In the past few years, more students enrolled in online courses, more organizations offered alternative credentials such as digital badges and nanodegrees and more employers accepted online degrees from job candidates.
Here are five trends experts say students might see in online education in 2017.
1. Greater emphasis on nontraditional credentials: Companies in recent years have started offering credentials other than degrees to online learners, ranging from digital badges to showcase achievements, to various certificate programs that highlight skills.
In 2017, many experts predict, colleges and universities will become more involved in granting what are often referred to as "microcredentials."
At universities, "I think there's going to be more focus on how to best serve individuals, whether they are new to education or whether they are returning professionals seeking different credentials or different learning experiences," says Karen Pedersen, chief knowledge officer for the Online Learning Consortium, a group that aims to improve online higher education worldwide.
The massive open online course, or MOOC, provider edX expects to launch more MicroMasters programs in partnership with universities worldwide, for example, a company spokeswoman says. Students complete a portion of a graduate degree through MOOCs and can then apply to finish the full curriculum on campus at a lower total cost.
The U.S. Department of Education is also in the process of reviewing federal financial aid opportunities for low-income students in some non-degree programs such as coding boot camps, through eight partnerships between universities and organizations.
2. Increased use of big data to measure student performance: Because online students complete their coursework virtually, course providers and universities are collecting data "in really kind of remarkable quantities," says Richard DeMillo, executive director of Georgia Institute of Technology's Center for 21st Century Universities, which tracks technology innovations in higher education.
This year, faculty will increasingly analyze real-time data to measure, improve and predict how their students perform, says Jill Buban, OLC's senior director of research and innovation. That will allow them to tailor curriculums to meet online students' needs and provide support.
"For faculty members to be able to see whether or not a student has logged in, whether or not a student has participated that week, can really help them in assessing whether a student is on track," Buban says.
3. Greater incorporation of artificial intelligence into classes: In an online course at Georgia Tech last year in artificial intelligence, the professor used a virtual teaching assistant – named "Jill Watson" – to communicate with students. Many of the students, DeMillo says, didn't even realize they were chatting with a computer.
Some experts, including DeMillo, foresee artificial intelligence becoming more widely used to provide student assistance and improve support.
4. Growth of nonprofit online programs: Prospective students will have more nonprofit online program options this year as well-known universities offer more and different kinds of programs, experts predict. Enrollment in for-profit programs will probably continue to fall.
Given that trend, more students will be able to get an online degree from a well-respected nonprofit institution, which many employers prefer over for-profit degrees.
Robert Hansen, chief executive officer for the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, which serves more than 400 institutions, says nonprofit colleges and universities are working to catch up and meet the demand for online programs that was once satisfied primarily by for-profit institutions.
5. Online degrees in surprising and specialized disciplines: Fields such as business, nursing, cybersecurity and data analytics, among others, will probably remain among the more popular in online education. But Chip Paucek, CEO of 2U, a company that partners with universities to launch online graduate degrees, says to expect more efforts among schools in 2017 to launch degree programs in disciplines that might not initially seem suited for online learning.
Currently in the works for 2U: an occupational therapy online doctoral program with New York University, for instance.
In collaboration with the Syracuse University College of Law, 2U is also planning a partially online J.D. program pending American Bar Association approval. If that process is successful, Syracuse would be one of just a few blended options.
As online learning continues to attract career changers, some experts say more degrees offered online in 2017 will focus on specialized areas – such as a bachelor's in real estate or marketing rather than business administration.
"They have to establish why their degrees are better and how they're better," says Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois—Springfield, who also directs UPCEA's Center for Online Leadership. "A key way to do that is to focus on a smaller slice of the field."
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