Full-time work and a family prevented Thom Hecker from going back to college. But when the 41-year-old Spokane resident found out he could obtain a business management degree by taking classes online, he knew he could make it work.
“Once I was introduced to the program, it seemed like the right thing to do,” said Hecker, who obtained his degree through the University of Phoenix.
More than 4.6 million students nationwide were enrolled in online courses in fall 2008, according to a report out this year by the Babson Survey Research Group and the Sloan Consortium. That was a 17 percent increase over fall 2007, while overall higher education enrollment rose just 1.2 percent during the same time.
Hecker said he liked the online dynamic. “You end up in a virtual classroom of six to 24 people, you are split into learning teams, and you end up doing a lot of interacting with those learning teams. Toward the end of my degree, I was taking classes with people who were from all over the country. Some worked at big companies such as GM or Smucker’s, others worked for tiny companies, and then others had two or three jobs.”
According to the Babson-Sloan report, more than 1 in 4 students are enrolled in at least one course online, and most higher education institutions believe that increasing online classes and degrees is critical for their long-term success.
“For some reason, Washington universities have been slow to start online programs,” said Rodolfo Arévalo, president of Eastern Washington University. “Obviously, we are trying to grow it.”
EWU’s online offerings include a bachelor’s degree in children’s studies, a master’s in dental hygiene, a post-degree certification program in school psychology and minors in Africana studies and communications.
Washington State University has offered online degrees since 1993. It now has seven bachelor’s degrees, three master’s degrees and several professional certificates available through the Web. Online enrollment has grown about 10 percent a year, said Debbie O’Donnell, WSU director of marketing and recruiting. And starting this fall, freshmen will be accepted in WSU’s online programs, O’Donnell said. Online education “is obviously the educational technology of the future, but it’s not for everyone and it’s not for every content area,” said Gary Livingston, chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane. “We have to make sure we are maintaining the quality of the content.”
Spokane Community College and Spokane Falls Community College are among 11 community colleges in Washington that offer online associate’s degrees or certification programs. Other Washington institutions that offer online degrees include Central Washington University, The Evergreen State College, Gonzaga University, Whitworth University and University of Washington.
University of Phoenix is one of the pioneers of online education. Its program began in 1989, and as of May, nearly 500,000 were enrolled in courses, a university spokeswoman said.
For Hecker, flexibility was the key. “The majority of the time I did my classes after dinnertime,” Hecker said. “There were times when I would come home, get a quick bite, then go to a coffee shop and start plugging away at some type of project.”
About eight in 10 online students are working on a bachelor’s degree, the Babson-Sloan study says.
Hecker continued working at Accra-Fab, a sheet metal manufacturer in Liberty Lake, while he was getting his bachelor’s degree. He started there as a regular production employee, but as he progressed in his education he was promoted, eventually becoming a supervisor for one of the largest areas in the company.
“It was very rewarding to be able to apply what you were learning immediately to the workplace,” he said.
But not everyone who gets an online education sees the payoff so quickly. Many employers are skeptical of online degrees. They associate such programs with a lack of rigor and social interaction, increased potential for academic dishonesty, and a lack of commitment on the part of the student, according to a Cleveland State University study. But some are more willing to consider hiring a person with an online degree if a graduate was required to be more self-directed and disciplined, had hands-on work experiences, and the degree was from a notable institution.
According to education search site eLearners.com, there are about 200 accredited U.S. online colleges and universities and about 700 non-accredited degree programs.