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World Wide Web & Higher Education: The Promise of Virtual & Online Universities

by Marcie Thomas, Demand Media

    In 2010, the Sloan Survey of Online Learning estimated that 30 percent of all college students have taken at least one class online, an increase of over a million students from the previous year. It is no secret that virtual and online universities are enormously appealing. If they continue as expected, several trends promise to sustain the popularity of online learning for the foreseeable future.

    Mobile Learning

    One such trend is M-learning, short for mobile learning. In 2013, the Nielsen group reported that 94 percent of the US population owned a mobile phone, and over half of those were smart phones. Of those smart phone owners, approximately 82 percent regularly browsed the Web through their phones. Educational institutions and mobile development companies are taking note of this trend: An increasing number of educational apps offer engaging, effective instructional activities and games for the mobile platform. Companies offering learning management systems (LMS) are developing apps to allow mobile access to their centralized platforms. The ability to access online courses from a mobile device promises to fuel continued demand for online learning.

    Blended Classroom

    Another growing trend is the blended classroom, which combines the strengths of the online class and the traditional classroom experience. The blended classroom can range from a traditional in-person class that incorporates instructional resources on the Internet, to an online class that includes a few in-person meetings during the semester. One popular form of blending is called the flipped classroom: Instead of attending lectures during regular class hours, students access archived video and audio feeds through the Web after hours and come to class prepared to engage in active learning and problem solving with classmates. This frees up valuable class time for face-to-face activities that can be difficult to replicate in an online environment. As the technology continues to improve, educators will continue to find creative ways to blend online and offline course offerings.

    The Quality of Education

    In summer 2011, Stanford University offered a free class on artificial intelligence, open to anyone with an interest in learning. Enrollment topped 160,000 students. The concept of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) has provided a unique model of learning that challenges previously held beliefs about education. Does quality education have to come at a cost? Is it possible to teach an effective, high quality course to thousands or even hundreds of thousands of students? The popularity of MOOCs continues, although not without its challenges. For one, the completion rate is low: Only 23,000 students completed that first Stanford course. The difficulty of assessing students in this type of learning environment raises concerns about being able to measure learning. Regardless of the future of the MOOC, it has raised important questions about cost and quality that will undoubtedly have an impact on the future of online education.

    Social Presence

    As the Internet becomes more socially adept, so too will online education. Collaborative activities will become easier and more authentic, and interpersonal relationships will be more spontaneous, simpler to create and sustain. From social networks and virtual worlds, audio and video conferencing, chats and group spaces like wikis and blogs, and robust interactive tools designed for group project building, the Web continues to provide increasingly interactive experiences that appeal to our inherently social natures. As this trend continues, students who crave authentic social interaction will find the prospect of online education more appealing.

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    About the Author

    Marcie Thomas has a Master of Education in instructional technology. She specializes in the use of technology in higher education, including online learning. Thomas has experience with instructional design, Web development, network administration, PC support and technical writing.

    Photo Credits

    • Jupiterimages, Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

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