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North Hills Monthly

Local Colleges and Universities Seeing Impressive Increase in Online Learners

Jul 31, 2018 02:22PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

We do everything else online—shop, read, order food—so why not attend college?

To accommodate the busy lives of students, many brick and mortar colleges and universities offer distance learning to supplement their curriculum in certain disciplines, or, in some cases, to replace it.

According to Dr. Amanda Yale, associate provost for enrollment management, Slippery Rock University (SRU), the general demographic of people who choose to get a degree remotely is working adults over the age of 25, particularly those who have families.

“The primary motivations for enrolling in online programs are commonly centered on career-related reasons, including wanting to transition to a new career field, to increase salary, and to update skills required for a job,” she explained.

The options for online learning vary from institution to institution, but most schools offer a great deal of choices.

At SRU, students can go online to complete a selection of undergraduate degrees, such as Leadership Studies or Philanthropy and Nonprofit Management, or obtain one of more than 13 graduate-level degrees, including Criminal Justice or Public Health. 

Students at Chatham University can earn a number of undergraduate and graduate degrees through that institution’s accredited online learning programs, including a B.A. in Psychology, a B.A. in Business Administration, and a Master of Science in Nursing or a Master of Professional Writing.

Pitt Online offers full online graduate and certificate programs in many of its colleges, such as the School of Education, where one can obtain an MEd in Elementary Education. The university also offers an MSN in Nursing Informatics through the School of Nursing, and a Health Care Compliance Certificate through the School of Law, among other degrees.

At Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC), students have a choice of 13 associate degrees as well as 12 certificates that can be completed entirely online; and all credits, whether earned online or in person, are fully transferrable.

All of these schools have experienced an increase in online enrollment over the past several years.

The number of students enrolled in fully online programs at Chatham ranges from 500 to 700 students annually, said Dr. Mark Kassel, director, Chatham Online, adding that the growth in online learning is attributable to multiple factors.

“A shifting economy has increased the demands on the workforce to be more flexible and responsive to emerging fields; there are less traditional undergraduates in states like Pennsylvania and adult learners are finding the accessibility and convenience amenable to their lifestyles,” he explained. “In addition, there is more opportunity from reputable institutions than ever before for online certificates and degrees.”

At the University of Pittsburgh, approximately 350 students are enrolled exclusively online, with an additional 1,500 students taking at least one online course in combination with their on-campus coursework.

The fall term online headcount metric at Slippery Rock University shows that students enrolled in some form of online learning has increased by 137 percent since 2011. This figure does not include those enrolled in winter and summer sessions to get ahead in their studies.

CCAC has offered online courses since 1995, and Justin Busch, instructional technologist for CCAC’s Online Learning programs, said that they’ve seen a 13 percent growth in online enrollment over the past five years, in conjunction with CCAC increasing the number of courses and programs that they make available online.

According to Jonathan Gunnell, Ed.D., manager, Online Programs, University Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, another reason for the increase in online learning is the growth of technological advancements. There are many advantages to attending college online, not the least of which is convenience as well as flexibility with scheduling.

“The majority of courses within the Pitt Online catalog work on a weekly schedule that follows the same semester schedule used in on-campus courses at Pitt,” he explained. “Courses are asynchronous so there are no meetings requiring them to be at their computer at a certain time of day.”

Some online programs have moved away from traditional recorded lectures, and are activity-based through lessons and online discussions.

“In many ways, it requires the learner to engage with material more than the instructor, and this provides a rich experience,” said Kassel. “For example, my online courses complete many more ‘assignments’ than my traditional courses, and I would contend provide a more complete measure of learning/achievement.”

Busch agreed that it is not any easier to be an online student. “It’s a misnomer that online courses are a free-for-all; they’re usually quite structured,” he said, adding that they require a pretty big time commitment with the lecture materials, reading assignments and sometimes videos. In fact, he said, students should expect an additional 8 to 10 hours of coursework per week for each class taken online.

“Online learning is a good choice for individuals who are self-motivated, disciplined, possess good time management skills, have good reading and writing skills, and can express themselves and ask questions in writing,” said Yale. “They also need to be able to problem-solve independently, be patient in waiting for responses to questions, be comfortable with a ‘virtual’ atmosphere for learning, and be comfortable and proficient in using computer technology.”

While convenient and affordable, online learning may not suit everyone, particularly for those who prefer in-person interactions with professors and connections with peers on campus. Plus, it requires a measure of self-discipline and time management skills, as well as a comfort level with technology.

“Online students need to be organized, technically savvy, self-disciplined and prepared to complete course work without direct supervision,” said Gunnell. “Frequently cited disadvantages to online learning include increased time commitments for learners and lack of interaction with the instructor and other students. However, these disadvantages to online learning can be overcome through quality course design.”

But a degree is a degree, no matter if it is obtained online or by sitting behind a desk. Since online courses are equivalent to face-to-face courses, it shouldn’t matter to potential employers if an employee’s degree is obtained online.

“Students in Pitt Online programs take the same courses from the same faculty and receive the same degree as students in the on-campus programs. Degrees obtained by the online students are identical to those obtained by on-campus students and they are not classified as an ‘online degree,’” said Gunnell.

“Employers are very interested in online degrees from institutions that have a strong reputation and rigorous student assessment and a solid foundation in traditional courses—that basically describes us to a T,” said Busch.

Yale emphasized that an online student has access to the same resources as an on-campus student, such as college advisors, student services and career guidance. Busch echoed this, noting that online students are welcome to attend activities on campus, and that CCAC is working on adding more distance-oriented student activities.