Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Triumphs, Trip-Ups and Future Trajectory of Online Education

Over the past few years, I’ve been following the state of for-profit and online colleges and universities. It’s been interesting to note the wide range of schooling that is available today…with some of it being very high quality and others not so. While I was living in Florida, one of my friends was the co-CEO of an outstanding for-profit school that I would have been proud to have one of my kids graduate from. In addition, there has been a significant amount written in recent weeks on loan repayment percentages from the for-profit schools. As a result, I thought it would be interesting to have a post contributed by someone who follows the world of online colleges and universities very closely. So today, we have a guest post provided by Tim Handorf, who writes on the topics of online colleges and universities. He welcomes your comments at his email: tim.handorf.20@googlemail.com .

Over the past few years, online education programs have grown dramatically. Online, for-profit schools showed a modest enrollment during its initial stages--365,000 students according to a recent article published in The Hill--but now boasts a massive student body of nearly two million. These figures represent a five hundred percent growth.

What, then, is the reason behind these staggering numbers? For one, online schooling is seen as a viable alternative to traditional universities in that they offer what "brick-and-mortar" institutions do not--convenience, ease of access, and a lessened time commitment.

During tough economic times, for many people, a traditional four-year university is a luxury. While one could argue that there is inherent value in pursuing an education with a more intellectual bent, those who are keen on working while they pursue a degree are looking for a more basic education that's specifically focused on career outcomes.

Another advantage of online schooling is implied in its name--online. Now, virtually every aspect of our lives finds its appropriate counterpart online, and an education shouldn't be any different. Traditional universities have been slow on the uptake of leveraging the power of the Internet to enhance the learning experience, while online schools have picked up the slack. Although traditional universities have come a long way in terms of online technological innovation, online schools still have the upper hand in this arena.

Recently, however, online, for-profit schools have come under fire from the government. The situation is complicated, but essentially many online schools have been accused of engaging in illegal recruitment practices, embezzling government funds, and making false claims about the value of their degrees. These recent scandals have caused stock in for-profit education to drop pretty dramatically, and even though many predict that these instabilities are only temporary, and investors would do well to pick up these stocks now that they are cheap and could bounce back relatively soon, investors remain wary.

Still, these recent scandals are perhaps only a tiny hiccup in the recent business success of online education. While reform is certainly needed, as pointed out in a recent Washington Times op-ed, there remains pretty clear room for growth.

Why? This is because online schools serve a population that simply does not benefit as much from traditional higher education. Some on the online school bandwagon decry traditional education and prophecy its eventual demise. This, to me, is an extreme opinion. It's not that either traditional schools are "bad" or online schools are "worthless". They simply serve to educate two different types of people.

And the group of people that online schooling targets and seeks to educate is a growing population. Not everyone wants to or is cut out for strictly academic teaching and learning. Health professionals are desperately needed in this country, and online schools are more compatible to these careers, which require certified employees with very specific training. As such, if online schools can fix their internal problems, then they represent an entrepreneurial force that will take both the Internet and the education sector as a whole by storm.

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