Like so many other ideas grafted on to the Internet, online education was expected to revolutionize how students learn, especially in colleges and universities. Unlike a lot of the ideas that were tried and then bombed, online learning appears to be working, but not how the dot-coms, as well as numerous public and private universities, originally envisioned.
Just a few years ago, many in higher education looked at the rising demographics and the World Wide Web and concluded that technology would efficiently, and less expensively, address demand for post-secondary education. University leaders assumed faculty would easily migrate their teaching and content over to the Web and that students from ages 18 to 50 would flock to the online courses.
By the late 1990s, a wide range of schools, including Columbia University and the state university system in California, decided to set up online versions of their university courses. Part of the impetus was money: to make a buck without investing in bricks and mortar. The other driving force was fear. Many academic institutions were sure that fast-moving Internet firms were going to take over higher education in terms of online learning.
"With the rise of the dot-coms, there were moments of near panic in the campus community," said Kenneth C. Green, director of the Campus Computing Project and a visiting scholar at Claremont Graduate University. "They thought the dot-coms were going to eat them alive."
But like so many other notions about business and society that the Internet was supposed to transform, it didn't quite happen. The dot-coms never managed to make money out of cyber learning. Nor did a lot of brand name universities.
As a result, online education projects were dropped, scaled back or reinvented.
"Online education is not a matter of looking at the technology and looking at the faculty and throwing the two together and hoping a less-costly way of teaching will result," Green pointed out. "It's not just hot links to content. It's a matter of building, not just posting. And after you build it, you've got to maintain it, update it and continue to support it."
Universities, in particular state-supported academic institutions, have learned some valuable lessons about what works and what doesn't work for online education since the concept was hyped so strongly just a few years ago. That knowledge is beginning to pay off as a number of state-supported online education programs grow and prosper.
Universities have learned that the target customer for online post-secondary education is primarily an adult, partly because they make up the biggest sector of the market. Students who live in dorms and attend classes on a campus where there's a library and other academic facilities represent just 20 percent of the post-secondary population. The rest attend community colleges or for-profit schools, commute to class or take a course through either a distance education or an online program.
Not only is the adult market large, its needs vary. Some adults are looking to change careers with a new degree, while others are looking for courses that will enhance their current job. For the latter, corporations have proven adept at offering e-learning to their employees, who want a discrete educational experience that's shorter than the traditional semester timeframe.
For-profit universities, such as Phoenix University and Jones International, have stepped up to fill this niche and have done quite well. For example, Phoenix University now has the largest population of any academic institution in the country with more than 100,000 students and has the largest Web demographics with an estimated 30,000 students studying online.
Another lesson learned has to do with pricing. Columbia University launched Fathom, its online education project, as a for-profit venture. Today the courses are free. Other e-learning programs have also had to change course on pricing for classes.
There are a number of reasons some online programs failed because of pricing. But the prime factor seems to be choice. Offer a pricey course on Shakespeare and Net-savvy students might just look for similar content on the Web that costs little or nothing to download and read.
"Remember, this is a new world order where the clientele interested in online education really have choices," said Green.
The Western Governors University (WGU) used to add a surcharge to fees for classes it provided through its system but were developed and maintained by other colleges. Students quickly learned that by going directly to the school where the course was created, they could bypass the surcharge. WGU now has dropped the surcharge.
"You've got to remember online students are savvy consumers," said Robert Mendenhall, president of WGU. "These are adults who know how to shop for what they want."
Another mistake made by academic institutions was to offer content but not enough infrastructure for the online students and their faculty. One of the biggest criticisms of online education has been the high dropout rate. Students often feel isolated taking a course online, while teachers can be overwhelmed in their attempts to migrate courses from classrooms to the Internet.
"People who are looking for courses online are not just looking for dry content, they want some level of interaction, a little bit of high-touch," said Green. He said Phoenix University and Jones International understand that online learning isn't just about content, but it's about creating infrastructure that supports content.
WGU also has learned that lesson. Incoming students are given an orientation course about online learning, showing them how threaded discussions and online chats can help them interact and learn. To create a sense of community, faculty mentors stay in touch with students, who also are encouraged to form support groups.
The support groups are important, according to Mendenhall. Occasionally, students will withdraw from the class work for a week to a month, then find it very hard to return because they feel isolated. Support groups help the student stay part of the community of learners, even if they pause in their studies.
Colleges and universities also underestimated the cost of starting and operating online courses. Developing an online course can be significantly more expensive than a classroom course, according to experts. Some dot-com firms that tried to launch for-profit online education programs spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a single course.
Faculty hired to teach online courses often receive a fixed payment for teaching the class. What's overlooked is the effort the professor must make to move the class online. That can drive up the cost significantly, but colleges don't always factor those additional costs, according to Green. "Higher education doesn't have a good sense of cost accounting," he remarked.
Online education does work when colleges and universities take the time to figure out their own strengths and assess the market they want to serve. The adult higher education market is quite large, Green pointed out. At the same time, technology continues to get better and demand for individual courses and degrees keeps growing. As a result, online learning is a way to expand the education market, says Green. Just make sure that online education projects are tied to the economies of the market.
Nor should institutions of higher learning assume that what we know now about online education will become the status quo.
"It's still evolving," continued Green. "What was true two years ago isn't true today. What's true today isn't going to be what we know in the next four years."