From the earliest days of the computer, long before the World Wide Web became a pervasive part of our lives, the role of this new machine was not restricted to government or business applications. The idea of the computer as educational tool was already up for serious discussion in the 1960s, some two decades before the “personal computer” began its conquest of the desktop.
Today, even the desktop computer can seem like something of a relic, and we are connected to the Internet via a multitude of devices everywhere we go. In the 1960s, the computer was a stand-alone appliance and efforts to make it a part of education, many of which originated at Stanford University’s Department of Psychology, did not envision the extent to which computer training would become an accepted part of the educational system at all levels. What started out as a movement to incorporate computers into elementary education has grown far beyond the plans of early pioneers.
The Internet has been one of the keys to this growth. It was first incorporated into coursework in 1993, by means of a system that relied on email to deliver lectures, assignments and assessment tools. By 1994, CompuHigh, the first online high school, was established, and it has been operating ever since.
Today, online learning is no longer a novelty. According to a report prepared for the Sloan Consortium by the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board, more than 6.1 million college students, almost one-third of total U.S. enrollment, participated in at least one online course for the fall term of 2010. That enrollment represents an increase of 560,000, a growth rate of around 10 percent.
The rate of growth is actually the lowest it has been since the Sloan report was first published in 2002. While growth in online learning is slowing, it remains impressive in the context of overall growth: Total college enrollment grew less than 1 percent from 2010 to 2011. In addition, spectacular online growth rates in the past are difficult to surpass. Online enrollment grew by 23 percent in 2003 and by 36.5 percent in 2005. As recently as 2009, the rate of growth stood at 21.1 percent.
The trend is clear nonetheless. Online enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment has grown year after year, steadily increasing from 9.6 percent in 2002 to 31.3 percent in 2010.
All disciplines are not equal in their adoption of online learning, however, and growth rates show substantial variability from subject to subject. Online enrollment has shown the steepest decline in courses related to education, where 16.1 percent of institutions reported declines for 2011 and 34.4 percent reported steady enrollment. Health professions, on the other hand, made a strong showing, reporting declines of only 1.2 percent.
Information Technology, a field which would seem to be a natural fit for a significant online component, actually declined 9.6 percent for 2011 after a 6.0 percent decline in 2010. Despite that, IT showed steady enrollment in 44.2 percent of programs, a number surpassed only by engineering, with steady enrollment at 44.4 percent.
Formalized online instruction in computer science is well represented in post-secondary institutions, with U.S. News & World Report, a publication known for its focus on educational rankings, listing over 700 online college programs. When Stanford announced that it would host a free course in artificial intelligence, to be delivered online and open to all, over 58,000 people enrolled. That number is four times the size of Stanford’s total conventional enrollment.
The real growth, however, may be found in independent offerings that lack formal institutional backing. Codecademy, for example, which provides interactive teaching of a number of programming languages, attracted over a million users in the six months following its launch in the summer of 2011, and its efforts attracted almost $3 million in venture capital.
That kind of growth mirrors the 10 percent increase in the number of people majoring in computer science in 2010. Following the dot-com bust, numbers had dropped for six years until they revived in 2008.
With the exception of the Sloan Consortium’s work, studies of online education are in short supply. Despite that, two-thirds of those surveyed by Sloan agreed that online education made up a critical part of long-term institutional strategy, and a similar number maintain that outcomes of online offerings are at least equal to those of conventional educational methods.
There are still skeptics dotting the landscape, and the perception among academic leaders is that less than a third of faculty members fully embrace the legitimacy and value of the online option. Even the skeptics would be forced to agree, though, that online courses will be a presence in education for the foreseeable future.
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