Online learning's big benefit: Low gas cost
Matt Vissering drives a 1992 Ford Thunderbird 45 miles to class at Illinois Central College twice a week.
Each week, he spends $100 from his three part-time jobs on gasoline for his aging car. So to cut down on expenses, he enrolled this summer in an online course, Music 150.
"I'm going to be a networker; I love computers," the 20-year-old Toluca man said. "But I hate these classes."
Students' reactions to and successes in online courses are as varied as their reasons for taking them, yet one thing has become clear in recent months: The rise in gas prices mirrors increases in online course enrollment.
There was a 24 percent increase in online enrollment between fall 2006 and fall 2007, with 30,979 additional online course enrollments, according to Illinois Virtual Campus, which tracks online learning across the state.
The increasing price of gas "definitely impacts" the demand for online classes, said Janice Kisinger, associate dean for instructional innovation and learning resources at Illinois Central College, where administrators have increased online options to meet students' needs.
As is the case with any trend, pinpointing exact reasons for the increase can be difficult, and it's possible the effect of gas prices has been overstated in recent media coverage, said Ray Schroeder, director of technology-enhanced learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield campus.
But, he said, "there's no doubt in my mind this is one of the important factors at play in the students' minds."
Also adding to the demand are the expectation of online classes - many high schools today are using Internet-based courses to supplement learning - and a wider variety of courses and majors offered online now than in the past.
With gas this summer soaring to $4-plus a gallon, administrators are watching enrollment figures for trends as students sign up for classes.
Marilyn Bellert, who monitors online enrollment at Northern Illinois University, said 80 percent of students who register for online courses at NIU are nontraditional students - older, working adults - and that they register just prior to the semester because of complicated family and work schedules.
Bradley University associate registrar Andy Kindler considers his school to be a "traditional campus," with residence halls and few commuters. The majority of online course enrollments are during the summer, while students attempt to catch up on classes, and make up just 2 percent of all enrollments.
Online courses became common less than a decade ago, and participation remains a small percentage of overall student enrollment at most schools.
"This seems to be impacting community colleges and universities with large commuter populations," said Schroeder, who operates a blog that documents the rise of online courses in relation to gas prices.
UIS has offered online courses for 30 straight semesters - counting summers - and the enrollment numbers have climbed each time.
That has great implications for online courses in the future, Schroeder said.
"I think the term 'online' will go away and classes will be classes," he said. "I think we'll have a whole array, a kind of continuum of delivery, that we will see and higher education will use the most appropriate technology."
Steven Bushong can be reached at (309) 686-3196 or firstname.lastname@example.org.