College student Anna Gant isn't familiar with a typical day on campus. For one thing, she never goes to class.
Most days, the 20-year-old English major just studies on the living room couch, her favorite place to write essays, take exams or listen to course lectures. Sometimes she completes assignments during her "7 to 11 shift," beginning in the early morning and working routinely throughout the day. Other times she works the "night shift." The other night, she studied straight from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., reading Melville's Benito Cereno and Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. And Gant's study breaks are just as unconventional as her daily routine.
"I love to listen to 1940s swing music and tap dance between lessons," Gant said. "It helps me keep my focus when I get back to work."
From her home in Vardaman, Miss., Gant is working on her degree at Regent University, a Christian school more than eight hundred miles away in Virginia. Gant is one of millions of students who now take college courses online. The trend is called distance learning, and advocates say it's radically changing the face of higher education.
In recent years, the explosive growth of web-based delivery methods has opened new doors for students who cannot or for some reason don't want to have the traditional college experience.
"Distance learning was created to solve access issues," said Vicky Phillips, higher education expert and CEO of the online college ranking system, GetEducated.com. "It's becoming more popular simply because it's more convenient."
Phillips anticipates that online learning will only increase in popularity, as it has skyrocketed in the past decade. According to the Sloan Consortium's 2011 survey, the number of students taking at least one online course has now surpassed six million, comprising a third of the higher education student population. And 65 percent of higher education institutions say that online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy, according to the Sloan report.
At Regent University, 4,498 students are taking classes online this semester. The school has 1,368 students attending class at its Virginia Beach campus.
"By offering the online education option, our students can make an impact globally because of where God has already planted them and the impact can be immediate," said Tracy Stewart, vice president of enrollment management and information technology.
Regent University began offering online courses in 1997. That same year, Kaye Shelton, former dean of online education for Dallas Baptist University, became involved in online initiatives at her school. Dallas Baptist began its distance learning program with only eleven students, but that number has increased exponentially.
"In 2011, we had more than 2,200 students fully online, with 56 different programs available," Shelton said. An online education consultant and author of the book, An Administrator's Guide to Online Education, Shelton believes that distance education provides "incredible opportunities" if quality delivery methods, course content and student support remain priorities.
Traditional-age college students, such as Gant, often attend classes online because of their relative affordability. Gant began studying online during high school because it was "the only feasible way" for her to complete the language classes required for graduation. She now pays an average of $3,000 per semester as an online student at Regent University.
Although the school charges the same tuition for both its online and on-campus students, distance learning frees students like Gant from the costs of on-campus housing, gas for commuting, and extracurricular campus activities. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that students can save an average of $10,000 annually by attending college online.
The internet also provides flexibility, which appeals to nontraditional students. Kim Priest, a working mother of two, lives in rural Michigan and also is pursuing her bachelor's degree through Regent's distance learning program.
"Being married and established in vocations, home and community, I cannot simply relocate for educational purposes," Priest said. "Online classes allow me to integrate education into life, rather than conforming life to education."
Distance learning also offers a more adaptive and immersive approach to education, said Philip Regier, dean of Arizona State University Online. It requires students to actively participate, applying the curriculum to their personal lives: "Adaptive instruction really is individualized learning. It's something that isn't available in a face-to-face classroom where you basically have to treat every student the same."
Whereas on-campus learning tends to reward students who are more socially adept, online learning gives less confident students a safe environment in which to contribute. And classroom doors always are open. Once a day, Gant logs into Blackboard, Regent's online learning platform, to submit assignments and interact with professors and classmates in ongoing discussion forums.
But distance learning is not without drawbacks. Because Regent operates several types of programs, school faculty and administrators face the continual challenge of "not deviating in quality on-campus or online," Stewart said. Academic excellence must be maintained in both learning environments, where students' needs differ greatly.
Online students also struggle with the challenge of isolation. The benefits of face-to-face interaction with professors and classmates are hard to replicate online.
"Often people learn because they feel emotionally connected with the instructor, and that helps facilitate learning," Phillips said.
The solitude of distance learning can deceive students into thinking that it is easier than on-campus learning. In reality, online education demands greater discipline and time management, Stewart said. But this challenge may ultimately benefit students. A recent study by the U.S. Department of Education showed that students involved in hybrid or distance learning actually learned more than their on-campus counterparts. Unlike students in lecture halls, online students can't hide out in the back row.
Some critics argue that regardless of its merits, distance learning may never replace the value of face-to-face learning at traditional, brick-and-mortar institutions. David Youngberg, an assistant professor of economics at Bethany College, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the online classroom makes it "too easy" for students to cheat. It also keeps star students from shining.
"In traditional academe, I know my best students well enough to write recommendations describing their personalities and accomplishments in detail," Youngberg said. "Online anonymity results in references that mean virtually nothing."
Vernon Ehlers, a former physics professor at Calvin College and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, also is skeptical about the value of distance education. In another story in The Chronicle, Ehlers argued that the opportunity to simply "slide through" is greater in online courses because all tests are taken with open books. The lack of face-to-face interaction and accountability in problem solving also can stunt the learning process for online students, Ehlers said.
Despite these challenges, many academic leaders believe that student satisfaction is equivalent for online and face-to-face courses, according to the Sloan Consortium. Regier sees online learning as a revolution in process, irrepressible because of the technology that drives it forward. For schools already offering classes online, the possibilities for expanding their education programs are virtually limitless. Schools still waiting to try distance learning have only three options, Regier said: "Either you get on the wave, or you get out of the way. Or you drown."