For students focused more on earning a degree amid competing demands than on enjoying the camaraderie of campus life, online higher education has become an increasingly popular option.
Colleges and universities around the country have been adding programs and classes to their online rosters, opening university doors to many students who don't have the time or flexibility to commit to a traditional class schedule.
More than 6 million students -- nearly a third of total enrollment at degree-granting postsecondary institutions --were taking at least one online course in 2010, the most recent year available in a 2011 study by the Babson Survey Research Group at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.
That's an increase of 560,000 students over the prior year.
One school that has experienced significant growth is California University of Pennsylvania.Total enrollment for the online program has ballooned from 300 students in graduate programs in 2005 to about 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students in 2012, said Millie Rodriguez, executive director of the school's Office of Web-Based Programs. The university's total student body is about 10,000, she said.
At Cal U, professors teaching online classes have the same standards and expectations as they do for on-campus students, Ms. Rodriguez said.
Online students still have weekly assignments, readings, lectures, class discussions and even group projects, she said.
"A lot of students don't have an opportunity to quit working to earn their degree," Ms. Rodriguez said. "This way, they can earn their degree after they're done working and having dinner and playing with their kids and putting their kids to bed -- as long as you have access to the Internet, you can take our programs online."
Cal U was ranked the No. 1 program in the nation for 2012 for its online degree and certification programs in the SR Education Group's Guide to Online Schools.
The education group, based in Kirkland, Wash., examined accreditations, tuition rates, student-to-faculty ratios, student feedback, graduation and retention rates, and the rate at which students repay their college loans on time in determining its rankings.
Nationwide, the growth in online enrollment has been larger than that for the total higher education student population in every year since 2003 when Babson began the annual reports.
The growth between fall 2009 and fall 2010 was 10 percent, compared with 0.6 percent in total enrollment at degree-granting postsecondary institutions.
The 10 percent rate of growth of online enrollment was smaller than in some earlier years, leading the authors of the report to wonder whether this "may be the first sign that the upward rise in online enrollments is approaching a plateau."
Meanwhile, researchers found what they called a small but noteworthy increase in the percentage of academic leaders who rated the results of online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face classrooms.
In their first report in 2003, 57 percent of academic leaders rated online education as the same or better, while 67 percent gave online education a thumbs-up in the most recent survey.
At Chatham University, Michael Finewood, an associate professor who began teaching an online class in sustainability in early January, has found that while some materials and methods are different from on-campus courses, the results appear to be about the same.
"For some people, it's probably great, while others are not learning all they should be, but the same thing could be happening if they were learning on the ground," Mr. Finewood said.
Chatham, like many colleges with online courses, uses an online teaching program called Moodle that allows professors to post articles and videos -- including recordings of their own lectures -- and communicate by email. It also allows students to respond to the material and to discuss it with each other.
Mr. Finewood said his class isn't lecture-driven, so the few videos he has posted are meant to add depth to the main material: readings of about a book a week, essays, online class forums and field assignments such as attending municipal and community organization meetings.
Mr. Finewood said he tries to email his students every day with questions about the material and related news articles.
Still, he wonders if his message is getting through via information sent by email and posted online.
"One thing that often comes to mind is whether students are getting out of it what I want them to," Mr. Fineman said. "Are students picking up on the themes I want them to, are they learning what I want them to?"
Educators say the success of online education depends in part on students' level of focus and sense of responsibility. It's not for everyone, Ms. Rodriguez said.
"You have to be the one to initiate getting online to check your work and make sure you're meeting those requirements, which not everybody is ready to do," she said. "In that case, they might need the greater structure of a campus-based education."
Bill Holland, who finished his bachelor's degree with online courses at Cal U and now is pursuing the school's online graduate degree in exercise science, said he initially was skeptical of online education. But he was caring for his children, 5-year-old Troy and 4-year-old Bella, and Cal U's online courses gave him the flexibility he needed, he said.
Taking classes online saved money on child care and allowed him to enjoy his children's early years, said Mr. Holland, who lives outside Glendale, Ariz.
"For my wife and me, it was the fact that we wouldn't have to put the kids into day care," said Mr. Holland, a former personal trainer who wants to become an NFL strength and conditioning coach. "It's worked well for us."
At times, Mr. Holland said parts of some classes felt rushed: "There was some stuff I would have liked to focus on more intensely instead of shoving it all in."
And while professors were available for questions, he said, the medium of email and the Internet sometimes made it difficult to have indepth conversations without getting behind on other work.
But as in on-campus classes, improving his time management skills seemed to improve his performance, Mr. Holland said.
With multiple readings and papers and projects assigned at once instead of scattered over a semester, online classes allowed him to work ahead when he had some extra time -- if he used it properly, that is.
"I wasn't always a person who used time wisely, who was as structured as maybe I should be," he said. "It's almost like the freedom you have with online classes is either going to bring out the best or the worst in you."
Amy McConnell Schaarsmith: 412-263-1719 or firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published February 16, 2012 5:00 AM