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Get your degree from an educational ATM: an empirical study in online education.

This article studies the modern trend of online education in the United States. Based on a wide range of statistics, the number of cyberspace courses offered by four-year institutions and universities nationwide has rapidly increased over the past one and a half decades. Under a case study, colleges of business from ranked universities and colleges showed that: (a) colleges of business were inclined to provide more online graduate than undergraduate courses; (b) One-fourth of first- and second-tier institutions offered online business programs with 58% of them granting degrees and/or certificates; (c) 40% of the third- and fourth-tier institutions provided e-learning opportunities with about half of them awarding business degrees or certificates. Given ongoing technological advancements and increasing use of the Internet, academic participation in internet education should sustain its fast growth into the foreseeable future.


Through the swift development in information technology and the increasing popularity of internet usage, online learning has become one of the most important products in the cyber-market. Just like the ATMs which provide 24-hour banking service, online education serves as an "AEM"--"Automatic Educational Machine" delivering its services without time constraints or boundaries.

A common definition for online education is a program, which delivers off-campus, computer-based courses. Cyber education was born in the United States in the 1970s. It gained in popularity in late 1980s and boomed in 1990s. The rapid growth of school participation in web-based services from 33% in 1995 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003) to approximately 90% in 2003 (U.S. News and World Report, 2003) inspired this article, which analyzed the evolution of the modern educational system. It is divided into four sections. The first section provides an overview of the e-learning trend. The second section summarizes the intellectual dialogue on the topic of e-learning. The third section reports the empirical findings. Concluding remarks are provided in the last section.


The intellectual dialogue on online learning was robust in mid-1990s. In October 1994, Burke (1994) stated that the upsurge of technology enhanced learning was mainly due to the advancement and prevalence of contemporary communication technologies. Burke suggested that, due to increasing demand for effective and time-saved online learning, college and university faculty should supply more technology-aided instruction. Sherry (1996), studying the historical background of instructional media in distance (and/or online) education, recommended that extended learning be systematically and innovatively designed, use an interactive format, and be learner-friendly even as modern technology is integrated.

Dumont (1996), Gubernick and Ebeling (1997), and Terry (2000), individually investigated the evolution of cyber education, and reached a consensus that internet-based education was in fact mutual-beneficial to both students and educators. Advantages such as effective learning and time savings were complemented by lower indirect-costs such as commuting and housing expenses. According to their findings, the majority of online participants felt satisfied with their educational attainment and gave strong support to the cyber academic system.

Dumont (1996), and Navarro and Shoemaker (2000) claimed that nontraditional e-learners performed better in most of the scholarly activities than traditional (younger) students. Perceiving the importance of obtaining higher education, nontraditional online students were able to spend more of their time in e-learning and still maintain a healthy balance between their family and work responsibilities.

Finally, research conducted by Sikora (2003, for the National Center for Education Statistics) revealed that, in general, online learning was more likely to be undertaken by graduate students than by undergraduates and by more female than male students. Additionally, cyber students tended to be more independent and earned higher salaries (US$50,000 or more). E-students' employers often sponsored their employees' online education efforts (Dumont, 1996).

Empirical Findings

Table 1 summarizes the growing trend of e-learning in the United States. Several facts are immediately evident. First, over the eight-year time span, the percentage of colleges/universities offering online courses nearly tripled. The strongest increase came between 1997 and 1998 when the participation rate jumped by 18 points, from 44% to 62%. Second, student participation in cyber education was also expanding rapidly. The total enrollment climbed steadily between 1995 and 1998 and then quadrupled to reach a student population of 2 million in 2003. In short, student enrollment in 2003 was eightfold of that in 1995.

Table 2 compares and contrasts traditional classroom and online education. The interactive method of traditional classroom learning was developed in the Socratic period (Boser, 2003a, 2003b). Traditionally, the interaction occurred in a face-to-face, give-and-take, write-on-the-board environment. More recently, basic instructional equipment has grown to include overhead projectors and more sophisticated electronic devices, but the basic teaching method has changed little. With the development of online learning in the 1970s, methods of student-teacher interaction have changed substantially and have became ever more reliant on evolving electronic technologies.

