In a down economy, Internet courses gain a wider appeal

Section: Nation - -,  Page: A3

Date: Monday, May 10, 2010

Excelsior College President John Ebersole jokes that online learning is "the Rodney Dangerfield of higher education."

It's like the comedian's signature line: "I don't get no respect."

The perception is that distance learning is second class. But new research suggests cyber-students can be more engaged than their classroom-bound peers.

Add the recession and fuel costs to the formula, and educators expect more demand for a fast-growing online education sector that enrolls more than 20 percent of all U.S. higher education students.

"It's become way more mainstream," said Ellen Murphy, director of technology integration at The Sage Colleges of Albany and Troy.

Not convinced?

Look at the booming enrollments at several local colleges.

In 2004, Sage offered 92 online or "blended" courses, meaning those with both online and face-to-face components. That number more than doubled to 200 in 2008.

In September, when Hudson Valley Community College touted what was projected to be a record overall enrollment, the Troy school attributed much of its growth to online learning.

Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, designed to provide access to adult learners, is seeing 15 percent annual online growth.

At Excelsior, an Albany-based distance educator catering mostly to out-of-staters, online registrations grew 23 percent this year.

Education tends to be countercyclical: The economy goes down, enrollment goes up. Local college administrators say online enrollment is an attractive option as adult workers try to get a leg up in a competitive market, explore new fields, or bolster their job security with a new credential.

But the growth predates the current financial meltdown. And the reason most often heard is convenience.

That means the convenience of fitting school into work schedules or pursuing degrees not offered locally.

For Heather Brunell, a student in Sage's transitional doctorate of physical therapy program, online learning is "the only way I could really go back to school."

The 35-year-old from Clifton Park is busy daily mothering her two young children, studying after she puts them to bed or early in the morning, and working as a physical therapist at Eddy Memorial Geriatric Center in Troy.

She's a practicing professional with a master's degree. So why did she go back to college?

In the past, she said, people saw physicians before they visited a physical therapist. Now, they can often go there without a referral, meaning therapists may end up as the first point of contact.

"I've been out of school now for 12 years," Brunell said. "And I felt I needed to do something to keep myself up to date and competitive and to hopefully give me an advantage as I further progress with my profession."

It helps that the technology used to deliver online education has evolved to a level of interactivity that rivals social-networking Web sites like Facebook.

At her Troy office on the second-floor of the library, Sage's Murphy laughed at the thought of how distance education used to be delivered: "snail" mail.

Now instructors post video, audio and text. They can have online office hours. Students participate in discussion groups. They blog. They instant-message each other. They post pictures of themselves. They build "wikis" -- pages that students edit together.

A recent study of student engagement had promising news for distance educators. The National Survey of Student Engagement found online learners are more likely than classroom-based students to "very often participate in course activities that challenged them intellectually." They were also more likely to "very often discuss topics of importance to their major."

Despite such promising news, there are still plenty of challenges.

Technology problems, for one. Typical help-desk hours of 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. aren't enough, because students can be online at 2 a.m. and want help then.

There's the challenge of training faculty to teach an online course, which can be more difficult to manage than a face-to-face one. And then there's cheating, another big concern of online instructors.

Marc Parry is a former Times Union reporter.


Gaining traction

A survey of more than 2,500 colleges and universities nationwide about online education, conducted by Babson Survey Research Group, the College Board and the Sloan Consortium, found that:

Over 3.9 million students took at least one online course during the fall 2007 term, a 12 percent increase over the previous year.

The 12.9 percent growth rate for online enrollments exceeds the 1.2 percent growth of the overall higher education student population.

Over 20 percent of all U.S. higher education students took at least one online course in the fall of 2007.

Source: "Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008"