A market characterized by consistent double-digit growth


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Nearly a third of all full-time and parttime students at nonprofit and for-profit colleges and universities in America took one or more online courses last year, according to the Sloan Consortium, which has documented the rising enrollments in such courses since 2002. Other recent surveys suggest the growth in online education will only continue to be strong. Online learning has slowly but steadily re-emerged from the ashes of the over-hyped capabilities and unrealistic expectations of the dot.com era a decade ago.

Indeed, trustees and campus officials who remember the excitement of that previous era—specifically the hopes for the Internet and the promises of e-learning—may experience a strong sense of déjà vu while sitting through institutional strategy briefings that explore and explain opportunities for online courses and programs meant to extend the reach of an institution. The ecosystem that encompasses online-learning courses, programs, providers, and services now has many of the same characteristics that were identified in Bank of America’s 1999 report, “The eBang Theory,” by Howard Block, which was credited with legitimizing e-learning:

• A market characterized by consistent double-digit growth;

• Pundits offering bold statements about the enabling technologies that will open new opportunities for previously unserved populations of learners; and

• Advocates reminding us that online education offers a way to reach new learners, enter new markets, and generate new revenues.

Yet higher education has learned from the mistakes it made in the past. The dot.com-era confidence in the brave new world of e-learning blinded people to the investment required to master an emerging, immature market in a time of great technological volatility. Despite similar “gold rush” sensibilities about online learning and the enticing prospects for reaching new student populations and generating new revenue, today’s campus conversations seem to reflect a new sense of purpose and pragmatism about the challenges as well as the opportunities of online education.

The previous experience of both institutional and dot.com (“dot.edu”) shortfalls and disappointments has fostered a new understanding that launching and supporting effective online courses and programs involves more than simply migrating old course syllabi to the Internet. Successful, quality online education requires a major investment of resources to build the infrastructure—including faculty training, instructional services and personnel, and student services—to support those courses and programs.

Further, the catalyst for action is not the sense, as in the past, of “We can/ should do this because we can—and before our competitors beat us to it.” Rather, savvy board members and other campus leaders are first asking “Why?” and then asking thoughtful questions about who and how: “Who on campus will be responsible for this?” and “How will the institution and individual programs move forward?” They understand the value of developing both wisdom and pragmatism, and they are working to be well-versed about the opportunities, trends, and issues concerning online education.

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