While many people envision a college student as a recent graduate of high school moving away from home for the first time, today’s college students vary widely in age, ethnicity, and level of work experience. Unemployment fluctuations tend to push many adults into post-secondary education. This growing number of diverse would-be students has created a high demand for distance education programs, and institutions of higher learning are responding by offering more and more online degrees.
While public perception of online degree programs was once largely negative, studies show that well over half of today’s company executives and business owners are familiar with online degrees, and around 83% of these say that they believe online programs are as credible as traditional degrees. And, as students become increasingly comfortable with Internet technology, their online grades are also improving. A 2009 study from the U.S. Department of Education reported that the average online student actually performed better than students in traditional classes. As a result of increased public confidence, the demand for online programs is currently growing at a faster rate than the demand for traditional programs. In fact, total enrollment for online programming grew from 13.5% to 23.5% between 2004 and 2008, and the numbers continue to climb.
Students pursuing online education vary widely in terms of age, profession and level of education. Although the largest percentage of online students is in the 41 to 45-year-old age group, the average age of online learners is 34, with a 53% female majority. Additionally, most online students have at least a high school diploma or GED, while nearly half have an associate’s degree, 20% a bachelor’s degree, and 2% a master’s degree. For students enrolled in an online education program, the average graduation rate is 71%, around 15% lower than graduate rates at traditional schools.
Online programs are typically available for certificates, associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. A few disciplines even offer online doctoral programs, although therse are much less common. Online courses are especially convenient and popular for students who work full-time jobs or have inflexible daytime schedules. In fact, 81% of distance learners are employed when they enroll, and 41% receive tuition reimbursement from their employers. Additional benefits of online degrees include not having to commute to a campus as well as the ability to pursue an area of study that may not be available at local colleges and universities.
In spite of the multiple advantages of pursuing online degrees, there are also several challenges. Although popular perceptions are constantly changing, there is evidence that a negative bias toward online degrees still exists. For instance, several studies have indicated that employers are more likely to hire a job candidate who has a degree from a brick-and-mortar institution rather than an online school. In order to improve their chances on the job market, it is especially important that online learners make sure that their programs are accredited by the appropriate organizations. Accreditation is a quality control process that ensures colleges and degree programs meet specific educational requirements. Additionally, a program’s accreditation status can impact a student’s eligibility to receive financial aid, since federal assistance programs only approve loans and grants for students who are enrolled at accredited schools.
Other challenges of distance learning include the fact that online learners are expected to possess a high level of self-discipline, since they do not have to report to class every week and must manage their study time independently. Distance learners must also be comfortable with a lower level of student and faculty interaction than they would receive in a traditional classroom setting. Finally, completing an online degree requires students to have reliable access to the Internet as well as up-to-date computer software and hardware.
If reading about the advantages and disadvantages of online learning has encouraged you to consider a degree in education, both online and on-site education programs will teach you how to use different instructional methods to create lessons for all types of learners. However, if you are interested in creating user-friendly software that facilitates a successful online learning experience, a degree in software development will provide you with the skills that you need to design, create and test new educational software. Another way to get directly involved in improving distance learning is to study web design, where you will learn how to create and maintain the actual websites and supplemental materials that online students use.