Our Views: Online learning growing quickly

As another school year approaches, more students will be opting out of traditional classrooms in favor of online learning away from brick-and-mortar campuses. In that shifting environment, how will Louisiana’s colleges and universities compete?

That question promises to become more relevant as online education continues to grow.

Since 2010, online college course enrollment has increased by 29 percent according to the Community College Research Center, which also noted that 6.7 million students — roughly one-third of all college students — are enrolled in online courses.

LSU System President F. King Alexander said that he sees three major constituencies for online learning.

First, military personnel are in a prime position to continue studies while serving abroad. “There are troops all over the world taking online classes,” Alexander told a recent meeting of The Advocate editorial board.

Online learning is also a promising option for those who left college without completing a degree — or for those who have never attended college, he added.

Alexander said that even as online learning grows, traditional classrooms learning will continue to have a role.

“Studies show that the best learning occurred when you blended” online and traditional learning, Alexander said.

Southern University’s Baton Rouge campus now offers online degrees in criminal justice, interdisciplinary studies and public administration.

Southern’s online programs, while relatively new, are poised to grow, SU Chancellor James Llorens told a separate meeting of The Advocate’s editorial board.

“We probably still have less than 100 online students,” said Llorens. “We see that it’s possible to double that over the next year.”

Online learning isn’t an option for all or even most students.

Many students require the kind of attention best delivered in a traditional classroom. And there’s no real substitute for the give-and-take available when instructors and students meet in person.

As university leaders struggle to maintain and grow enrollment with declining state support, online learning might seem like a relatively inexpensive way to handle more students.

On that point, we’d urge extra caution. We don’t want to see online programs devolve into diploma mills, which is why stringent accrediting procedures are so critical.

Alexander and Llorens both acknowledged the need for those kinds of quality controls, and we think that philosophy is important as online learning becomes more embedded in education culture.

The goal for online learning — and for any learning — should be expanding opportunity, not expedience.