New advances in communication and information technology have promulgated a new chapter in the history of colleges and universities. This new chapter begins with the ability of institutions of higher learning to provide greater access to academic advancement through online classes. Although the use of the Internet for the purpose of online education is still in its infancy, it seems that the impact of the movement has had dramatic effects on students, universities and the overall process of learning. Online classes or virtual universities offer students the ability to participate in distance leaning without the stringent time constrains of traditional classroom learning. For many colleges and universities across the United States, online education provides a means of decreasing costs and increasing revenues: Senior administrators and board members have viewed distance education as a way to accommodate projected increases in student enrollment without building more parking lots, dormitories, and classrooms.
Because the concept of online education is still such a relatively new idea, there have been a number of mixed reviews about its potential. Proponents maintain that the benefits for educators, students and institutions are so overwhelming that online education will continue to dominate post-secondary education well into the future, as mentioned by Horgan:
Universities are feeling the pressure to control costs, improve quality, focus directly on customer needs, and respond to competitive pressures. Information technology has the potential to solve many of these problems. It can change the roles of students and faculty and facilitate more learner-centered, personalized education, save money through improved business processes and distance education, and expand the scope and content of the curriculum.
Utilizing the Internet for educational purposes is not simply a mechanism for distributing information; rather Web-based education is a system by which communication, student assessment and class management all occur simultaneously. In short, Web-based education has the potential to help more students receive a college education. When it comes to online education, students will invariably experience a higher degree of student interaction than available in the traditional classroom. For students who are less apt to speak up in the classroom, the Internet provides a useful tool to facilitate communication.
Over the past several years, online higher education has grown from a fringe phenomenon to capture a small but significant segment of the higher education market. Universities such as Walden and Capella have been accredited and now award everything from Bachelor degrees through doctoral degrees, and the University of Phoenix has combined real and virtual classes to become the largest university on the planet, with over 120,000 students enrolled worldwide. Online education is providing competition to the traditional education system. Traditional universities have had to innovate and incorporate distance and virtual education in their programs in order to compete with these new-found upstarts. How much impact has the emergence of online universities had on the traditional higher education system in the United States?
Overall it seems that today's post-secondary institutions are in transition. Much of the change that is taking place is due, unfortunately, to the financial constraints of traditional education. Further the necessity to provide services to non-traditional students seeking advanced degrees is putting enormous pressure on colleges and universities to meet the demands of their respective communities: "Although colleges continue to attract 62 percent of high school graduates onto their campuses immediately following graduation, larger number of so-called nontraditional students, as defined by age and life situation, are seeking degrees". Although it is difficult to ascertain what the future of online education will bring the reality is that it is a rapidly growing part of post-secondary education. While it is difficult to image that all universities and colleges will revert to virtual universities, one cannot completely discount this possibility. For now, only time will tell.
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