Barriers are falling that once separated virtual learning from the traditional educational experience centered on face-toface interaction in classrooms and lecture halls. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of college presidents say that a majority of their students have taken at least one course online. In the same study, 50 percent of those college presidents say that 10 years from now, a majority of students at their institutions will take some classes online. This future is taking shape at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which has set a goal that online courses represent 25 percent of the credits earned from its 54 institutions by 2015.
It’s not just that college students are beginning to mix virtual courses into their schedules. The trend toward using digital content and online elements to enhance traditional courses in all fields is also strengthening. An increasing number of institutions now offer a blend of virtual and in-person classroom learning, with some components available in person in the classroom and other pieces available online.
The aim is to combine the best aspects of each approach. Ideally, classroom time is devoted to advanced interactive experiences with the instructor and other students, while the virtual portion of the class adds the flexibility and independence of self-paced learning. At the University of Central Florida in Orlando, for example, more than half the 56,000 students already take at least one of the university’s 2,500 online or blended courses.
Colleges and universities are also incorporating virtual learning into their continuity of operations (COOP) planning. Institutions in the nation’s snowbelt have found that web conferencing can reach students even when they or their instructors can’t reach campus.
Virtual learning gives students far more control over their own education. The scheduling flexibility lets them learn when it’s convenient for them and at their own pace. Students looking to recover credits lost through a transfer from another college or previous academic difficulties can use online courses to fill those gaps in a way that fits their schedules. These are significant considerations for students of all ages, but are especially important to working adults who have to juggle college, home and professional lives.
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