Increasingly, college life is less about crossing the quad or stopping at the dining room before sitting in a large conference room, and more about opening a laptop computer at home.
Take Royal Witcher, a St. Louis native and military veteran who lives in Belmont, Mississippi. He got most of his bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix, a completely online institution, but often felt like just a number.
When it came time for his MBA, the 45-year-old did his research – a lot – and opted for the University of Maryville, which has a campus on the outskirts of St. Louis. But he didn’t return to Missouri, instead enjoying an online degree.
“The biggest changes I have seen have been, I think, the willingness to consolidate, or prove, the online degree as good as a traditional degree,” he said of the difference between the programs.
Witcher is part of a increasing number of students being educated online, which is beneficial for colleges in Illinois and Missouri who have seen decline in registrations 8.7 and 6.1 percent, respectively, over the past 5 years and, in turn, declining income. This has schools bringing the brick and mortar experience to students who live far from campus.
So many colleges see this as a market opportunity, and they see online a way to do it, ”said Beth Doyle, vice president of Learning Counts, a group that promotes adult education.
But there are downsides to virtual learning, an industry that had 5.8 million students taking at least a few online courses in 2015, according to the E-learning consortium. Studies show that online students may have poor course discipline and not always stick to it. Additionally, a 2013 Gallup poll showed that online courses were viewed as less rigorous than on-campus courses.
To match teaching to a classroom experience, schools are trying to make their online programs more intense and interactive.
At the University of Maryville, which is the state’s fastest growing school, nearly half of new students are virtual, said Dan Viele, dean of online and adult education at Maryville. . Maryville wants to keep adding students, he said, which will force him to look beyond the region.
“It’s a different model from the old days where you had to build the dormitory to bring them in and then have the classrooms available,” he said, adding that the school is not “tied. by physical capacity, and therefore online can evolve with a different impact on the university from a resource point of view, ”he said.
The school redeveloped a single room the size of an office, filling it with studio lights, a green screen and recording equipment. There’s also a high-tech LED light board that makes teachers look like they’re writing in the air.
Online students cannot interrupt the lesson to ask questions, but they can rewind their teacher. Raising a hand has been replaced by typing a question into a chat room.
Other schools in the region are also going online. At the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where most students are commuters, four in 10 students take at least some courses online. Undergraduate course loads for students at Webster University have increased 55% over the past two years.
The University of Saint Louis, one of the oldest institutions in the region, is also changing its experience in adult education. As of the fall, continuing education programs will be fully online, with no more evening classes on campus.
The School of Professional Studies’ more than 800 undergraduates had the option of attending evening classes or taking the course online, but acting dean Jennifer Giancola said fewer people were coming to campus .
“They weren’t at full capacity and we decided we were going to put everything online,” she said. “This is really what our students wanted and needed.
SLU is attracting more students from outside the region with its online programs, said Gianacola, “but there are still a lot of local students who could actually come to campus to take a field course. , but they prefer to take an online course.
Although a Gallup Poll 2013 found that there was still skepticism around online degree programs, opinions are improving steadily. Only 13% of those surveyed said an employer would think an online degree is better, but the number of Americans who said an online degree offers the same quality as a traditional degree fell from 30 % to 37% from 2011 to 2013.
Witcher hopes the prestige of a master’s degree from a traditional school will allow him to one day teach. And it will probably be online.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney.