Online learning provides multiple benefits for both college students and higher ed institutions. It provides convenience and flexibility for working students and does not require costly facility space for universities.

A quick scan of a major college’s course catalog from 10 years ago and today shows that online learning has become more popular, but to get the big picture of online learning in 2016, take a peek at the Online Learning Consortium’s (OLC) new infographic.

Online Learning for the Masses

Online learning courses no longer cater to typically technology-friendly subjects like Information Technology or Computer Science; now nearly every subject is available online. Your trusted correspondent took everything from STAT 250 to Political Research Methods and Theories of Visual Communication online. Plus, the number of students learning online is skyrocketing. According to the OLC’s infographic, 5.8 million college students are enrolled in online learning courses, which is a 263 percent increase over the last 12 years.

This increase makes sense given that 85 percent of Americans enrolled in post-secondary institutions are contemporary, or nontraditional, learners. Meaning, college rosters are no longer full of fresh-faced 18-year-olds, but instead are full of adults returning to college to pursue new careers or military veterans using their GI benefits. Many contemporary students have other responsibilities that make the traditional college experience difficult. From work to caring for children, the flexibility of online learning better suits this new demographic of college students.

“The trend of increasing distance education enrollments in the face of declining overall higher ed enrollments suggests an important shift in the American higher education landscape, with contemporary learners leaning in to online options,” said Kathleen S. Ives, CEO and executive director, OLC,  in an OLC press release earlier this year. “The majority of academic leaders recognize this and understand online learning is critical to their institution’s long-term strategy.”

A Path to Success

Overwhelmingly, students report that using education technology increases their engagement. Seventy-seven percent of students report being more engaged with course materials, 64 percent with professors, and 50 percent say they are more engaged with fellow students. University CIOs agree with the students; 94 percent say digital curricular resources improve learning outcomes for students.

How Does Online Learning Stack Up?

It might be more convenient and students might love it, but if it’s not providing an equal academic experience for students online learning might not be a wise investment for students or colleges. Luckily, online learning–when done correctly–seems to be on par with in-person instruction. On the student end, 90 percent of students think online learning is the same or better than the traditional classroom experience. Academic leaders once again concur with students; 71 percent of academic leaders rate online learning outcomes the same or superior to face-to-face learning.

Online learning is growing in popularity and seems to offer an equal experience to in-person learning. Given all the benefits, including flexibility and affordability, it’s no surprise that students want more digital opportunities. With this new data in mind, administrators would be wise to increase their college’s investment in online learning to grow both their technology infrastructure, as well as course offerings. The average college student is changing and colleges need to adapt to keep up.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.