Online Learning: Everything Old Is New Again

The massive open online course, or MOOC, has been a hot topic over the past year. In fact, according to the New York Times, 2012 was the "Year of the MOOC." But while MOOCs offer an interesting new perspective on online learning, the emergence of this particular model of digital delivery shouldn't suggest that online learning is a new phenomenon. Quite the contrary.

Online learning has been widely used in higher education with great success for nearly two decades, both through fully online and blended courses. At my institution, the University of Central Florida, we began offering online courses in 1996. Since that time, online learning has become a significant element of our institutional strategy and culture. Today, more than one-third of UCF's credit hours are delivered through online learning, and we are experimenting with non-credit MOOCs, which we offer through the Canvas Network.

The reality is that -- at UCF and beyond -- online learning has become an increasing part of the higher education experience for years and has accumulated a convincing body of evidence supporting its effectiveness as a medium for teaching and learning. According to "Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States," published by the Babson Survey Research Group in January 2013, more than 6.7 million students took at least one online course last year, a year-over-year increase of 570,000 students. Today, nearly one-third of all college students take at least one course online -- hardly reflective of a trend in its nascent stages.

Indeed, online learning has been happening under all of our noses for a very long time. Still, there is widespread skepticism about whether courses taught online can match those in the physical classroom. "Changing Course" notes that only about 30 percent of faculty members accept the legitimacy of online learning despite a majority of chief academic officers indicating that it will be critical to their long-term strategies. I understand these reservations, but the data -- and our own 17 years of experience -- underscore the benefits of online learning in achieving access, efficiency and student success outcomes that rival or exceed those of the face-to-face classroom.

Access to higher education has become increasingly important in our interconnected, global, technological society, and online education opens the door wider for many -- for some, it may be the only door. Conventional wisdom formerly held that students' educational journey followed neatly within the prescribed path of completing college within four years of graduating from high school. The need for lifelong learning and advanced degrees has led an increasing number of "non-traditional" students to seek higher educational opportunities, while balancing the demands of family and employment. At many institutions, "non-traditional" students are increasingly becoming the majority, sometimes taking five, six, or more years to complete their degrees.

For these students, and a rising generation of tech-savvy young people, online learning offers obvious benefits. It's more flexible, convenient and, perhaps surprisingly, intuitive for many of today's students because use of the Web has become universal, and well-designed online courses have a comprehensible structure and navigation. At UCF, online offerings have been a driver in helping us extend access to a university education to nearly 60,000 students -- the second-largest student body among public universities in the U.S. During the last two years, for example, online education has comprised between 94 and 100 percent, respectively, of the university's enrollment growth.

Online education also offers operational efficiencies for a higher education system that desperately needs them. It is no secret that higher education is facing major challenges with regard to declining state and federal funding, in spite of steady enrollment growth projected through at least 2021. With fewer dollars available through public channels, colleges and universities will continue to struggle to add and maintain the brick-and-mortar infrastructure required to keep pace with increasing demand for higher education.

Online courses provide a natural opportunity to leverage the Internet to maximize institutional efficiencies. This requires dispelling myths about online learning, including the notion that its primary value is in extending classes to people far from a campus. Online learning can also serve students near or on campus. At UCF, for example, three-fourths of students taking online classes are actually on campus, enrolling in face-to-face, fully online, and blended learning courses as best meets their individual needs and preferences.

The most important question about online education, of course, is "Does it facilitate learning?" By all of our assessment measures, the answer is "yes." At UCF, students in fully online courses succeed at levels equal to or slightly higher than in face-to-face courses, and success in blended courses is consistently higher than any other modality. Students also report high levels of satisfaction with online learning, with blended courses registering the highest excellence ratings, followed by fully online courses and then face-to-face courses. These results are consistent with the findings of a U.S. Department of Education study published in 2009 and other research from the field.

As the MOOC discussion rolls on, it's important to consider the integral place online education has already assumed in our educational culture. At UCF, we see MOOCs as an opportunity to learn and mix this new knowledge with what we have already learned about effective online pedagogy. Our goal, as with others in higher education, is to improve both the traditional online learning experience as well as the MOOC experience while also exploring the international potential of open online learning's global reach -- hence, our initial MOOC offerings through Canvas Network.