It's a wonder how quickly online education went from being an experiment to a real academic alternative. Ten years ago, online courses were offered by a few forward-looking schools and were a supplement to education that raised questions about the medium's future. Now almost every college and university offers a slate of classes available online – and those classes are not just serving as an alternative to a course offered traditionally, but are carving out a place all their own.
And as these courses mature as standalone or hybrid offerings, the age-old sense of community in education could be the key to making them work.
Lucy Cohen Blatter of AM New York Magazine points to the Masters of Science in Information and Knowledge Strategy being offered by Columbia University's School of Continuing Education. Although the program includes a residency requirement, the courses are all online. Like many other continuing education programs, this one targets those already in the workforce and looking for a leg up in their careers.
According to Kimberly Tableman, who herself is an executive at Pfizer, her fellow students include librarians and lawyers who come from every part of the country — and even from abroad.
Columbia's School of Continuing Education has developed "Networked Learning," their own online education model which allows students and faculty to communicate using social networking and other tool, which Tableman refers to as a "side benefit."
In the fall, they will kick off their Master of Science in Statistics, which is designed to take 16 months. Certificate programs — including Business, Bio-Ethics and soon-to-be-offered certificates in Actuarial Science and Core Statistics — can be completed in as little as one semester.
Since online courses tend to suffer from high dropout rates, colleges and universities have increasingly focus on replicating student communities that support and aid each other that tend to form more naturally in traditional classes. Experts in online education believe its the social component that sets apart smaller online offerings from massive online open courses where student attrition rates tend to run to more than 80%.
Jeffrey Olson, St. John's University director of online learning, believes that social isolation is to blame for such high number of dropouts, and decreasing it by encouraging student-to-student interaction could lead to the great leap forward in online education adoption.
For that reason, his university's online classes — which run the gamut from Intro to Psychology to Fundamentals of Accounting to Criminal Justice — focus on student interaction.
"Classes are never larger than 25, and, done right, online students get to know the faculty member and fellow students really well," he says.
"With the technology we have available now, feedback from professors and fellow students can come quickly and easily," says Ted Bongiovanni, director of distance learning at NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Most of the courses offered have around 15 students and differ from other online classes "by intense faculty preparation â¦ and an emphasis on research-based educational design principles which faculty put into practice," Bongiovanni says.