As more students seek flexible alternatives to traditional, on-campus courses, online education continues to evolve.
Among other trends, 2017 saw the proliferation of smaller credentials beyond online degrees, rising online course enrollment at nonprofit universities and the use of big data to track student performance.
And there's plenty more in store for 2018, experts say. Here are four trends in online higher education that prospective students should watch this year.
1. Continued overall enrollment growth: The number of U.S. students who enrolled in at least one online course rose by 5.6 percent between fall 2015 and fall 2016 – a faster rate than in the previous three years, according to a 2018 report published by the Babson Survey Research Group.
[Learn why more students are enrolling in online classes.]
Jeff Seaman, co-director of Babson and a co-author of the study, expects this trend to persist in 2018, likely with another single-digit percentage increase to mark the 15th consecutive year of enrollment growth. Seaman also says the number of students who only take on-campus courses will probably keep dropping, in part because more students are combining online and in-person learning.
Enrollment will likely keep rising at nonprofit institutions, Seaman says, but the future isn't as clear for for-profits. These online schools have faced dropping enrollment and criticism in recent years for questionable recruitment practices and low graduation rates, among other things.
"Certainly it's a challenging time, but I know there's a lot of innovation going on within the for-profit sector – so one thing to track is is it enough to kind of bend the curve?" says Daniel Goldsmith, chief of staff for the president at Pearson North America, an education services company.
2. Use of more modern technologies in courses: Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, says online degree programs in 2018 will increase their use of modern technologies to enhance their curriculums.
One example is virtual reality, which can allow students across disciplines to learn in simulated environments. Aldridge also says there will be a greater emphasis on using remote technologies, such as videoconferencing and robotic telepresence, to allow for more face-to-face interaction among students and instructors who are spread across the country.
"There are now companies designing these new technologies in ways that we've never seen before," says Aldridge. "And really forward-thinking universities are purchasing these subscriptions."
Gamification – or learning presented in a game format – is also expected to rise in popularity in online higher education, experts note. As predicted last year, experts say the use of artificial intelligence will likely proliferate at online degree programs too. Some online classes, Aldridge points out, even have chat bots that essentially serve as teaching assistants.
3. More health-related online degrees and courses: Technologies such as virtual reality and simulations may contribute to more online degree offerings in health-related fields, experts say, since online programs can now virtually teach students how to interact with patients. Even medical schools are increasingly incorporating online education into their classes.
"We can model out implications on a health care population with various types of interventions," says Aldridge. "We can use some of the new geological software that's available that's been invented that helps us do mapping in different ways."
2U, a company that partners with colleges and universities to create online graduate programs, recently launched a physician assistant online master's with the Ivy League Yale University, for example. The company has also established a partnership with the University of Southern California to create a partially online Doctor of Physical Therapy program, which will be available this year.
4. A greater push to teach specific job skills: Many students complete degrees online because they plan to either accelerate or switch careers but still want to keep working full time, experts say.
"Industries are looking for institutions that not just have students that come out with knowledge but the ability to have applied that knowledge in multiple ways," says Aldridge. "It's much deeper knowledge than just reading, writing an exam, writing a paper."
Online degree programs increasingly focus on teaching job-applicable skills, says Aldridge – particularly in data analytics, tech and digital media.
Goldsmith, from Pearson, also notes that in 2018 employers will continue to partner with universities and companies to enroll workers in online programs, sometimes at discounted costs. He says this year there will be an increased focus among employers on how to use tuition assistance to recruit and retain employees.
Google, for example, announced this week that it's rolling out a new IT Support Professional Certificate exclusively through Coursera, an online learning company. After eight to 12 months of online coursework, students can share their information with Google and other companies – such as Bank of America, Sprint and PNC Bank – to potentially get in-demand tech jobs.
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