At a time when career needs are constantly morphing and most “good” jobs require at least a bachelor’s degree, students of all ages are trading the campus for the computer in record numbers – a trend that began in earnest some 20 years ago, among a small, but progressive circle of public universities. 

From the margins to the mainstream

According to the Sloan Consortium, nearly 7 million U.S. college students — or 32 percent of higher education enrollment — are now taking at least one course online and with good reason.  From a practical perspective, e-learning offers an effective way for students right out of high school to attend college literally anywhere in the world, without the added financial burden of travel and residential costs. By the same token, it empowers on-campus students to keep moving with their studies while taking part in off-campus internships and co-op programs.  

And thanks to the online environment, working adults have an ever-expanding gateway to quality professional advancement opportunities — from degree programs to continuing education units — in such high-demand technical fields as cybersecurity, health informatics and video game design.  

"When used appropriately, interactive technology significantly enhances the learning experience itself, as well as the quality of the work produced. "

Higher expectations, higher performance

But aside from these obvious advantages, there is mounting evidence that students may actually learn more in well-designed, technology-mediated courses than they do in the traditional face-to-face classroom, which is why e-learning is moving quickly into the mainstream of higher education with increasingly positive results.

In one comparative survey involving 250,000 students from 523 universities, those pursuing their education online reported higher levels of academic rigor, greater overall satisfaction and better learning outcomes.  Another similar study revealed that when used appropriately, interactive technology significantly enhances the learning experience itself, as well as the quality of the work produced. 

For example, virtual simulations and multi-player video games immerse students in problem-based activities and role playing exercises that are far too risky or expensive to replicate in real life.  Likewise, simple video conferencing technologies pave the way for unparalleled access to experts, colleagues and peers in such faraway locations as China and South Africa, while also allowing educators to virtually replicate the face-to-face environment for students who choose to learn entirely from a distance.

Seeing the e-learning light

Not surprisingly, college administrators and faculty are also beginning to see the e-learning light.  Last year, the Babson Survey Research Group reported that among the academic leaders it interviewed, the vast majority rated online learning outcomes at or above those in the face-to-face only environment.  What’s more, even employers are coming around.  A recent poll by Zogby International showed growing consensus among hundreds of CEOs and small business owners that an online degree is every bit as credible as its campus-based counterpart, when provided by a reputable institution.

So while the future of higher education is still understandably hard to predict, there is no doubt that technology-enhanced learning will play a significant role in it, as colleges and universities of all sizes and types begin to understand its value and learn to exploit its many benefits.