Table 2 also revealed that traditional and online programs had somewhat different audiences. Students enrolling in traditional classrooms were mostly considered to be "traditional" students. Most of them were young, between 18 and 23, and entered college immediately after graduating from high school. In contrast, online learners were "nontraditional" in nature, implying that their lives were less focused on "the football teams, the dorms, and the leafy quads" (Shea, 2002: web page; also see Kilmurray, 2003) and more focused on their families and workplaces. By and large, they were older, ranging from 35 to 50 years of age.

In terms of enrollment growth, traditional classroom enrollment has been experiencing a steady annual growth rate of approximately 3%. However, online learning enrollment has been growing at a 40% annual rate.

Finally, as indicated in the fifth row, the student dropout rate in the traditional classroom learning was significantly lower as compared with that of cyber education. Several factors contributed to the high (60%) dropout rate among e-learners. Cyber learners were often distracted by their families and work. A large number of them were raising families and/or working full-time or part-time while studying in an academic program. When overburdened by the competing demands of family, work, and school, they often chose to drop their courses. In addition, feelings of isolation may lead many online students to drop out. U.S. News and World Report (2003) reported that e-learners often felt isolated while studying online. With no face-to-face interaction with their classmates or instructors, they must rely more heavily on solitary activities such as self-study and textbook reading. Other students ended up dropping their courses because of the difficulties in following them online without word-of-mouth explanations from their instructors.

Last but not least, some online learners dropped courses when they felt the program did not fit in their needs. Many of them took courses related to their jobs and/or professions and then withdrew when they noticed that the course materials did not take them in the directions required to further their professional development.

Despite the high student dropout rate in online learning, the majority of e-participants still support this new educational system. Table 3a and 3b report various verbatim comments from online students and educators. As recorded in Table 3a, the key advantages for internet learners included multiple role-playing, time-saving and management, flexibility and convenience, and equality. Many e-learners felt that they were able to balance multiple responsibilities--being a parent, an employee of a company, and a student simultaneously. By saving time by not traveling to school, they could learn at home and/or in their office and still spend more time with their families and/or at work. Moreover, cyber students enjoyed the world-wide-web environment where they felt they had equal opportunities to learn and exchange their ideas and experiences regardless of their "gender, ethnicity, academic background, computer skills and academic aptitude" (Navarro & Shoemaker, 2000, p. 15).

Nevertheless, online students reported some drawbacks such as being distracted from their families, feeling isolated and separate, and feeling rushed in the learning processes. Frequently, these students expressed their frustrations by dropping courses, which in turn resulted in a high dropout rate. A couple of other disadvantages worth noting, though not reported by internet learners, were the higher learning cost and lengthier degree-completion time. Overall, e-students paid higher tuition (20% to 30% higher than traditional class-learning) for web-based courses and, due to their need to balance multiple roles, they ordinarily took longer to complete their degree.

Along with the e-learners' point of view, Table 3b reflects the opinions of online instructors. Among them, reported benefits included better academic performance from online students, instructional effectiveness, and deeper student-faculty interaction. Interestingly and surprisingly, e-educators often found that their students who consistently "attended" the online classes were more involved in the program than in-class students. In return, they learned more and obtained better grades. In addition, online teachers believed that e-learners placed more importance on obtaining a degree for self-improvement and job enhancement. Instructors also realized that their online instructions and course materials were comparably effective and helpful to students. Overall, respondents reported greater interactions between e-students and their teachers. The lack of face-to-face contact was replaced by 24/7 online instructor availability.

Disadvantages reported involved the quality of student learning and instructor workloads. The foremost concern of online educators was their e-students' performance as compared with that of young traditional students. Interestingly, instructors' worries about nontraditional student backgrounds proved unfounded since, overall, cyber learners showed a higher level of accountability, and in fact learned better as reflected in their higher grades. On the other hand, instructors frequently spent more time preparing their online courses than they did their traditional courses. Still, though written explanations were more time-consuming than face-to-face explanations, they felt that rewarded for their extra efforts as their e-students became more self-motivated in learning.

Table 4 summarizes the evolving pattern of online business education provision. It analyzes a larger data set; the original data set is available from the authors. The sample included colleges of business in 250 universities and/or four-year colleges ranked by U.S. News and World Report over the sample periods 2002-2003 and 2003-2004. Analysis of the sample led to several significant findings.

