But, beginning in the late 1990s, younger students—call them the “Instant Education Generation”—unexpectedly began embracing online university learning.
Today’s traditional college students—aged 18 to 21 years old—have grown up with the convenience and instant gratification of the Internet. These students are arriving on campus demanding that the tools of distance higher education—videotaped lectures, virtual labs, computer conferencing, virtual advising—be offered to them as a way of making their educational experience more convenient.
Even the most prestigious academic institutions, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, support websites that offer online archives of classroom lectures and course materials for enrolled students as well as the general public.
A new generation of college kids weaned on the I-Want-It-My-Way lure of the Internet are demanding the rapid development of a new (and much more convenient) higher education system.
The Future of All Higher Education is… Online
“Hybrid elearning” and “blended elearning” have become catchphrases for the Instant Education Generation. So what do they mean?
At many residential campuses, college courses are being taught both face-to-face and online simultaneously. Online university learning is being “blended” with residential learning to achieve the best of all educational worlds: 365-24-7 access.
The line between “residential education” and “distance education” is blurring so rapidly that it is possible for students to be learning simultaneously from a chalkboard lecture and a YouTube learning lab.
According to Richard Voos, a professor at Babson College who specializes in researching educational technology trends: “Blended learning—a combination of face-to-face and online media, with ‘seat time’ significantly reduced—is an increasing proportion of instruction in U.S. higher education. Supplementing wholly face-to-face courses and wholly online asynchronous courses with technology is nearly ubiquitous.”
Though pioneered to serve students with geographic access issues—rural, remote and mobile learners—distance higher education is rapidly being adopted by students who have another access issue: no time to commute to a campus and/or little willingness to attend class on a fixed—and often inconvenient—time schedule.
The Campus — Increasingly Optional
According to the Primary Research Group’s “2007-08 Survey of Distance Learning Programs in Higher Education,” more than 57 percent of distance learners live within 75 miles of the college that offers them the online distance courses.
These students could drive to a campus, if they wanted; increasingly, they are choosing not to be inconvenienced by the rigid structure of a traditional campus experience.
Colleges themselves are beginning to realize the importance of more flexible access to students. When the Sloan Foundation asked college administrators why they are offering more courses online, the majority cited “increased student access” as the number one reason for growing their distance learning divisions.
At the University of Nevada, where distance learning enrollments soared from a few hundred to more than 24,000 between 1998 and 2007, Judith Osterman, director of distance education, attributes the explosion of online university learning to the convenience factor.
Says Osterman: "It's a 24-hour town [Reno, Nevada], many students work [and] have family responsibilities. With distance education, there are no issues with family, travel [or] parking. The shift has been towards options … In reality, distance education is all about people's needs."
Like every institution, universities must evolve to meet the needs of successive generations. Today’s "college kids" are older, more mobile and more time-crazed than any generation that has preceded them.
It would be unrealistic to expect them to demand anything less than an education system that is available to them anytime and anywhere they need to learn.