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Outside the classroom

Virginia institutions see explosion in online learning

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Lynchburg’s Liberty University started its distance education program way back in 1985 … allowing people to earn degrees via college courses on videotape. “I can remember seeing marketing brochures where we used to sell low-cost VCRs to help students,” says Chris Johnson, Liberty’s senior vice president for enrollment management.

Today, Liberty and many other educational institutions in Virginia are offering an ever-widening variety of courses and degrees online. Over the last six years, online education has exploded. In 2006, Liberty had 12,670 online-only students; today more than 82,200 students are enrolled in Liberty’s online university.

At Liberty, students can earn 130 online-only undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees in 50 academic programs. Liberty’s online MBA degree is a popular option. Online education allows working parents to complete their degrees without “uprooting their lives,” Johnson says. “Our average age student is 35 years old. … They have a mortgage, they have a job, they’re involved in their local church, they’re involved in their local community.” Liberty also has a significant outreach program aimed at military service members and their families.

Moving families or quitting a job to return to school at a bricks-and-mortar university is out of the question for many working people. So online classes usually are a more cost-effective option. Liberty’s online classes range from $325 per credit hour for an undergrad class to $495 per credit hour for a doctoral class. Comparatively, full-time residential undergraduate students at Liberty pay more than $9,200 per semester, but a full-time, online-only undergrad student might pay less than $4,000.

Those are but a couple of the factors driving the popularity and explosive growth of online education. Liberty University’s online enrollment of 82,000 students is nearly six times as large as the 12,750 students who attend the nonprofit, private evangelical university’s campus in Lynchburg. That makes Liberty the seventh-largest university in the United States. (The No. 1-ranked school, for-profit University of Phoenix, owes the majority of its 380,000-strong enrollment to online students as well.) With those numbers, it’s no mystery why online offerings are expanding at Virginia institutions.

In fact, online education was reportedly a key factor in the much-publicized, controversial decision by the University of Virginia’s board of visitors to oust U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan, who was later reinstated. Emails released by the university revealed that board members and advisers were concerned that U.Va. was not keeping pace with other major universities in this arena. U.Va. alum Jeffrey Walker, the retired CEO of CCMP Capital — a $12 billion New York-based private equity investment firm — wrote in one email, “How are we thinking about [online education] at U.Va.? How might it lower our costs, improve productivity and link us to a group of students we couldn’t afford to serve … maybe more second-career grads?”  Last month, the university began a new partnership with Coursera, a California company that specializes in offering online courses. Initially, U.Va. will offer five, non-credit courses online, and it will continue to explore other options.

Believe it or not, Liberty University isn’t the largest online educator in Virginia. That distinction belongs to Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., an educational technology firm that provides a full-time, online curriculum to more than 100,000 public school students across the U.S. and individual classes to more than 200,000 other children.

Founded in 2000, the for-profit firm has grown from a one-employee operation to a worldwide enterprise with $700 million in annual revenues and 3,000 full-time and part-time workers. The firm is growing at a rate of about 30 percent per year. “The ability to get educated anytime, anywhere, anyplace, that flexibility is very powerful,” says K12 founder and CEO Ron Packard. 

K12 also offers a cost-effective way for budget-strapped public school systems to beef up their curriculums. Per child, virtual education costs come in at about 60 percent of the cost of bricks-and-mortar schooling, Packard says. Plus, school systems can utilize K12’s course catalog to offer advanced placement courses or specialized courses to small groups of high-performing students. “Every school district in the country can offer Chinese now if they want to,” Packard says. “We can fill in their course catalog.”

And while some technophobes may have concerns over the quality of online education, Packard notes that K12’s course curriculum and instructors meet the education regulations of the 35 states it operates in across the country. (Similarly, Liberty and other universities’ online offerings must meet higher education accreditation standards.)
K12 is unique in that it serves younger students. Most online education efforts in Virginia are aimed at busy working adults. One competitor to Liberty University’s online education offerings on the national level is Herndon-based Strayer University. The for-profit school specializes in offering undergraduate and graduate business degrees at its nearly 100 campuses across the East Coast and Midwest.

About half of Strayer University’s 50,000-student population is made up of online students, though there is significant overlap between online students and on-campus students, says Strayer’s provost, Randi Reich Cosentino.

Strayer started offering real-time, or synchronous, online courses with its professors in 1997. As its online enrollment has grown, Cosentino says, the school moved away from online courses that met at specific class times in favor of asynchronous courses, which busy adults can take as their schedules allow. Other online educators across the nation have followed this trend.

Typical of other online education institutions, Strayer’s online courses use a variety of technologies from streaming video to Flash presentations accompanied by recorded lectures by professors. Students attending real-time lectures online may participate by webcam or microphone. Pressing an on-screen button allows students to raise their hands virtually, signaling they have a question for the instructor.

Strayer offers a variety of business and professional degrees —  from accounting to information technology and criminal justice —  both online and through its campuses. Classes have the exact same flat-fee structure online as with Strayer’s brick-and-mortar campuses: $1,700 for undergraduate courses; $2,200 for graduate courses. A new “eMBA” program, though, offered via its Jack Welch Management Institute, is offered only online. The 12-session degree program, offered at $2,500 per class, is based on the management philosophies of the legendary former General Electric CEO. Participants hear recorded speeches from Welch during classes and have the opportunity to participate in occasional live online Q&A sessions with Welch.

Public universities such as Virginia Tech also are increasing online offerings. Virginia Tech began offering distance learning in the 1980s via satellite classes on closed-circuit TV. As early as 1995 some early adopter professors experimented with online classes. By 1999 the university launched its online program, the Virginia Tech Institute for Distance and Distributed Learning.

Today, Tech enrolls about 7,600 students online, compared with the roughly 28,000 students at its sprawling Blacksburg campus. Like Liberty and Strayer, Tech offers online-only graduate degrees to working adults. (The most popular master’s degrees are information technology and instructional technology, says Jenise Jacques, the institute’s communications coordinator, though newer online offerings such as aerospace and marine engineering degrees are building enrollment among U.S. military troops serving overseas).

However, Tech’s undergraduate online offerings are largely restricted to its current student body, as a way for students to take high-demand courses or to be able to stay on track to graduate in four years if they’re studying abroad for a semester or interning. “Our summer online session is very popular,” Jacques says, “because students can be home working, doing internships, and they can still take courses and get credit.” 

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