November 2010

Online Learning Becoming Mainstream College Experience

Adaptability is a critical skill.  For example, even though recent technology advances seem to move at a dizzying pace, we must adapt to changing circumstances and new tools. Not so long ago, television and cell phones seemed almost magical inventions, as radio and the telegraph were in their times. As a society, we have integrated each successive wave of innovation into everyday life, oftentimes with profound changes. In education, online learning is that great leap forward — online courses are changing how we view education and how students access higher learning.

Not even a generation ago, online education fit more closely into a science fiction novel than a college catalog. Today, millions of students from around the world sit down at their computer or curl up with a laptop to learn new concepts, discuss new ideas and earn valuable college credit and degrees. A recent study from the Sloan Consortium found that approximately 5.6 million students took an online class in fall 2009, increasing by one million students from fall 2008. This number represents more than a quarter of all college students in the United States. Clearly, online learning is not a fad and will continue to grow.

Many of the students taking classes online do so through a community college. The Illinois Community College Board released a report in March examining online learning at Illinois’ 48 community colleges. An interesting finding is that students taking part in online learning are not all younger people who grew up with computers in the classroom and at home. The average age of these online learners is over 28, with significant numbers coming from students who are in their thirties, forties or fifties.

Early on in the development of web-based education, Waubonsee Community College saw the incredible advantages offered by online courses. More than a decade ago, faculty and staff at the college embraced the technology -- pioneering many of the hallmarks of our online classes -- that now serves nearly 20 percent of Waubonsee’s student body.

This fall, approximately 2,300 students are taking online classes at Waubonsee. These interactive courses can be taken at any time, anywhere, and can lead to associate degrees earned completely online, or be combined with classes taken in the traditional environment.

Nearly 50 percent of Waubonsee’s full-time faculty teach online, utilizing the most current technology to its fullest potential. Our online instructors participate in an intensive training process prior to teaching in their web-based classroom environment.  In addition, one-on-one support is provided on a regular basis by college staff and other Waubonsee online instructors. We believe that the skill level and the experience of our online faculty positively impact the quality of our students’ experiences and learning outcomes. We also take advantage of online learning internally as a professional development tool for both faculty and staff, providing opportunities to remain on the cutting edge of technology and educational pedagogy.

According to a 2009 U.S. Department of Education study that focused on online student learning, the students’ outcomes and academic performance tended to be better than their counterparts in conventional classrooms.  The study cited the use of virtual tools and learning systems employed by online instructors as contributing toward the academic success of the students. The Illinois Community College Board regularly conducts research on the success of online students.  Their most recent study indicates that students who enroll in online courses have a 13 percent higher retention rate than students not enrolled in online classes. And, Illinois online community college students earned nearly 72 percent of the college credits they attempted.

Online courses provide a tremendous convenience for learners who prefer to have their college commute be only as long as the walk down their hallway, or for those who need or want to take classes on their own schedule. Waubonsee and other community colleges throughout the state have developed online courses to fulfill our mission of bringing educational opportunities to the greatest number of students. The accessibility of online courses cannot be beat. That is why their importance — and their share of the higher education landscape — will continue to grow.

You can learn more about Waubonsee’s extensive online learning program here.