- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - By the time Gayle Schwartz hits the books, she’s already worked a full day.

She’s dropped off and picked up her kids from school. And she’s fed them and put them to bed.

It’s at that point, when the house is quiet, that the 34-year-old single mom slips into the living room, sits down and cracks open her laptop for class.

Schwartz, a preschool assistant in Gillette, has been pursuing an online associate’s degree in early childhood education at Casper College for the past five years.

She is among a huge number of college students - roughly 5.5 million - who took at least one online class in 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The number accounts for 27 percent of all college students, many of whom are non-traditional students like Schwartz.

For years, the demographic helped fuel a boom in online education. In 2007, two Babson College researchers noted that the sector had been growing at a 9.7-percent clip, far outpacing higher education’s overall 1.5 percent growth rate.

Then, the numbers started to fall.

In 2012, The Babson Survey Research Group reported that growth rate hit a 10-year low.

Now, more recent data indicates that growth has stopped altogether.

Between 2012 and 2013, there was only a 0.5 percent increase in the students who took at least one online class and a 0.2 percent increase for exclusive online learners.

Russ Poulin, a policy analyst for the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s Cooperative for Educational Technologies, attributes the small increase to the way the data is reported. Overall, there has been no discernible growth, he says.

The halt hasn’t spared Wyoming schools.

At the University of Wyoming, there were 19,784 students enrolled in the school’s outreach program during the 2011-12 school year.

The program grew 5 percent the following year and 4 percent the year after, according to university data.

Reed Scull, director of UW’s Outreach School, believes that there are couple forces at play - at home and across the country.

The improved job market could be less incentive for students to go to school, Scull told the Casper Star-Tribune (https://bit.ly/1OyVHoJ ).

Similarly, Scull said that today’s students are more reluctant to take out loans, and that they are becoming more consumer-minded, choosing pathways that better suit their needs.

He said this is evidenced by an influx in certificate program enrollment, which students see as a more cost-effective way for career advancement.

It’s uncertain what the slow-down will mean for higher-education, except that schools will have to adapt.

However, that’s nothing new; the field has been evolving for years.

Distance learning dates to 1837, when Sir Issac Pittman started teaching his phonetic-based note-taking system to students by mail.

Pittman’s lessons became known as correspondence studies. In the following decades, the model spread to universities across the world.

And interestingly, students who participated looked a lot like today’s non-traditional students: busy adults with families and full-time jobs.

Over time, the delivery method for distance courses evolved with technology.

The advent of radio and television led to education programs of their own. The model was again disrupted by the widespread adoption of the Internet in the 1990s.

For-profit colleges and public universities clamored to reach more students, and eventually colleges and other organizations joined forces to provide free massive online open course offerings, or MOOCs, which made the availability of education almost as ubiquitous as the Internet.

Schwartz’s professor, Kerri Mahlum, the chair of Casper College’s Education department, has watched it all unravel.

When she began teaching online classes, she would bedazzle her class with pages of vibrant color fonts and marquee text that were in hindsight hindrances to the learning process.

At the same time, students often were required to check out VHS tapes to supplement learning.

Now, as Internet speeds have become faster and more accessible, many students’ class materials can be accessed from the smartphones in their pockets.

Not only can they consume content, but students can create it, too. By whipping out their phones, students can participate in class discussions or upload videos.

Schwartz, who is currently completing a student teaching practicum at the day care she works at, uses a camera to record her interactions with students in Gillette and then uploads them to her class page.

Mahlum, her teacher, can access and offer immediate feedback.

UW’s College Of Education has similarly experimented using Google Glasses, Scull said.

The flexibility allows busy students like Schwartz to continue their education, though the way students use the technologies can be drastically different.

Some students take classes that use web-based technologies as an extra tool. Some take classes that blend the formats, with lessons both online and in person. And some classes, like the ones Schwartz takes, are exclusively online.

Regardless, online classes are something all students have come to expect, Scull said.

Scull and Mahlum noted more on-campus students are taking one or two online classes each semester, largely because of the scheduling flexibility.

Still, as the growth of online programs flatten, it is uncertain what that will mean for universities.

Currently, there are only two years of federal data regarding online learning programs - and the way the data is collected is often criticized - but some worry that the slowdown could point toward a “plateau.”

If that’s the case, schools of higher education that have long planned for growth because of the demand will have to change course.

In the meantime, students like Schwartz will continue making strides toward their degrees.

With about five years to go, Schwartz will take a class or two each semester until graduation day comes. When it does, she’ll likely advance in her chosen profession: teaching.


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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