Online college is coming, to our benefit

  • Article by: DAVID METZEN and DAVID OLSON
  • Updated: June 24, 2010 - 6:42 PM

It's great for nontraditional students -- and it needn't exclude campus life.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has been an outspoken proponent of online learning for a reason: It works.

So when a recent Star Tribune editorial (June 19) said the Governor's "iCollege" vision of cost savings for government is "out of focus," it missed the overall mark. Here's why: Of the more than 400,000 students attending college in Minnesota this past academic year, about 45 percent were 25 or older. It is these students -- who often have full-time employment, children and car payments -- who benefit most from the convenience and flexibility of online course delivery. These nontraditional college students are not joining fraternities or eating dinner on the campus meal plan.

And they are not the only Minnesotans benefiting from online course delivery.

High school students in rural northeastern Minnesota are taking honors courses online for college credit from faculty at Lake Superior College in Duluth. Employees are learning new skills on-site with high-quality training online. Minnesota National Guard members deployed in Iraq are continuing their bachelor's degree programs online. Students attending Normandale Community College in Bloomington, where soaring enrollment threatened to limit access to courses, sign up for classes that meet on campus every other week, supplemented with robust online teaching and learning.

Colleges serving the traditional 18- to 24-year-old market are also finding ways to increase quality and value for students on campus through online learning.

Learning, especially higher education, is a choice. So just as the Internet has empowered consumers to find the cheapest airfares or purchase songs, it's also transforming the higher-education marketplace by giving more choices and convenience to those seeking to improve themselves. The question for Minnesota is not whether online learning is coming, but whether our public institutions will lead or lag.

Today the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities deliver more than 12 percent of their credits online, with a goal of 25 percent by 2015. Also, Minnesota-based online universities Capella and Walden have doubled their national enrollment to a combined 72,000 students in just four years. Other institutions, public and private, are growing online enrollment to meet student demand.

Online learning is a delivery method; it is not a teacher. It does not replace, but helps replicate, good teaching and learning practices. To be effective, online courses require excellent, creative and engaged faculty to develop and maintain them and to interact with students online.

Developing high-quality online courses requires faculty training, leadership and upfront investments. Estimates range from $1,000 to $20,000 to develop a three-credit online course, depending upon content and course objectives. As we get better at online course delivery, the costs inevitably will come down. This will help control the growing and unsustainable cost drivers of higher education, enabling us to serve more students well, with lower operating and facilities costs and more-effective utilization of talented faculty.

For some college-bound high school graduates, nothing can replace the campus life experience gained by going "away" to college. There is no substitute for the independence, the social development, the classroom discussions and the study-abroad opportunities students get from leaving home. But online learning is not an either/or proposition. Students can still take a few online courses or "blended" online and classroom courses during their time away at college.

Today the fastest-growing group of college students is the 25-to-40 age group, fitting in courses when and where they can to meet changing workforce demands. If Minnesota is to be globally competitive, we must help these students find flexible and affordable education, reducing the need for costly commutes, extra child care and other expenses. It's a far better alternative to meet the growing demand than building and maintaining new buildings.

Online learning is not for every student or every course. But it presents the most exciting opportunity seen in higher education in decades. We hope the next governor is an equal champion of this new opportunity.

David Metzen is director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. David Olson is a member of the Minnesota State Colleges & Universities Board of Trustees and president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.

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