According to an annual survey by the Babson Research Group, more than one-third of college students, more than seven million people, took at least one online course in 2012.
The company has been tracking the growth of online education since 2002.
Even though more students than ever are enrolled in these courses, the company is concerned that the growth rate has hit its peak and will begin to slow.
Kaplan University, an online entity that allows students to come free for the first three weeks, find that many students who start their degree drop out within the first two weeks, writes Dawn Reiss for US News.
"Online education is fabulous, but it's not for everybody," Betty Vandenbosch, provost for Kaplan University, says. "Some people don't realize how much effort it takes. Many of the people who don't finish barely start."
Online courses are very popular among middle-aged learners, who enjoy the program's flexibility, allowing time for juggling home life, work, and school. According to one such learner, Andrew Trinovitch, 47, from Pennsylvania, the online courses allow him time to boost his resume while still enjoying his children.
"I want to spend as much time with my children as possible. Pretty soon (my 15-year-old son) will be hitting me up for gas money. My daughter still thinks I'm the greatest, but in a couple years â¦" he trailed off with a laugh.
Some university professors are beginning to lose faith that online learning is as beneficial to students as face-to-face classes, with the percentage of teachers in favor of the courses dipping from 77% to 74%. Many feel that online learning is for organized students who are self-starters.
A study published earlier this year, "Interactive learning online at public universities: Evidence from a six-campus randomized trial", took more than 600 students and divided them; one-half took an online stats class with an additional hour of professor face time, while the other half took a traditional version of the class that met three times a week. What the authors found was, with 80% passing the online version and 76% passing the traditional course, the outcomes were very similar, writes Jill Barshay of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.
"The technology today has advanced to a point that a lot of those drawbacks are disappearing," said Kingsley Gnanendran, Ph.D., a professor of operations management at the University of Scranton who also oversees the online MBA program there. "What we try to do is mimic a freewheeling classroom discussion."
According to Gnanendran, videoconferencing allows students the capability to watch guest lectures, and the permanency of mandatory posting requirements on message boards means that there is more pressure on online learners to know their stuff than there is for students making a comment in class, writes Peter Cameron for The Marine Corps Times.
Private universities traditionally rely on small class sizes with lots of face time with professors. However, even these schools are beginning to offer more online courses. In 2012, a little less than 50% of private schools had an online offering, up from only 22% in 2002, writes Meghan Moravcik Walbert for The Morning Call.
"We really rely on a model that is face-to-face," Lafayette President Alison Byerly said. "The challenge is what can we do interestingly and differently [with technology] that doesn't undermine our commitment to having the close interaction between professors and students."
However, an $800,000 grant from the Council of Independent Colleges' Consortium for Online Humanities Instruction will allow Pennsylvania area colleges, like Lafayette and Moravian, the ability to explore online teaching methods and how they can use them to improve learning.
"We are learning — and the CIC grant will help us further this — that digital resources can deepen and expand our teaching and help to better prepare our students for the 21st century world they will enter following college," said Kelly Denton-Borhaug, an associate professor at Moravian.