Higher tuition, budget cuts, course shortages and parking problems are merely the beginning of a long list. Daunting challenges face many Idaho students who want to attend traditional colleges and universities. In October 2016, the State Board of Education reported that the percentage of Idaho students continuing their education after high school dropped for the second year in a row, dipping below 50 percent.
How can we reverse this trend? Connie Malamed of the eLearning Coach website reminds us that “one of the most important areas we can develop as professionals is competence in accessing and sharing knowledge.” Nationally, 3 million students are enrolled in fully online degree programs and 6 million (one in four) take at least one online course, according to Babson Survey Research Group. Online education has become one of the most popular alternatives. In our state, it opens doors to thousands of Idahoans who live and work in rural areas as well as others who face social and economic hurdles.
Significant skepticism still runs through some academic circles regarding measurable learning outcomes in online courses. However, I’ve been fortunate to benefit from years of consultations, training and faculty learning communities. These experiences have demonstrated to me that when best practices are implemented, online learning can be just as effective as face-to-face education.
“For example, what do you do if your current job suddenly requires a college degree?” wrote Boise State President Bob Kustra in a recent letter to the community. “This happened for thousands of nurses across the region ... Demands of work and family left many facing impossible scheduling challenges, and those working in remote areas couldn’t travel the distance. … By May of 2017, more than 1,000 registered nurses from all over the country will have completed their bachelor’s degree through Boise State’s RN-BS online program.”
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I have been able to greatly enhance my online and hybrid courses with my faculty and staff cohorts from BSU’s eCampus as well as our Instructional Design and Educational Assessment (IDEA Shop). The eCampus Center is dedicated to expanding the programs and offerings beyond traditional borders to meet the academic needs of students anytime, anywhere. In the IDEA Shop, high-tech tools, research-based practices, innovation and experimentation all combine to make learning happen.
With such tools in hand, online programs can be a more affordable option than traditional course offerings. For example, there are no commuting costs. In 2012, the State Board of Education launched a goal to have 60 percent of Idahoans ages 25 to 34 earn a post-secondary degree or certificate by the year 2020. The Complete College Idaho initiative is significantly enabled by online offerings. No matter what students wish to study, from nursing to neuroscience, they can find online the courses or degree programs they need. In our Gem State, students can also earn every academic degree online, from a career certificate all the way to a doctorate.
Online learning has the potential to revolutionize higher education. We must continue to make such access a priority for the future of our state and its citizens.
Michael Strickland teaches literacy education at Boise State University.