Diversity at College Level Bolstered by Online Offerings

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Each year online learning initiatives become less of a fringe movement and more of an incorporated, and accepted, form of education. More than 6.7 million people took at least one online class in the fall of 2011 and 32 percent of college students now take at least one online course during their matriculation. It is even becoming commonplace for high schools to require all students to take an online class before graduation as a way to prep them for the “real world” of secondary education.

The flexibility and convenience of online learning is well known but what is not as readily talked about is the way distance education promotes diversity of the college population. With less red tape than the traditional college format, online students are able to earn credits while still working full time, maintaining families and dealing with illnesses. Whether students take just one course remotely, or obtain an entire degree, they are able to take on the demands of college life more readily—leading to student population with more variety.

The Babson Survey Research Group recently revealed that while online college student enrollment is on the rise, traditional colleges and universities saw their first drop in enrollment in the ten years the survey has been conducted. This drop is small—less than a tenth of 1 percent—but its significance is big. A trend toward the educational equality of online curriculum is being realized by students, institutions and employers across the board. The benefits of a college education through quality online initiatives are now becoming more accessible to students that simply cannot commit to the constraints of a traditional campus setting.

A controversial experiment that could lead the way to even more college credit accessibility is MOOCs, or massive open online courses. As the name implies, these classes are offered to the general public at a low cost, or no cost, in the hopes of earning their students college credit. California-based online course provider Coursera recently had five of its offerings evaluated by the American Council on Education for college credit validity. Four of the courses were recommended for college credit by ACE, and one was endorsed for vocational credit, providing student work verification through a strict proctoring process.

These credits are not earned through community colleges or online-institutions; Duke University, the University of California at Irvine and the University of Pennsylvania are on Coursera’s list of places the courses will earn credit for students that pay a nominal fee. Students that obtain these credits through Coursera can approach any higher education institution and seek their inclusion in a degree program, but the final discretion is up to the particular school.

MOCCs are certainly in an infancy stage and do not provide a “sure thing” yet for students that participate. In the Babson survey mentioned earlier, only 2.6 percent of schools offer a MOOC, but an additional 9.4 percent are building a MOCC plan. The potential for further diversity and equality in education through MOCCs is certainly on the horizon. This form of online learning means that students do not have to commit to an entire course of study to obtain credits or even commit to a particular institution upfront.

MOOCs will further eliminate the socio-economic barriers that keep promising students from seeking out college credits. Students are given more flexibility in scheduling at an affordable price. Though the MOOC trend has its dissenters, I believe it will win over even the most skeptical and increase accessibility for all people that seek higher education. After all, at one time the mention of online courses raised a few eyebrows in the educational community and look how far the concept has come. Further development of online initiatives, specifically in the area of MOOCs, represents the next big step for enriching the diversity of the college student population in America.

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