ONLINE learning is one of the most rapidly growing areas of education. It is expected to continue expanding as more colleges and universities increase their offerings and today's undergraduate students, already comfortable with technology and online learning, begin their graduate and professional development coursework. Online learning has earned a level of respect, no longer being viewed as suspect or just an easy way to earn a credit or grade.
According to the Sloan Consortium, a group of institutions and organizations committed to quality online learning, e-learning is now part of mainstream education:
* 65 percent of schools offering graduate face-to-face courses also offer graduate courses online.
* 63 percent of schools offering undergraduate face-to-face courses also offer undergraduate courses online.
* Among all schools offering face-to-face master's degree programs, 44 percent also offer master's programs online.
The 2005 Sloan report also reported a 22.9-percent overall increase in the number of students taking one or more online courses, growing from 1.60 to 1.98 million students (Sloan Consortium 2005 report summary, http://www.sloan-c.org/resources/survey.asp).
Last spring I visited with three long-time colleagues who, like me, became online instructors. We agreed that teaching online is enjoyable, challenging, and stimulating.
The Online Learning Experience
What's it like to take an online class? In this article, we'll hear from graduate students who have taken multiple online courses from several universities, fulfilling a need to earn course credits toward a degree or to meet professional development goals. One person stated she had taken 14 online courses just because she is a "poster-child" for online learning and a true lifelong learner.
Learners are drawn to online learning for many reasons. Mike Weber, a Wisconsin middle school media/technology director, wanted a course that would help him manage his media program. Annette Mikula, a Wisconsin human resources director, enrolled in an online course because her district was discussing online learning. She thought it would give her "a good perspective to actually take an online class" so she "could offer the student perspective to the district conversations." Vermont resident Mary Ann Kadish was drawn to online courses because she wanted to take graduate work in library science while she was teaching out of the country.
Mary Beth Sancome-Moran, a community information librarian in Minnesota, did not purposely seek an online program. But because she was living in rural western Nebraska at the time, she "needed to find a course of study that was completely online. Once I was involved, I enjoyed it immensely." She eventually earned her entire M.S.L.S. online. Pennsylvanian Amey Johnson also received an M.L.S. degree online after enrolling in a program because she couldn't find a classroom teaching job.
Freedom, Flexibility, Friendship, and Convenience
Whatever their reasons for initially taking classes, all of the interviewees praised the freedom, flexibility, and convenience of learning while also juggling professional and personal schedules. Alfi Velasco-Hurst from Germany said, "I enjoy the ease of taking the classes. Being able to take the class on my own time schedule is wonderful. I can wake up early, complete some assignments, and work at my own pace." Kadish appreciated the consideration of instructors who allowed her to work around holiday breaks while she was teaching overseas. Weber added, "I was able to work early in the morning or late at night. Many days I came into school early to work and many nights I worked at home." Johnson wrote, "It was also nice to be in pj's with tea while I worked."
Online learners are enthusiastic about the continuing conversation that discussions provide. SancomeMoran was in a cohort group and made lasting friendships with classmates, even though they met in person for the first time at graduation. …