American college students are taking a lot more online courses. According to a piece by Kevin Carey at Education Sector:

The Sloan Consortium Report on online higher education… found that the number of college students taking at least one online course increased from 3.9 million in Fall 2007 to 4.6 million in Fall 2008, a 17 percent jump. This week, Sloan released the Fall 2009 numbers. They’re up to 5.6 million, a 21 percent increase.

This year’s growth rate was nearly 20 times greater than the overall growth rate in higher education enrollment, and that the percentage of college students taking at least one online course is now almost 30 percent, up from less than 10 percent in 2002.

This steady growth went largely unreported. In part this has to do with the fact that this online expansion is occurring everywhere, Carey points out. Frankly, it’s just a lot more interesting to note that online sales have destroyed businesses like Blockbuster and independent bookstores than it is to track trends in online higher ed.

Another point, however, is that people tend to look at online education as sort of, well, tacky. As Carey writes:

Adoption of online higher education is occurring in roughly inverse proportion to possession of prestige, both at the institutional and disciplinary levels. So you see a lot of growth in for-profit colleges and community colleges and in disciplines like business and education but far less at elite four-institutions, some of which won’t even accept their own online credits.

This is a good point but, to put snobbishness aside, part of the reason elite institutions aren’t eager to offer computer courses is because they may not be very good.

In July a study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia’s Teachers College, for instance, indicated that while partially online courses might help people to learn information well enough, fully online courses “may…undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.”

It’s very important to know that online education is growing. What’s equally important is figuring out whether or not online education really helps people learn very well.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer