1.1 The Sloan Consortium
The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation sponsors an organization of leading universities committed to quality online education called the Sloan Consortium (or Sloan-C). This consortium conducts research and publishes reports dealing with contemporary distance learning (Allen and Seaman, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006; Allen, Seaman, and Garrett, 2007). Sloan-C defines an online course as one with at least 80% of the course delivered online without face-to-face meetings. Sloan-C research shows that the number of students in the United States taking at least one online course per year is increasing at a rate exceeding 20% in recent years, reaching more than 3.2 million in Fall of 2005 (Sloan-C, 2007). Also, in a Sloan-C survey of 1170 Provosts and Academic VPs, more than half indicated a belief that online education would be 'critical for the long-term' in higher education. Surprisingly perhaps, the same percentage said that they believe success in achieving learning outcomes is already equivalent between online and traditional teaching methods. And there was also a consensus of opinion among these respondents that the quality of online courses would continue to improve, with a third of them believing that online teaching quality will soon surpass the quality typical of conventional teaching. These opinions may be surprising for many of us in the teaching profession, coming as they do from such high level and influential administrators. They signal a fundamental change in perceptions about the potential of online education in the immediate future.
The objective in this paper is to investigate and assess why this shift to online education is happening. Several factors can be cited beginning with improvements in access to educational services using online technologies and changing paradigms for teaching and learning that integrate well with these technologies. Other factors include heightened educational competition and globalization, the ongoing and often dramatic improvements in online systems capabilities, and the underlying economics of providing online education versus conventional means. The following sections of this paper explore each of these factors individually.
2. ACCESS TO EDUCATION
2.1 Access for the Masses
The ability to use information technologies effectively is one aspect of achieving success in today's society, both for individuals and for organizations as a whole (Colwell, 2001; Starke-Meyerring and Andrews, 2006). The current job market requires educated workers who are capable of changing and adapting as business and cultural realities shift and evolve in today's fast-paced, global economy (Kanter, 2001). Information technology is enabling the development of this kind of economic world structure. It is also making possible the education of the workforce that this new economy requires by providing new capabilities for teaching and learning online.
Online education offers the promise of increased access to high quality education for the masses (Bates, 2003; Moore and Anderson, 2003). Exactly how this is going to occur is not clear yet, but there is no doubt that online education is rapidly becoming an established modality. The development of the modern world economy demands an educated workforce. Places like the three I's (India, Indonesia, and Ireland) and more recently China, are finding that the need for an educated workforce is overwhelming the capabilities of their traditional educational systems (Brown, Murphy, and Wade, 2006; Chen, 2007; Jacob and Szirmai, 2007; Tilak, 2007). In America and Western Europe, the same economic and political pressures associated with 'equality of opportunity' contribute to demands for equal access to a quality education for all who seek it.
2.2 Lifelong Learning
Online access to topical information can also provide a convenient mechanism for sustained learning throughout individuals' careers (Ashton and Levy, 1998). …