Online enrollment booming in higher ed

In a down economy with many out of work, more and more college students are looking online to complete their degrees.

The Babson Survey Research Group looks at national online enrollments. Its most recent report shows that 4.6 million college students were enrolled in at least one online course in fall 2008, the most recent term for which figures are available.

That’s a 17 percent increase from a year earlier.

Greg Simpson, Kansas University’s interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is a candidate for the permanent position. In a recent public forum he addressed online education at KU as something he’d like to see improved.

“We’ve been a little bit behind some of the other schools in Kansas,” he said. “There’s a population that I’m talking about, that can’t come to the university physically, that we can serve.”

He said issues with quality control and fee structures still need to be sorted out, and university officials are looking into some of the issues involved with expanding the program.

KU’s Continuing Education program currently offers independent study courses with online components, but it only offers individual courses — no full degree programs are included.

Enrollments in those courses are seeing a slight increase every year, said Jean Yoo, director of academic outreach and distance education for KU’s Continuing Education program.

About 2,000 people are currently taking at least one course through KU’s for-credit online independent study program, Yoo said.

She said the program enrolls a mix of students, from those already enrolled looking to complete a course that has filled up on campus to more nontraditional students who may have been laid off from a job and looking to further their education.

“I think distance education in general just offers students another option to pursue a degree they weren’t able to finish,” she said.

The program at KU offers about 120 courses in 37 academic departments, including in the schools of liberal arts and sciences, education, social welfare and music. Many of the courses are basic requirements, like introductory-level English, psychology and Western civilization classes.

In the independent study format, students are given six months to complete the work for the course. Each course features its own Web site, Yoo said, with syllabi, assignments and other course information. Final exams are proctored either in Lawrence or remotely at a site that offers the service, as many public libraries do, Yoo said.

“All of our courses are KU-quality courses,” she said. “The rigor, the robustness, it’s equivalent to what you’d find on campus.”

Also, Yoo said, many departments offer online courses on their own, independent of the Continuing Education program.

“The future is bright,” Yoo said, with the growth of online education nationally. “I think the sky’s the limit, actually. It is a growing trend.”