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E-learning ventures proving to be a draw for students

Monroe Community College has a new foothold in Iraq.

The college’s growing slate of online courses has pulled in new students from across the state and even across the globe, earning recognition for a number of courses, including the only online math degree offered in the SUNY system.

For MCC, the online courses have enabled a wider student population to enroll in classes.

“We have people from across the world taking those, so when we have students who have gotten deployed to Iraq they are able to stick with their courses,” says Lawrence Dugan, director of e-learning and instructional technologies at MCC. “We have also gotten students from places like Hong Kong and Singapore as well.”

MCC is one of a number of local institutions that have increased online course offerings in recent years and see growing popularity in core college curricula like English and mathematics as well as in professional programs.

Leaders predict there is still much more room for growth within online courses, increasing both the number of programs offered and enrollment.

Most popular courses
MCC offered 163 online and 24 hybrid courses in the 2014-15 academic year, and Dugan says that “general ed” offerings are the most popular.

The largest enrollments come in statistics, algebra, college composition and introductory courses for sociology and business, college officials say. Affordability and easy access to courses are major factors in the popularity, Dugan says.

“We see a lot of students from other institutions taking those general education courses,” he notes. “They come from four-year schools to take those courses, and it’s pushed our online enrollment up by about 12 percent. It’s been trending upward because of the increased offerings and degree programs, and we’re seeing more and more students from outside of Monroe County and really across the state.”

At St. John Fisher College, administrators have found success with a series of mostly liberal-arts-based online courses offered in the summer for students looking to gain additional course work toward degree completion.

“These are students who would typically do summer work at institutions closer to home while they’re away from college for the summer, so we decided to create an online inventory of courses to help meet their requirements through the college here rather than at a community college in their hometown,” says Jose Perales, interim vice president of enrollment management at St. John Fisher.

The program has grown steadily since first being offered in the summer of 2013, Perales says, with increases both in the selection of courses offered and in students enrolled.

“It’s been clear that there’s a real appetite for students for these offerings, and we’ve been working at building our online offerings around the times when there’s the most interest, like in the summer,” he says.

There is also demand beyond core educational courses, Perales notes.

In the fall of 2012 the college converted its bachelor of science in nursing program from a hybrid online and in-class program to one that is now fully online. Registered nurses educated at the associate degree level can now complete a bachelor’s degree through the program, which has been steadily growing in popularity, Perales says.

At Nazareth College, the most popular online courses are within the school of management and the master of social work programs. But university officials stressed that these programs are not entirely online, and surveys of students found that they still value the in-class components.

Rochester Institute of Technology also has a slate of online courses, from the college of applied science and technology to the college of engineering. In total, RIT has 28 current programs and eight pending programs, with 534 online courses scheduled for this year.

Some of the university’s unique offerings are among the most popular, including an environmental sustainability health and safety program.

The University of Rochester has also found success with online programs in professional curricula, including online courses in its school of nursing and Warner School of Education and Human Development.

“For more traditional models of online learning, our professional schools have the most activity,” says Eric Fredericksen, the university’s associate vice president of online learning and associate professor in educational leadership. “The school of nursing has significant enrollments in hybrid and complete online courses.”

Other online ventures at UR include an e-theory course at the Eastman School of Music that prepares music school and conservatory freshmen for theory placement exams. The Simon Business School has an executive MBA program that combines online learning with in-class time, using online video conferencing and other instructional formats to complement biweekly classes.

The university also offers several non-credit massive open online courses—known as MOOCs—on Coursera, a consortium of more than 100 institutions.

These courses have been a relatively new phenomenon at UR. The Warner School of Education did not have any online courses before summer 2013, Fredericksen says, but since then has grown to include more than 60 hybrid online or complete online courses.

Room for growth
The growth in local online enrollments reflects a national trend, as the number of students taking at least one online course has been ticking up continually over the last decade.

The national rate of growth has slowed somewhat overall in the past two years, but this is largely due to sharper drops in students enrolled at for-profit colleges, states the 2014 Survey of Online Learning, a study conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and co-sponsored by the Online Learning Consortium and released in February.

The study’s findings show that online learning has now shifted to become a “mainstream form of delivery for the majority of higher education institutions,” says Todd Hitchcock, senior vice president of Pearson Online Learning Services.

The survey cites federal data showing 5.3 million students now taking one or more distance education courses—an increase of nearly 190,000. Private and public non-profit institutions led the way.

“The study’s findings point to a competitive marketplace, in which traditional institutions are gaining ground on the for-profits in online and distance education,” says study co-author Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group. “While the rapid pace of online learning growth has moderated, it still accounts for nearly three-quarters of all U.S. higher education’s enrollment increases last year.”

Local institutions see opportunity for further development of online curricula as well.

At St. John Fisher, there is still more room for growth within the summer slate of courses offered and beyond, Perales says.

“We see an increasing demand for it, and there’s a real practical application because this online course work really prepares them for a world in which there’s more interaction between the online world and the practical,” he says.

St. John Fisher has implemented a careful strategy toward online expansion, Perales says, and could still see increases in both course offerings and enrollment.

“I think you would find that other institutions may have been more aggressively pursuing online courses while ours has been more specific to pockets of demand,” he says. “I think we’ve scratched the surface in that regard but haven’t neared our total potential. There is a lot of room to grow in this online world.”

The demographic of students seeking online courses has widened as well, Dugan says. A few years ago the majority of those enrolled online at MCC were older students between the ages of 25 and 27 who often had full-time employment and needed the flexibility that online courses offer, he says.

That average age has come down to between 22 and 25 as younger students become more comfortable with the concept of online courses, Dugan adds.

“There are more and more online components being offered at the high school level, and it’s getting so the students are more used to it,” he says. “So when they get out and are ready for college, they’re used to the idea and you’re seeing more and more enrolling in online programs.”

3/25/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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