Distance Learning Is Getting Closer to Home

distance learnerAccording to the report from Learning House released in May, two-thirds of online undergrads were taking online classes less than 50 miles from a campus of the school where they enrolled.

This probably surprises many educators. In the early days of online learning, one of the big attractions of online courses was that it gave access to students at a distance from institutions. We called it distance learning back in the day for just that reason. At my university, we often talked about those students we had in a course who were across the country or aboard a Navy ship on the other side of the world.

That changed over the years and the trend became to offer our own commuter and residents students online courses. The convenience wasn't about the distance from campus but about the convenience of anytime learning. A generation used to time-shifting their viewing habits on TV by VHS tapes and later DVRs was primed for doing the same for education. Video-on-demand (VOD) and education-on-demand (EOD?).

In the report, they found that 45% of the students studied online within 25 miles of campus - which is not a terrible commute. 78% of the online students were enrolled at a school with a campus within 100 miles. The old distant student that lived more than 250 miles from their campus accounted for only 8% of the respondents.

Learning House is a company that partners with schools to market and manage online programs, so analytics on why students select what they select is important to their business model. Obviously, local media is more important to marketing online programs than national ads.

The reasons respondents gave for selecting an online program are not surprising: things related to ease and pace of study, such as year-round courses, frequent start dates, self-paced courses and accelerated courses. Of course, tuition and fees is always a factor.

The surprises in the report come more from the results around distance. Besides the reasons given above, why would students take online courses from a school that offered them face-to-face nearby? The survey found that 76% visit their campus at least once a year, and 45% do so three or more times per year. Why? The top reason was to meet face-to-face with a teacher (40%) but also to use a library or lab or meet with a study group. Not exactly a hybrid course, but touching upon some of those features. Students seem to want those options along with the online features.

The "anywhere, anytime" learning model still works, but the appeal of the big name university across the country may not be as appealing as we once believed. This is also something we see with MOOCs. The appeal of free courses from major universities online is still with us, but many students still feel negatively "distanced" from the instructor and their fellow students with any online learning experience. But in a course with 20 other students is not as distanced as one with 20,000 students.




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