Online Learning, From the Margins to the Center

Research collaboration, information sharing and informal instruction has roots deep in the development of the internet and analogous networking such as the PLATO system prior to even the World Wide Web. After the internet began to spread, significant numbers of for-credit classes emerged in the mid-1990s, not long after the development of the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, in 1992.

It is fascinating to go back in time to 1997 to see how Archie Comics depicted online learning in 2021, a quarter century into the future. Annie Reneau annotates and reprints the comic strip titled “Betty at High School 2021 AD.” A remarkably accurate vision of what online learning has become is revealed.

Yet, for a number of years, the delivery of courses and degrees online grew rather slowly. For some years after its inception, online enrollments were not tracked formally by the National Center for Educational Statistics. Distance learning was considered the poor stepchild of the traditional campus-based experience. However, with slow, steady growth, by 2014 the NCES reported that more than five million students out of a total of more than 21 million in college were enrolled in at least one online class. That amounted to some 25 percent of all students.

By 2020, overall college enrollment had dropped to fewer than 19 million with some 14 million taking at least some online courses. That amounted to nearly 75 percent of all students. Of course, these figures were greatly impacted by the pandemic. The first case of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S. on Jan. 20, 2020. Yet, even before the arrival of the pandemic in the U.S., in the fall of 2019, seven million of the 19 million college students (37 percent) were taking at least one online class.

So, while overall enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities dropped by some two million students from 2012 to 2019, the number of students taking online classes had grown from five million to seven million. Even prior to the move to remote learning in the pandemic, online learning had established itself as an effective mode of delivery in higher education in the U.S.

Often forgotten in considering overall enrollment in credible online learning programs is the rise of the MOOCs. In 2012, the founding of major MOOC providers Coursera and edX brought many prestigious universities online to create a worldwide reach at an affordable price through the economies of scale. Class Central reports at the end of last year, there were 220 million MOOC learners worldwide enrolled in classes developed by 950 universities, including 70 MOOC-based degree programs. Too often, these are considered separately from the enrollments centered at the campuses. Yet, they are offering classes, granting degrees and drawing on the pool of potential learners within the U.S. as well as internationally.

Online learning has grown from a marginal niche of higher ed to the largest provider of postsecondary learning in the world. We are now on the cusp of yet another technological evolution in the delivery of online learning. The advent of the metaverse in higher education is closer than many casual observers may think. By 2025, we will begin to see significant numbers of offerings using avatars and immersive technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality and extended reality engaging learners at a distance.

This move will further propel online learning to the forefront of postsecondary education. It is the natural progression of the technology and networking infrastructure to support the pedagogy of engaged, personalized and immersive learning. Using the higher bandwidth and lower latency of 5G wireless and 10G cable, prospective students will be able to access stunning simulations and infinitely repeatable and adaptable learning modules to most successfully attain the skills and knowledge they seek for careers and personal fulfillment.

It is an exciting time to observe and participate in the acceleration of innovation in higher education. However, in order to be successful, institutions must embrace the technologies today to begin to deploy sandbox environments for their faculty and designers to prepare for the future that awaits just a couple of years ahead. Do you have developmental immersion laboratories for your faculty and staff to prepare for 2025? Who at your university is advocating for the integration of VR, AR and XR into online delivery? Are you already collaborating with industry and business in developing the most effective and relevant technology-enhanced online programs that will meet their needs? Those who lead in these ventures will set the standards and gain the recruiting advantage in higher education.

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