Online Learning – A Maturing Industry


By Dr. Roxanne Gonzales

Susan is a 52-year-old mother of two who wants to pursue a graduate degree in Education.  Terry is in the Army and travels extensively, access to a degree no matter where he is deployed is critical. Finding a college that can provide someone in the army an online education is a top priority for him.

Don, a paramedic, must take continuing education every year to maintain his license. Ann is on her university’s swim and dive team and finds it difficult to schedule her classes around her practices and meets.

Jessie is a home-schooled high schooler but would like some additional learning opportunities.  These people have one thing in common – they need education and training that will work with their lifestyles and circumstances, they either don’t have the ability to attend class in person or have opted out of the traditional class setting.

Over twenty years ago, an innovation and game changer to education was created to address the needs of Susan, Terry, Don, Ann, and Jessie – access to classes offered over the internet.  The innovation of online learning has truly changed the face of education to a point where it is now considered a viable option for students of all ages.

Online learning started out very simply, email was the primary communication between the faculty and student – more along the lines of an electronic correspondence course with adults as its primary target.  For those early adopter educators, it was very clear that online was going to be a disruptive force because it provided the flexibility and access to higher education needed by many students. 

Online certainly had its critics and still does today, however as technology has improved and a new profession has been established around online learning, the model is here to stay.  Today, online learning is available from kindergarten through graduate degrees providing options that were unheard of twenty years ago. 

Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS) clearly point to the increased popularity of online learning across all student populations.  IPEDS data suggest that today, one in four students will take at least one college class a year in their college journey; one in seven is attaining their degree completely online.  Interestingly, providers of online education are not the sole monopoly of the for-profit sector as is commonly thought; three quarters of online enrollments are provided by public institutions with privates colleges offering about twenty percent according to an analysis by Poulin and Straut (2016) on the IPEDS data.  K-12 virtual learning is also on the rise, in the 2013-14 school year there were 447 virtual schools in 33 states as reported by the National Education Policy Center.  Online will continue to grow and evolve as demand increases because it provides flexibility and access while retaining academic quality.   

Undoubtedly, flexibility and access to learning and when, where, and how one gets their education is the more significate benefit of online.  The ability for students to take their laptops, mobile devices, smart TV, or log on to a computer at the local library to “attend” class has expanded access to education and training to the general population.  There is however, a misconception about anywhere – anytime learning.  Many people think that there is a lack of structure and mirrors an old correspondence course which you read whenever you want as long as you meet the completion deadline.  On the contrary, online learning is very structured; assignments have due dates, there are requirements to “discuss” topics in the class, there are group assignments, and the overall expectations are no different than a traditional on ground class.  In the same light, the academic quality of online courses and degrees continue to meet the standards and requirements, and at times exceed, the standards of accrediting bodies.        

The early days of online were filled with controversy as to how anyone could learn in an online class; classes were aligned with correspondence courses.  As traditional college faculty began to explore online options they soon discovered that the online platform offered aspects for learning that couldn’t be achieved as easily in the classroom.  Faculty discovered that student performance and success could be tracked more closely because everything in the course shell is available for viewing. 

As the online industry matured, researchers began to study what elements of online classes ensure academic quality.  There is now a set of accepted industry wide best practices that colleges and universities apply to ensure their courses and degrees are of the highest quality while safeguarding regional and professional accreditation standards.  Examples of best practices include a standardized course shell, frequent participation by the faculty, a diversity of learning activities, feedback on assignments, and required interactivity of the students.  Online has now become a mainstream delivery model in the U.S. The quality of the model is supported by research suggesting that online does indeed provide a quality learning experience.  In 2010, the U.S.  Department of Education released a meta-analysis of research on online learning, one of the findings suggests that online students “performed modernity better” over those students in traditional in class settings.   

  The advent of online learning has spawned an entirely new industry managed and taught by professional with specialized expertise in the online sector of education.  Companies have created new technology solutions for online classroom platforms, there are now instructional online specialist, online enrollment managers, online marketing firms aimed at online college admissions, new professional roles within colleges, new departments within colleges devoted to the overall management of the online enterprise, and university leaders now often include online learning as one of their strategic initiatives.  The industry continues to grow and evolve as technology advances.  Technology has certainly enhanced the learning environment and made learning accessible to more people on a global scale. How technology will impact learning as we advance is yet to be seen.   

The online class of 20 years ago is remarkable different from the experience of today.  As suggested by Jay Halfond of Boston University “The student market has made it clear that online courses have a firm and lasting role to play.”    

Dr. Gonzales is Executive Dean of Venango College at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, has been active in the field of adult education and training as an administrator and faculty in the U.S., England, and Germany. In 2010 she received the Association for Continuing Higher Education’s Leadership Award in 2010. 


Halfond, J. (2016). Online Unbound. Retrieved from the University Professional and Continuing Education Association website:

Miron, G. & Gulosino, C. (2016). Virtual Schools Report 2016: Directory and Performance Review. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from ttp://


Poulin, R. and Straut, T. (2016). WCET Distant Education Enrollment Report 2016. Retrieved from WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies website:

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development (2010).  Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from Department of Education website:

U.S. Department of Education (June, 2014).  Enrollment in distance education courses, by state: Fall 2012.  Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics website: