The global reach and flexibility of the Internet is fueling brisk growth in online college classes, and those numbers are expected to grow as the recession encourages workers to continue their education.
"The courses can be accessed from any place, at any time," said Ken Vehrkens, dean of Anthony J. Petrocelli College of Continuing Studies of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J. "That type of flexibility really fits into many adult learners’ schedules, balancing full-time employment and family commitments."
Nationwide, the number of students taking at least one online course jumped by nearly 70 percent between 2002 and 2007, from 1.6 million to 3.9 million, according to a study released in November by the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit advocacy group for online learning.
Better technology and bigger bandwidth have made the trend possible. When online classes were introduced in the mid-1990s, educators and students were often frustrated by slow log-on times (remember dial-up?) and static messaging programs.
Now, new software and cheaper, faster computers allow students to chat with one another and a professor in real time, share video and audio clips and conduct online research around-the-clock.
If there is a typical student, she is Jessica Marmolejos of Wayne, N.J. Marmolejos, 32, is a busy single mother of two and administrative assistant who starts her school day after work.
Her office skills have helped her land temporary jobs at companies such as NBC Studios and Morgan Stanley. But when those businesses downsized, she was among the first to be dismissed because she lacked a degree, she said.
So in the evenings at home, she boots up her computer and cracks open a Western Civilization textbook while her 9-year-old son, Brandon, plays with a puzzle and her daughter, Victoria, 11, is in her room.
"This is basically the only way that I feel that I can actually do it," she said.
Online classes are popular with colleges because they can expand the potential universe of students, from active members of the military to faraway workers seeking a specialized program.
Take Erica Ulman of South Carolina. She’s a student at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, N.J., although she has never set foot on campus.
Ulman, 30, hopes to trade her paralegal career for work in medical records, a growing field. A contact at a hospital near her home referred her to Passaic County Community College, which offers an online associates degree program in health information technology. She registered last July and hopes to complete her degree during the spring 2010 semester.
Current distance-learning students at FDU’s Petrocelli include 90 members of the New Jersey Army National Guard in various posts nationwide and overseas, said Vehrkens. The school designed a series of online classes for military personnel looking to complete undergraduate degrees, helped by $3 million in federal grants.
Petrocelli also has partnered with major corporations to develop online degree-completion programs for employees, including at Booz Allen Hamilton, a management-consulting firm in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.
Some 500 workers have taken part in the bachelor’s of art in individualized studies program, which combines previous college work, credits for professional experience and training and online classes as part of the degree.
While flexibility in online coursework can invite doubt about its rigor, educators say that taking away the common meeting place of the classroom forces each student to fully participate.
"You can’t have your hand down in an online course," said Peter Shapiro, who runs Bergen Community College’s distance learning programs. "The only way someone knows that you’re there is if you are contributing."
Universities are beginning to require students to take some classes online, to ensure they are familiar with distance learning formats. FDU was the first in the nation to do so, in 1999.
"The theory is, if students have lifelong learning, that’s where it probably is going to come from, and they need to be conversant with it," said university spokeswoman Gretchen Johnson.
Kathleen Cray-Kaden, a Passaic County Community College adjunct professor, said online classes can have some limitations. With class discussions being held through blog posts, Cray-Kaden misses out on non-verbal clues that indicate whether a student understands the material, she said.
But some students find that physical distance from their classmates can be freeing.
Casey Saladin, 33, of Clifton, N.J., once reluctant to speak in class, can now freely discuss the finer points of great literary works with other students.
"Sometimes, I don’t like to talk in front of an … audience," said Saladin, a single mother of three girls who works full time. "But online, I don’t feel that way. You can say whatever you think." (Post-Bulletin)