Last month I attended my first Sloan-C conference in Orlando. I received the incredible honor of receiving the Sloan-C 2007 Excellence in Online Teaching Award. This award means a great deal to me, as the awards selection committee is made up of higher education professionals who have a demonstrated commitment to quality online education. Perhaps most exciting to me is the fact that the award criteria was “innovation and creativity.” My classes are labors of love and the review process for this award was the first time I’ve had anyone other than my students see my class. Regardless, the outcome was a surprise and I’m still sleeping with my award under my pillow.
The conference itself was stimulating and inspiring and I am grateful that Sierra supported my travel to Orlando. There were 1,200 people in attendance and the sessions were peppered with dazzling and tempting topics like Second Life, teaching with Web 2.0 technologies, integrating Quality Matters into a faculty development program, and, everyone’s favorite, how to avoid faculty burnout. I had a few realizations during the conference that I’ve been chewing on for a few weeks now.
First, in October Sloan-C published its annual national survey on online learning in higher education, Online Nation. I attended a session that took a close look at the results. The survey revealed that there were 3.48 million higher education students (including Associates, Bachelors and Graduate students) that enrolled in at least one online class in 2006. To put this in context, that means 1 in 5 higher ed students. To break this down a little further, more than half of these students were enrolled at community colleges. Gulp. Yes, folks…community colleges are in the driver’s seat when it comes to riding the wave of online learning. However, what occurred to me at the conference was that most sessions (according to my observations) were lead by university faculty or administration.
Community colleges have a tremendous task. Within the state of California, distance education has grown rapidly. In fact, according to the CCC Distance Education Report from July 2007, over the past five years it has increased roughly 50% while traditional face-to-face enrollments have decreased 19.2%. I frequently hear mention of the fact that enrollments at CCCs have remained flat over the past five years but a closer analysis of the situation reveals a significant shift in student demand.
None of this is news really. These figures aren’t surprising when considered in the context of our nation’s social shifts over the past decade with the permeation of the internet into the daily lives of Americans. What is surprising and, in my opinion, concerning is the lack of strategy community colleges are demonstrating in this area. Online learning offers students greater access to education and more flexible options for learning. We have a committment to our students to ensure this education is quality education. Online instruction needs to be woven into every discussion about the future, whether it’s a discussion about facilities, technological infrastructure, faculty development, curriculum planning or student services — it simply has to be part of every dialogue we have.