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College courtesy of your computer

The face of higher education is undergoing a tremendous transformation as technology accelerates.

Adult college students are looking for options that are affordable and accessible, and younger students are seeking more interactive learning on their own terms, even as schools struggle with spiraling costs and shrinking budgets.

The upshot? A growing number of students are signing up for wired education.

American colleges saw a 17 percent increase in online enrollment, with more than one in four students taking at least one online course in the fall of 2008, according to the findings of an annual survey published Jan. 26 by the Sloan Consortium, an association dedicated to integrating online education into the mainstream of higher education.

That growth dwarfed the 1.2 percent growth rate of the overall higher-education student population.

“Despite this surge, the data suggest that not enough institutions have taken online education into account as they conduct planning around issues like how to deal with budget cuts and space shortages,” said Frank Mayadas, a special adviser to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

“They have to wake up and begin to think about this as a strategic item,” Mayadas said.

“Numerous schools are racing to establish online learning as a way to both keep college accessible and address fiscal constraints,” said Victoria McGillin, vice president for Academic Affairs at Linfield College. “Unfortunately, this challenge comes at a time when states, strained by the recession, are cutting support of public higher education. Start-up costs also present a huge budgetary hurdle, and lack of organizational know-how is a challenge.”

That gives a leg up to programs like Linfield’s, which helped pioneer distance education 34 years ago. The private college finessed early versions of online learning platforms and began complementing its campus-based courses with online classrooms in 1997.

(A 1990s catalog helped soothe computer anxiety for students by stating, “You must have access to a Macintosh or PC with at least four megabytes of memory, but computer experience is not required.”)

“The vision was to extend the geographical borders of campus and to bring the value of a college education to the adult working population of the Pacific Northwest,” McGillin said. “The faculty sought to incorporate the personalized approach of our face-to-face classrooms and to maintain — as closely as possible — the integrity of a rich liberal arts environment. Essentially, they hoped to combine the best elements of on-campus and online learning.”

Last year Linfield saw a jump in online applications, up 43 percent over 2008.

“What’s happening here is part of a national, and even an international, trend,” McGillin said. “Linfield now has online students who plug in from countries around the globe, including Japan, Iraq, South Korea, Spain and Azerbaijan.”

A new breed of college student

Wired education isn’t the only sea change occurring right now. Adults, rather than 18-year-olds, now account for 73 percent of college and university enrollments, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

With the economic downturn pushing job seekers to upgrade skills, nontraditional adult students are heading back to school in increasing numbers. Oregonians, who have seen some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, have even more incentive to bolster employment prospects by returning to school. But college-going adults want a degree that is flexible and accessible. That’s why online education is an increasingly important part of the equation.

“Our online programs complement our on-campus experience,” said President Thomas Hellie. “One size doesn’t fit all.

“Different modes of higher education may be appropriate for individuals at different stages of life,” he said. “An 18-year-old is likely to benefit most from a structured, full-time, residential experience, where students can compete in debate tournaments, perform with music ensembles or try out for the soccer team. A 40-year-old, with more life experience, may benefit most from an online program, which allows individuals to acquire new skills while balancing family and work.”

21st century workplace fueling trend

The sour economy isn’t the only factor creating the upsurge in wired education. A rapidly changing job market is giving impetus to the trend. Many people change jobs numerous times in their career, and those changes often require ongoing education.

“The changing nature of work in the 21st century requires a continuous cycle of training and retraining in order to stay competitive,” McGillen said. “And the trend toward later retirement also translates into a need for lifelong learning.”

Pros and cons of wired platforms

Virtual classrooms allow students to plug in any time from any location, and some colleges, like Linfield, provide discussion groups and personalized communication with professors who hold doctoral degrees.

“Students are sometimes more likely to participate in virtual discussions than face-to-face classroom conversations,” said Kate Bemis, dean of the Division of Continuing Education.

“And while many people are wary of online learning, research shows that learning gains among online students equal those of traditional campus-based students,” said Bemis, who coauthored Transformations: A Guide to Online College for Adults with Janet Gifford, associate director for Linfield’s Adult Degree Program, and Richard Pelletier.

Retention is also an issue that worries college administrators, but most schools that provide online learning have a more open approach.

“Many people who drop out also drop in, again and again, as their work schedules and family life permit,” Bemis said. “Going to school is a balancing act for first-timers and adults, and the advantage of online education is that it offers and even supports flexibility.”

“The downside,” Hellie said, “is that online students miss out on the rich transformative experience of a campus-based college experience.

“But wired education today is not an ‘either/or’ proposition,” he said. “There are many blended or hybrid models, and there is a convergence towards the middle of the spectrum, with on-campus learning becoming more wired and virtual learning becoming more personalized.”

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