First, as shown in Table 4, the earliest example of online education came in the 1970s (the University of Washington in 1977). During the 1980s, a few additional schools such as New Jersey Institutes of Technology (1982), the University of Missouri-Rolla (1985), and the University of Memphis (1989) started to provide e-learning opportunities. Beginning in the early 1990s, more and more higher education institutions participated in cyber education and, by the end of the 20th century, 125 universities were in the internet academic market. Since the advent of the new millennium, more than 30 new e-education entrants have joined the e-learning club. By 2004, the first- and second-tier schools had a market share of approximately 45%.

Second, among the first- and second-tier (i.e., ranked from 1 to 120) universities, roughly 60% of them, between 2003 and 2004, offered extended-learning programs in all fields, and around one-fourth of these delivered online business courses. Over the same period, among the third- (i.e., ranked up to 186) and fourth-tier (i.e. ranked up to 250) schools, close to 80% and 70% of them respectively provided extended courses in all disciplines, and nearly 40% of these supplied e-classes in business.

Third, colleges of business were inclined to provide slightly more online graduate than undergraduate courses. This was especially the case for schools in the first-, second- and third-tiers. For instance, around 20% of the first-tier schools (i.e., ranked from 1 to 64, such as the University of Virginia, New York University, Lehigh University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Pennsylvania State University-University Park, the University of Florida, the University of Washington, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and Purdue University-West Lafayette) have made online graduate business courses available with half of them awarding the degrees/certificates. Fourth-tier universities made more undergraduate than graduate courses available to their extended learning students.

What is more? Approximately 58% of the first- and second-tier universities offering online business courses also granted business degrees and/or certificates online. For the lower ranked schools, roughly 50% of the business colleges offering extended courses also awarded online degrees/certificates. One thing worth-noting is that, regardless of the school rank, business degree granters tended to award more graduate than undergraduate degrees/certificates (i.e., total 146 graduate versus 36 undergraduate degrees/certificates).

Finally, in terms of course availability, most of the sample colleges offered business subjects/majors from the most popular areas such as general business, management, marketing, accounting, and finance, although less heavily enrolled courses such as taxation were also offered. Statistics on the online study of economics were reported by U.S. News and World Report in 2002-2003 but not in 2003-2004. In spite of the lack of reporting, the websites of many universities/colleges (such as University of Florida, University of Connecticut, University of Missouri--Columbia, Indiana University Bloomington, Ohio University, and Kent State University) showed that economics courses were still commonly offered online.


Online education has been recognized as a new, rapidly-growing, and evidently popular learning scheme nowadays. Serving as the "Automatic Educational Machine (AEM)," it brought flexibility and convenience, and greater learning opportunities to online students. Based on a broad range of statistics from 250 ranked universities/colleges and their business institutes, this study revealed several notable facts and trends. First, colleges of business were inclined to provide more online graduate than undergraduate courses. Second, one-fourth of first- and second-tier schools offered online business programs with 58% of them granting degrees and/or certificates. Forty percent (40%) of third- and fourth-tier institutes provided extended-learning opportunities in business with close to half of them awarding business degrees/certificates. Owing to technological advancement and increasing use of the Internet, one can expect that participation in internet-based education will sustain its fast growth, and its importance as a substitute for traditional classroom learning will gradually increase in the foreseeable future.


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New Mexico State University, USA
Table 1 E-Learning Growth, the United States, 1995-2003

 Schools Offering Student Enrollment
Year E-Learning Courses ('000)

1995 33% 250
1997 44% 350
1998 62% 500
2002 85% 1,600
2003 90% 2,000

Source: compiled by authors based on National Center for Education
Statistics (NCES), 2003; The Sloan Consortium, 2004, at; American Federation of Teachers, 2001, at

Table 2 Comparison between Traditional Classroom and Online Learning

 Traditional Classroom
 Online Learning Learning

Intro to interactive 1970s Socrates period (399 B.C)
Student nature Nontraditional Traditional
Average student age 35+ 18-23
% Change in student Increase drastically Slowly
enrollment (40% annually) (3% annually)
Student dropout rate 60% 11%

