Online Education Emerging, with UNC in the Lead

A quiet revolution has been occurring in higher education. Online education was once scorned as a substandard alternative to so-called “real colleges,” and is still downgraded by many interested parties, particularly in the business world. For instance, in a 2006 study by Jonathan Adams of Florida State University and Margaret H. DeFleur of Louisiana State University, 96 percent of companies surveyed said they preferred candidates with traditional, classroom-based degrees over those with online degrees.

But the “real colleges,” particularly large state universities, are now leading an explosive growth of online learning. The participation of many important universities is likely to give Web-based education the respectability and acceptance that has so far proven elusive.

According to the 2006 edition of an annual survey on online education taken by the Sloan Consortium, approximately 3.2 million students took online courses at all levels of higher education. This was 17 percent of the roughly 17 million students in higher education that year. Also, many traditional universities do not designate whether a degree is based on the Web or on classroom instruction. And the fastest growing segment of online learning is blended degrees, where students take courses with both types of instruction. (Seventy-five percent of the same companies surveyed above said they would prefer a traditional degree over a blended degree.) These trends indicate that the differences in the way the two instructional methods are perceived are likely to diminish.

The growth of online learning has been particularly swift at UNC schools, and was a topic of lively discussion at the September meeting of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors. In the 2002-03 school year, UNC students took 53,943 credit hours online. By 2007-08, online credit hours had risen to 289,135, an increase of 463 percent in five years. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty recently contrasted his state university system’s sluggish entrance into distance learning with UNC’s rapid pace—the University of Minnesota offers only eight fully online degree programs with 90 (110 if one counts duplicate programs in the same discipline) offered by UNC.

In July, 2007, North Carolina’s university system launched UNC Online, which enables a prospective student to access, from a single Web site, every online course and program offered by UNC schools. In its first year, the site’s daily traffic, determined by the number of unique visitors, increased from zero to 22,254.

UNC online programs dominate the “best buys” rankings on, a leading information website for online programs. UNC-Pembroke has the top-rated graduate programs in public administration and criminology, East Carolina earned the top spots for undergraduate business education and MBAs, N.C. State’s graduate program in engineering was rated the best, WCU is ranked first in graduate project management and undergraduate criminology, and so on.

The emergence of online education dovetails closely with UNC president Erskine Bowles’ plan to accommodate anticipated growth in the state’s student population without physically expanding “brick-and-mortar” facilities. Besides Web-based instruction’s obvious ability to reduce capital spending, facilities maintenance and operations costs, it permits working students to better integrate their education with the rest of their busy schedules. Furthermore, it enables students who cannot feasibly commute to a UNC campus to earn a degree completely over the Web.

Board member Phillip Dixon said that professors have indicated to him that online learning is a “more intimate form of instruction,” that instructors actually got to know their students’ abilities and level of understanding better through the constant exchange of emails required in an online course than by sporadic participation in traditional classrooms.

Another BOG member, Gladys Robinson, said that, as an older student returning to earn her Ph.D. at N.C. A&T, she was “scared to death” upon learning she had to take an online course. However, she soon realized that the ability to play back lectures placed on the Web by the professor “was a real asset,” as was the ability to access course materials at her convenience.

Although a UNC student can conceivably attend an online course at any other UNC campus, the university system’s vice president for Academic Planning, Alan Mabe, said the system was not “open admissions,” and that a visiting student had to be accepted for that course by the hosting campus. However, Steven Hopper, the director of Online Services for the system’s general administration, said that the transfer process could be handled in just five business days. The first two days are for the student’s home campus to see whether the course is appropriate for the student, the next two are for the school offering the course to accept the student based on transcripts and other criteria already stored in the UNC system, and the final day is for financial aid officials to ascertain eligibility and rectify any discrepancies in tuition and fees between the two schools.

Hopper added that a student could monitor his or her request to take a course as it moved through the approval process online.

ECU (along with the Greensboro campus) was acknowledged at the meeting as the UNC school most committed to online learning. Elmer Poe, the associate vice chancellor for Academic Outreach, described some online learning concepts and the tools available for Web based teaching. He said the most common way to organize classes is with Blackboard software, on which professors can post syllabi, give assignments and offer topics of discussion, and hand out grades. It also enables students to ask questions, post comments for discussion, turn in finished assignments.

Poe said online education is divided into two types: synchronous and asynchronous. Blackboard is primarily for asynchronous events: its activities need not be conducted at any specific time or place, and can be conducted individually.

Synchronous learning, on the other hand, requires that participants act at the same time. This would be true of much of a traditional education, such as attending class or meeting a teacher during specified office hours. Poe said there is software available for online synchronous events, such as Centra E-learning software, which permits professors to conduct virtual classrooms with students attending from their homes. This includes audio-conferencing or even tele-conferencing, with students able to access documents, such as Word or Excel, edited by the professor on a website in real-time to demonstrate a lesson.

Poe added that Centra sessions can be recorded for future use as well. He said another technique is for professors to record their lectures (or parts of their lectures) and place them on video publishing sites such as YouTube.

The future is certain to include further advances in online course delivery. Already attitudes about the quality of online instruction are changing—the Sloan survey said that, in 2003, only 12.3 percent of college chief academic officers rated learning outcomes for online learning as superior or somewhat superior to traditional classroom instruction, while 42.8 percent rated it as inferior. Three years later, 16.9 percent considered online instruction the better method, while those rating it as inferior had diminished to 38.1 percent. UNC has already made a tremendous commitment to online instruction—someday, it might be the universally preferred method.