Connecticut colleges are modifying their programs to better serve professional populations as businesses are increasingly viewing online higher education as a highly valuable tool for their employees.
"It provides a way for employees to build on existing skills while developing new ones, and gives them a chance to immediately apply what they're learning to solve real business challenges," said Frank Mulgrew, president of Post University's Online Education Institute. "By necessity, we all have to become lifelong learners, and online higher education makes it possible for working professionals to get advanced education without interruption to their careers."
Online education allows employers and employees to pick the kinds of courses they need to fill in skill gaps and deficits. Different credentials are constantly needed in an educated workforce, and the next step is to translate the credentials into results, said Peter Diplock, interim assistant vice provost for the center for excellence in teaching and learning at the University of Connecticut.
Demographically, the returning adult student population at the graduate level is growing in size while the traditional undergraduate student population is shrinking, said Diplock.
To cater online education to the programs businesses use, UConn selectively develops high-demand and high-enrollment courses, including accounting, education, survey research, and human resource management. UConn is not pursuing online degrees at the undergraduate level.
"With the current economy, fewer and fewer employers want to see their employees leave the company to receive full-time education," said Diplock. "The opportunity with online education avoids this issue, allowing employees to stay in their routine and mix classes in when the timing works for them."
More than 6.1 million students were enrolled in at least one online course during the fall 2010 semester, showing an increase of 560,000 students over the previous year, according to a report by the Sloan Consortium.
"We are beginning to see a pressure for the increasing commoditization of knowledge," said Diplock. "Most education is not a commodity, but rather an interactive and socially constructed product of interactions."
Waterbury's Post University launched its first online class in 1997. In 2005, between 150 and 200 students were enrolled in a fully online education program to receive their degree. This year, that number has reached 11,000 students.
"People are choosing online learning programs for a variety of reasons," said Mulgrew. "In addition to the convenience and flexibility that an asynchronous online learning environment offers, students benefit from the level of interactivity that's possible in a well-conceived online classroom that isn't confined to set dates and times."
Online education offers students the chance to receive associates, bachelors, and masters degrees, as well as specific certifications. Students can also enroll in a course-by-course basis, with no commitment further than receiving knowledge in topics of interest.
Post uses a per-credit tuition program. Undergraduate associate and bachelor programs are about $525 per credit, and graduate masters programs are about $600 per credit. Tuition varies between colleges and programs.
Success in an online degree program requires strong time management skills, active and substantive participation in online discussion boards, and completion of all course assignments within stated due dates, said Mulgrew.
"As we like to say at Post, everyone is in the front row in an online course," said Mulgrew. "You can never hide in the back of the class, and students need to be learners, not just knowers, to be successful."
Steve Hargadon, expert of social networking in education and creator of a virtual educator community, is attributing the growth of online education to a larger trend seen nationally.
"The unbundling of learning taking place in a physical location is presently contributing to this shift," said Hargadon. "We have assumed that learning imperatively takes place in a physical location, but now education is being looked at as something you can take with you anywhere that you want."