Source: compiled by authors based on U.S. News and World Report, 2002,
2003 at; Kilmurray,
2003; Dumont, 1996; National Center for Education Statistics (NCES),
2004 at

Table 3a True Voices from Online Students

Advantages Disadvantages

"Distance learning has allowed me to "... getting a degree at the
be successful in accomplishing an online law school is convenient,
education, a career, and most but I didn't realize it would be
important, motherhood ..."--Dawn so enthralling ..."--Laura
Lamendola, married, mother of two, Collins, married, mother of one
employed part-time [commenting on the family
 distractions while studying
"Through distance learning, I will "It's very fast paced. You don't
have saved over 240 hours of driving want to not log-in for more than
time. This has allowed for increased a day or so because you'll fall
time with my family ..." behind ..."--Edward Shanshala,
"In distance learning there is an married, father, employed full-
an unwritten, unsaid agreement time
among fellow classmates to ensure
that no one is left behind ..."--
Edward Shanshala, father, employed
"Needless to say, going out of the "I need to develop personal
house in the evenings for college relationships, especially if I'm
classes didn't look like something I encountering any problems ..."--
could do very easily, whereas in the Lia Wright, M.B.A. student at
distance learning format I can do it Baker College [commenting on the
whenever I can fit it in, or take it unavailability of personal face-
with me when I have to leave the area to-face interaction when she
for business ..."--Lawrence needs one.]
McKeough, married, father of four,
employed full-time
"Since students in the program come
from a wide range of backgrounds, the
team environment has encouraged me to
help others ... and has additionally
allowed others to help me ..."--
Brian Hansen, married, father of two,
employed full-time

Source: U.S. New and World Report at
Note: By referring to "distance" education, these extended-learners
meant "online" learning.

Table 3b True Voices from Online Educators

Advantages Disadvantages

"I can't begin to tell you what it feels "We were worried, frankly,
like to know that I am helping make change about whether the online
and enhance careers."--Kenneth Sherman, people would have got [the
Instructor of the U. of Phoenix Online lessons] as well as the
 on-ground people"--Jay
 Klagge, associate vice
 president of institutional
 research and effectiveness,
 the U of Phoenix Online
"Our student-faculty interaction is much "Likewise, in a classroom, I
deeper than at most traditional law can use the opaque or
schools."--Andrew Rosen, Provost of overhead projector to
Concord Law School illustrate examples. With CE
"The surprising thing was that in some [computed-aided education]
cases they [online students] actually had courses, I'm consistently
it better"--Jay Klagge, associate vice writing out examples and
president of institutional research and illustrating key points. A
effectiveness, the U of Phoenix Online point that would take five
 minutes to explain in class
 takes thirty-five minutes to
 write out."--Raymond A.
 Dumont, teacher at the
 University of Massachusetts
"Each time I re-teach a course, I include
more material on line. I also add more
models, linked to other Web sites or to
work students have produced in previous
"... regardless of the course, on-line
students appeared more motivated and
produced work equal to, and often better
than, that produced by the better students
on campus."--Raymond A. Dumont, teacher at
the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Source: Dumont, 1996; U.S. New and World Report at

Table 4 Colleges of Business and Their Provision of Online Education:
Ranked Universities/Four-Year Colleges, the United States

 First- and
School Second-tier Third-tier
School rank 1-128 129-186

Online Year 1970-1979 1 0
 1980-1989 1 1
 1990-2000 52 36
 2001+ 18 8
Online Courses in Business Number of schools 33 24
 Undergraduate 83 75
 Graduate 107 79
 Degrees/Certificates Number of schools 19 12
 Offered Undergraduate 15 10
 Graduate 69 38

School Fourth-tier Total
School rank 187-250 250

Online Year 1970-1979 0 1
 1980-1989 1 3
 1990-2000 37 125
 2001+ 6 32
Online Courses in Business Number of schools 25 82
 Undergraduate 103 261
 Graduate 80 266
 Degrees/Certificates Number of schools 12 43
 Offered Undergraduate 11 36
 Graduate 39 146

Source: compiled by the authors based on the U.S. News and World Report,
2003-2004 at
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Author:Nguyen, Hien
Publication:International Journal on E-Learning
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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