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Over the past ten years, online education has become an increasingly mainstream part of the higher education landscape.

Since 2002 – when roughly 1.6 million college students had taken at least one course online – enrollment in online education has more than tripled. Nearly three-fourths of all four-year colleges now offer online classes, including at elite schools, and the vast majority of public two-year colleges now offer online coursework as well.

Casual observers may equate online education with the free open online classes that some schools, along with high-profile startups such as Coursera, have offered with much fanfare (so-called “massive open line courses” or “MOOCs”). But the growing ubiquity of online education is tied to its evolution in a wide variety of formats and contexts, including classes that “blend” online coursework with traditional classroom settings and a growing role in workforce training and development.

Online education also won a major boost in 2010, when the U.S. Department of Education published a landmark “meta-survey” concluding that “online learning appears to be as effective as conventional classroom instruction” and that in some circumstances, “[s]tudents in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

For many schools, online education is now just the next logical step in the integration of technology into teaching. In fact, according to a new report by the Babson Survey Research Group, 71 percent of academic leaders say that online learning is “critical” to their institution’s long-term strategy.

Karen Pedersen, Chief Knowledge Officer at the non-profit Online Learning Consortium (previously Sloan-C), credits another factor for the growing acceptance of online learning: the rising demand for post-secondary education, particularly among adult learners, and the versatility of online education in meeting those needs. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is online education growing, and why is it important?

Karen Pedersen - 4 - 2014

Karen Pedersen, Chief Knowledge Officer, Online Learning Consortium

Pedersen: When you look at higher education learners today, fewer than 15 percent are full-time, first-time freshmen on a campus.

Eighty-five percent [of learners] are individuals working full-time and balancing their education with their job; balancing their education with their community engagement; or balancing their education with their life and their families. They might be serving in the United States military; or they’re single parents who are looking at their education as a way to propel themselves forward and better position their family.

Contemporary learners look very different today than they did years ago, and that means they’re looking for a learning experience that fits their needs.

Institutions are recognizing that they have an opportunity to touch these place-bound and time-bound learners in a way they could not do through a classroom-based learning approach.

How have perceptions about the quality and value of online education changed over the past ten years?

Pedersen: From the vantage point of employers, there’s a far greater degree of acceptance of online degrees and online learning. They’re looking for individuals with the right skills and the ability to move organizations forward, whether they’ve earned their degree online or in the classroom.

Early in my career, I had a business advisory council at the [college] where I was working, made up of large employers in the region. We’d get together to talk about what was happening in terms of workforce needs and whether our degree programs were in alignment.

I remember as if it happened yesterday the meeting where we introduced online learning – the skepticism and the apprehension and the questions that were in the room. It wasn’t until a year later that the same group of individuals were asking, “How quickly can you move this program online?” or “How quickly could you do this?”

But the focus on quality is critical.

At the Online Learning Consortium, we have a “quality scorecard” with 75 indicators in nine categories that institutions can use to help them understand where they are in terms of providing a quality online program. A lot of institutions are gravitating toward the scorecard to help answer some of the skepticism that is still out there about online learning and the quality.

The Babson report notes a couple worries people still have about online education, such as concern over student retention, and a perception that online students need to be more “disciplined.” How do you ensure that non-traditional learners who are juggling numerous responsibilities succeed?

Pedersen: Many institutions have really worked on what I call “onboarding” activities. They’re asking students: Is online learning really right for you as a learner? Do you have the discipline and the motivation and the technical skills? Is technology a barrier for you?

A lot of institutions are providing the opportunity to test-drive an online course, and we’re also seeing institutions focus on student success from a coaching and mentoring standpoint, looking for those learners who may be at risk or who may be struggling.

The fact that many states are looking at state funding models that are focused on retention efforts has really changed the dynamic, and it’s fueled this interest in the success of learners.

It’s not changing the rigor or the academic standard that an institution has set to earn a degree or the competencies that are needed. Those are the same, whether you’re completing a program in the classroom on a campus or whether you’re completing it online.

Another perception that the study notes is still a hurdle is the resistance from faculty to online learning. How do you overcome that?

Pedersen: A lot of these perceptions are steeped in the history of higher education.

We have a lot of traditions in education – the way in which we teach and the way students learn. When you think about the academic regalia we wear at commencement – that goes back to many, many centuries ago. And when we think about the faculty and the administrators, and the Boards of Trustees and the Boards of Regents and many in Congress, and about where and how they learned, many learned in a more traditional setting.

In the early days of online learning, I developed an online course for the Board of Trustees at my institution because I wanted them to experience an online learning environment.

We developed an online course that was the same as any other undergraduate course – there were readings, assignments, quizzes, and lectures. We had one Board of Trustees member who completed the entire course – every reading, every assignment, every quiz – and from that day forward, she was the strongest advocate on the Board for online learning. Being exposed personally to an online learning environment was profound, and others who didn’t complete the course but dipped their toe in it also had a very different perspective about online learning.

What does the future of online education – and, by extension, higher education – look like?

Pedersen: We’re seeing a lot of movement in “competency-based” education that’s focused on “What do I need to know?” This is where learning is today.

It’s no longer, “earn a four-year degree and you’re done.” It’s really a lifelong learning environment that we find ourselves in. When you think about that 85 percent of contemporary learners – individuals who are working full-time and who bring experiences to the learning environment – [the question] is how to get them into a degree program that fills the right gaps in their learning rather than forcing them into learning experiences where they already know [the material].

If I want a degree based on what I already know, what are the pieces that I need to know, and where do I go to get those “chunks of learning,” and how do I package all of these chunks of learning together? As lifelong learners, we’re going to look for what we need when we need it, where we need it, how we need it.

There’s a place out there for lots of different modalities, and that’s what we’re seeing today. It’s a much richer environment because we have a cornucopia of learning experiences: MOOCs, traditional online courses, courses that happen in a semester, courses that happen in six weeks.

I’m an advocate for online learning because I see the opportunities. I see the access that’s afforded when you can take learning to an individual where they are. For me, that’s really a driving force.

Karen Pedersen is Chief Knowledge Officer at the nonprofit Online Learning Consortium.

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