Online learning, from the margins to the center

Research collaboration, information sharing and informal education have deep roots in the development of the Internet and analogous networks such as the PLATO system even before the World Wide Web. After the internet began to spread, a significant number of credit courses emerged in the mid-1990s, shortly after the development of the first graphical web browser, Mosaic, in 1992.

It’s fascinating to step back in time to 1997 to see how Archie Comics portrays online learning in 2021, a quarter century in the future. Annie Reneau annotates and reprints the comic titled “Betty in High School 2021 AD”. A remarkably accurate view of what online learning has become is revealed.

Yet, for a number of years, the offer of online courses and degrees grew quite slowly. For a few years after its inception, online enrollment was not officially tracked by the National Center for Education Statistics. Distance learning was considered the poor grandson of the traditional campus experience. However, with slow and steady growth, in 2014 NCES reported that more than five million students out of a total of over 21 million students were enrolled in at least one online course. This represented approximately 25% of all students.

By 2020, total college enrollment had fallen to less than 19 million, with some 14 million taking at least some online courses. This represented almost 75% of all students. Of course, these figures have been strongly impacted by the pandemic. The first case of COVID-19 was reported in the United States on January 20, 2020. Yet even before the pandemic arrived in the United States in the fall of 2019, seven million of the 19 million students (37 %) were taking at least one online course.

So while overall enrollment in US colleges and universities fell by some two million students from 2012 to 2019, the number of students taking online courses fell from five million to seven million. Even before the shift to distance learning during the pandemic, online learning had established itself as an effective mode of delivery in higher education in the United States.

The rise of MOOCs is often overlooked when considering overall enrollment in credible online learning programs. In 2012, the creation of major MOOC providers Coursera and edX brought many prestigious universities online to create global reach at an affordable price through economies of scale. Class Central reports that at the end of last year, there were 220 million MOOC learners worldwide enrolled in courses developed by 950 universities, including 70 MOOC-based degree programs. Too often, these are considered separately from campus-centric enrollments. Yet they offer courses, award degrees, and tap into the pool of potential learners in the United States and abroad.

Online learning has grown from a marginal niche in higher education to the largest provider of post-secondary learning in the world. We are now on the cusp of another technological evolution in the delivery of online learning. The advent of the metaverse in higher education is closer than many casual observers think. By 2025, we will start to see a significant number of offerings using avatars and immersive technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality and extended reality engaging remote learners.

This decision will further propel online learning to the forefront of post-secondary education. It is the natural progression of technology and networking infrastructure to support the pedagogy of engaged, personalized and immersive learning. Using the higher bandwidth and lower latency of 5G wireless and 10G cable, future students will be able to access stunning simulations and infinitely repeatable and adaptable learning modules to successfully acquire the skills. and the knowledge they seek for their careers and personal development.

It is an exciting time to observe and participate in the acceleration of innovation in higher education. However, to be successful, institutions need to embrace the technologies today to begin deploying sandbox environments for their faculty and designers to prepare for the future that is only a few years away. Do you have developmental immersion labs for your faculty and staff to prepare for 2025? Who at your university is advocating for the integration of virtual reality, augmented reality, and augmented reality into online broadcasting? Are you already collaborating with industry and businesses to develop the most effective and relevant technology-enhanced online programs that will meet their needs? Those who run these companies will set the standards and gain the advantage of higher education recruitment.

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