PUSHCHAK
online technology
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Challenging economic times and record job losses across the nation have displaced a number of individuals, especially those 25 and older, who are now unemployed or underemployed.  Many of these individuals are turning to higher education to assist them in their quest for improved employment marketability and alternate job prospects. 

Higher education, in response to this economic crisis, must offer affordable educational programming that meets the needs of the increasing numbers of non-traditional learners, especially those in underserved rural areas.  With online enrollments increasing exponentially, many campuses, such as Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, are increasingly focused on improved student learning, enhanced curriculum innovation, and a refined enrollment strategy focused exclusively on the online market.

In these challenging economic times, more and more businesses and industry leaders are using e-technology to save on travel costs for employees so it is natural to pursue the online educational medium. In fact, more and more higher education professionals are using services like Skype, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to communicate with current students, prospective students and colleagues. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently shared their own Twitter feed, which followed more than 1,300 people interested in higher education news. 

With increasing costs, higher education, like many other industries, had to maximize  technological innovation in order to survive; now many schools are thriving in the online environment.  Another positive benefit outcome is that students enjoy and prefer these modes of communication.  Interactions between students, faculty and administration are greatly enhanced.  In fact, faculty at Edinboro University report that student/faculty interaction is increased in the online environment when compared to the traditional classroom because students are asking more questions online because they do not have to worry about embarrassment in front of peers. Students are also accustomed to being online at all hours of the day and they can more easily engage in the educational process for longer periods of time, versus being limited to a 50 minute class period.

Update on the Growth of Online Education

It’s a fact: enrollment in online education is on the rise. The Sloan Consortium 2005 annual review indicated that, in 2004, approximately 2.35 million people pursued degrees or other training over the internet compared to 1.98 million people in 2003.  Sloan also reports that most institutions consider online education “a critical long-term strategy.”  

Similarly, Google reports that the United States Internet population numbers 150 million and, of that figure, approximately 85 million are currently researching school and training programs online; that figure represents 57 percent of the online population. Google also reports that consumers are spending more time online — up to 14 hours per week, as a matter of fact. It is expected that U.S. advertising dollars will increasingly be directed to online markets versus direct mail, newspaper, television, yellow pages, magazines and the like.

Edinboro University of
Pennsylvania

As part of its strategic planning process, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania entered the online education market in the Fall of 2001 with a 24-person cohort in the Special Education program. By the Fall of 2008, Edinboro University’s enrollments exceeded 700 students with a variety of online programmatic offerings.

Only eight years later, Edinboro University was ranked as one of the largest online providers in the field of Education by U.S. News and World Report (May 2009). Edinboro University now offers approximately a dozen different online academic programs such as:

  • Math/Science Teacher Certification
  • Certificate in Conflict Management
  • M.A. Art: Art Education
  • M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education
  • M.Ed. in Educational Leadership
  • M.Ed. Educational Psychology
  • M.Ed. Middle & Secondary Instruction
  • M.Ed. in Reading
  • M.Ed. in Special Education
  • Post Masters K-12 Principal Certification
  • Post Masters Superintendent’s Letter
  • RN — BSN Nursing

Of the above programs, the M.Ed. in Reading and the programs in Educational Leadership have experienced the largest enrollment growth. The growth online in the Educational Leadership Programs is a direct result of student demand. Today’s students, many of whom work multiple jobs while juggling family needs, require the flexibility of on-line programs; much more so than the prescribed weekly meetings of traditional, on campus programs.

Similarly, Edinboro University is a member of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) which is compromised of 14-sister institutions across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 

More Reasons Why
Online Education is
in Demand

The Spring 2009 issue of SEEN Magazine included a feature article by Johanna Atland, Director of Communications at Grantham University, explaining why on-line learning is so popular.  Atland outlined a number of reasons for its popularity including: convenience, flexibility, affordability, no limitations, open communication and immediate results.  Atland concluded that the future of online education is very bright and definitely here to stay.

Are On-line
Programs
Academically
Rigorous/High
Quality?

In an article published in 2007 in the academic journal, Innovative Higher Education, entitled, “Better Allocating University Resources to Create On-line Learning Environments for Non-Traditional Students in Underserved Rural Areas,” we reported that the addition of the online learning environment increased graduate student enrollment for students who otherwise would have no access to such academic programs without traveling great distances. In fact, the enrollment of students 24 and younger grew by 51 percent between 1970 and 2000; while the increase for students 24 and older were about three times as large. 

Like many states in the rust belt region, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has experienced a serious decline in manufacturing jobs. This loss of jobs has required many adults to return to school to re-train for other careers. This loss of manufacturing jobs is compounded by the fact that the number of high school graduates is projected to suffer a long decline beginning in 2009. Most population growth in Pennsylvania was projected, and continues to be projected, to occur in the eastern counties of the state. Strategic planning efforts have assisted the universities in realizing that these sociological and demographic changes would require an e-learning strategy in order for higher education institutions to continue to be viable.

Since adult learners, especially those in rural areas, cannot easily attend regularly scheduled classes on campus because of work and family commitments, Edinboro University faculty members and administrators spent the summer of 2002 deliberating a strategic enrollment plan. It was determined that the School of Education and the School of Graduate Studies and Education would collaborate to achieve the University’s mission to “create and share knowledge by providing access.” By Fall 2002, an aggressive strategy was implemented to better serve students while maintaining enrollment levels. Fortunately, the University’s distance learning courses did not require new or different technology than the students already owned at home. 

Husson and Waterman’s (2002) quality measures served as a guide in the distance learning strategy to insure that the e-learning courses were of the same quality as traditional courses. Those measures include:

  1. Selecting suitable faculty
  2. Providing faculty training and support
  3. Designing learning environments with care
  4. Providing students with technical and academic support
  5. Developing technology policies to support monitoring and upgrade.

The strategy paid off. The addition of the online learning environment increased Edinboro University’s graduate student enrollments. Many of these students would not have access to such programs without traveling great distances to the campus. The increased enrollment also provided significant increases to the institution’s revenue.  Therefore, benefits to the student, program and institution were all realized through the strategic decision to pursue on-line graduate programming. 

In fact, the on-line cohorts of students outperformed campus based student cohorts in the assessments that were conducted by education faculty.  Data analysis compared the scores from the School Leaders Licensure Assessment (SLLA) — which is one part of the Praxis Series that is based on a set of rigorous and carefully validated assessments that provide information for use by state education agencies in making licensure decisions. The sample for “on-campus” instruction (N=79 students) was compared with a population titled, “on-line” instruction (N=26 students). Independent t-tests were used to determine that on-line populations showed an increase of 3.64 points over the on-campus population. This was a substantial finding as it demonstrated the institution was maintaining the quality of instruction in the distance education environment when compared to on-campus instruction. 

While the quality and integrity of the program continues to be assessed, the online and campus-based cohorts are no longer compared because there is no longer a campus-based educational leadership cohort to study. Enrollments demands were such that the entire Educational Leadership graduate program converted to an online environment, along with the post-masters K-12 principal program and the superintendent programs. 

What is the Future of
Online Education?

While is worth noting that many academicians continue to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of online education, the increasing enrollments demonstrate that the trend will likely continue for years to come. Based on our geographic location and declining demographics, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania plans to continue with a strategic plan to pursue and expand our online markets as it is our mission to provide to a quality instructional environment for all students.

Dr. Erinn Lake is the Associate Dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania,
Edinboro, PA.

Dr. Andrew Pushchak is a faculty member and Program Head for Educational Leadership at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania,
Edinboro, PA.

For more information, visit www.online.edinboro.edu or call 888-845-2890.

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