- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Aubrey White did not want to drive 40 miles to attend Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nev.

So he picked only online classes for his first term in fall 2005. In five semesters, he never took a traditional, face-to-face class while obtaining an associate degree in business.

“It gives you a good education. You have to … be very disciplined,” said Mr. White, who lives in Fernley, Nev. “You have to really want your education because while the teachers are really good about giving you online lectures or lecture notes,” students still must devote time for schoolwork “even if things get jumbled up in your schedule.”

He was among the nearly 3.5 million postsecondary students in the nation enrolled in at least one online course in fall 2006, according to a report released in October by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Babson Survey Research Group.

Online enrollment at postsecondary institutions is rising. Community colleges in particular have experienced a surge, reporting an 18 percent increase in distance-education enrollments from fall 2005 to fall 2006, up from 15 percent a year earlier, according to a report released this month at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) in Philadelphia.

The Sloan report said two-year institutions hold the greatest share of online enrollment, with more than 1.9 million students taking at least one online course in fall 2006. Nearly 171,000 students took an online course at baccalaureate schools.

“There’s … an incredible, robust demand for online education,” said Fred Lokken, associate dean for the distance education program at Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) and co-author of the report by the Instructional Technology Council (ITC), an AACC affiliate. “Community colleges seem to be leading the charge on this. Certainly, there are universities that are involved in this as well, but community colleges seem to be on kind of the leading edge of this.”

Of the 154 institutions responding to the ITC survey, 70 percent said demand for distance education exceeded class offerings. The study looked at “an appropriate cross-section” of schools across the country, the report said.

Distance education encompasses all courses outside the traditional, face-to-face classroom and includes online classes.

Mr. Lokken said community colleges pioneered online education programs to accommodate their typical students: adults busy with work and family. A slight majority of students in distance-education classes at community colleges are 26 or older, the ITC report found.

At baccalaureate institutions, distance-education classes are unnecessary for students in campus housing, said James Lee, professor in American University’s School of International Service.

Distance education at TMCC has risen dramatically since fall 2000, when 245 were enrolled. Last semester, nearly 4,300 people — more than one-third of the student body of 12,750 — took at least one distance-education class, according to data provided by Elena V. Bubnova, director of institutional research at TMCC.

Last fall, TMCC offered 285 distance-education sections in 54 of its 101 programs. The number of sections exceeded 300 this semester and will grow in the fall, Mr. Lokken said.

With constant access to the virtual classroom, students can take online classes regardless of their work schedules. Many schools now are questioning the cost-effectiveness of traditional classes as fewer students enroll, he said.

Low enrollment prevented one TMCC professor from teaching a traditional class until it was available online, Mr. Lokken said in an e-mail to The Washington Times. Then, demand skyrocketed and the class expanded to two sections, both online.

Still, brick-and-mortar community colleges are here to stay, said Mr. Lokken, who is teaching three online classes this semester.

“There are some students who just really shouldn’t be taking an online class,” he said.

TMCC even is offering more traditional class sections than it did in 2003.

In spring semesters, traditional sections increased from 1,228 in 2003 to 1,350 in 2005 but declined for the next two years. In fall semesters, they rose from 1,220 in 2003 to 1,384 in 2005, before falling and rising during the past two years.

Online education may stave off stagnant or declining enrollments, the ITC report said, citing the Sloan report’s finding that online enrollment has grown faster than total enrollment in all postsecondary institutions in the United States.

“Many colleges, if they want to stick around, I think they’re going to have to look at bolstering their online degree offerings,” said Christine Mullins, executive director of ITC and co-author of the report. “Those colleges that are offering the most interesting and most dynamic programs are the ones that are going to attract the most students.”

Of the respondents in the ITC survey, 71 percent “required their faculty to participate in a training program to teach” distance-education classes, the report said.

Vickie Kimbrough-Walls, director of dental hygiene at TMCC, is teaching her first two online classes this semester after 14 years in the education field. She said that online education is convenient for students but that she had to learn the online education software.

She added that her online classes require more work than traditional classes. In the ITC report, faculty with distance-education courses ranked “workload issues” as their main challenge.

She said she was skeptical about online education in her field until meeting with dental hygiene education professionals.

“With online education and delivering dental hygiene curriculum, I didn’t really think the two could match in any way, shape or form,” she said.


Two-year associate institutions enroll more students online than all other institutions do.

Institution: Fall 2002 — Fall 2006

Doctoral/research: 258,489 — 566,725

Master”s: 335,703 — 686,337

Bachelor”s: 130,677 — 170,754

Associate: 806,391 — 1,904,296

Specialized: 71,710 — 160,268

Note: Numbers are of students who are enrolled in at least one online course

Source: “Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning” by I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, a survey from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Babson Survey Research Group

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