US: Online education's outrageous fortune?

Imagine training to become a Certified Professional Midwife online. You can at Aviva Institute of Duluth, Minnesota. Opportunities like this may seem promising, especially in the context of economic uncertainty or when full-time, on-campus study is not an option. But should traditional brick-and-mortar universities be concerned?

Kevin Carey, Policy Director for Education Center, thinks they should. In a recent article published in the Washington Monthly, he suggests that many universities risk following the recent experience of newspapers against the tide of new media.

The statistics tend to corroborate his observations: more than four million college students or 20% of those in the US took at least one online class in 2008 and, of these, about one in 10 enrolled in exclusively internet-based programmes.

In 2008, the US National Center for Education Statistics' Distance Education at Postsecondary Institutions compiled data for 2006-07 on types of distance education modalities. It found that 66% of degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the US reported offering online, hybrid/blended online and other distance education courses.

Seventy-seven percent of these courses were offered online. Moreover, asynchronous internet-based technologies were reported to be the most commonly used modality for delivering instruction in these courses.

The report also identified two main factors that affected the decision by institutions to offer distance education opportunities to students: student demand for flexible schedules and making post-secondary education possible for those who would not otherwise have the opportunity.

These students are designated "non-traditional": they who - for reasons of family, work or other circumstances - need a different learning approach and do not want the usual undergraduate experience.

Non-traditional students represent 73% of all undergraduates in the US today while the remaining 27% are aged18 to 22. Because the non-traditional tend to be more mature and focused, the online environment is often ideally suited to their needs. In fact, completion rates for these students tend to be higher than those for their younger cousins.

While the most popular subject for all university and college students in recent years has been business, the non-traditional online student is more likely to choose a programme responding to the needs of his or her current or desired employment. In the current economic situation, many enter higher education to gain a competitive edge.

Although distance and/or online learning are hardly new phenomena, few data have been disaggregated to determine patterns in learning outcomes. But a report by the US Department of Education, Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning (2009), was able to conclude that, "on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction".

This observation is borne out in comparative data compiled by the University of Phoenix for its 2008 Annual Report. Not only was it the first accredited university to provide online education in the US 20 years ago but it is today the largest private university in North America. Nearly half a million students have earned degrees since 1976.

The report boasts some impressive results, including the fact that in many instances its students performed better than those at other specialised and elite universities. Modality comparisons also showed that online students outperformed their colleagues in blended/hybrid online programmes.

President Dr William Pepicello also underlines the fact that, as a private university operating in the public sector, Phoenix "pays back monies to taxpayers for every student it educates as opposed to the costs accrued to taxpayers by its tax-exempt public and non-profit counterparts in higher education".

With evidence like this, it is no wonder online education provider companies have burgeoned in the past 10 to 15 years. But not all online education providers are the same and the advantages they offer are not always so clear-cut.

The most recent development in this market has been the emergence of "à la carte" online education providers. Unlike Phoenix, Kaplan University or Everest University Online, StraighterLine is not an accredited university and does not offer degrees; instead, it offers a few select - but transferable - courses that are connected to accredited, degree-granting colleges and distance learning companies. Most appealing to some non-traditional students is the cost: from as little as $99 a month.

All this is possible with access to cheap internet infrastructure, electronic course content for standard introductory classes and outsourced tutoring services. Founder Burck Smith has no qualms about offering such courses: "We are the free market for distance education and at high quality."

Herein, according to Carey, is the rub. The viability of brick-and-mortar colleges and universities that are subsidised by the income generated by enormous first and second-year courses is being challenged when similar, transferable courses can be delivered for a fraction of the price - and in a more convenient and flexible way.

He explains: "If enough students defect to companies like StraighterLine, the higher education industry faces the unbundling of the business model on which the current system is built."

Carey does note, however, that elite universities offering a brand name and social networking opportunities are less vulnerable. "Exclusivity never goes out of fashion," he explains. In the same way, small liberal arts colleges will survive because they offer arguably the best pedagogical model. Run-of-the-mill public institutions, however, are up against some formidable challenges.

Although it is moot whether the end is really nigh for brick-and-mortar higher education, there is no doubt that the face of higher education is changing.