Bringing Schools Into the 21st Century

By: James Walker
Thirty years ago, school was a place to which people went. We learned from books that we checked out of libraries or bought in stores. All of our educational materials were printed out and took up space. School was something that we had to make time for. Thirty years ago the idea of going to college part time was foreign and the idea of using a computer as a classroom was unheard of. Wow have times changed! Like every other aspect of our lives, schools are trending more toward the web every day. Smartphones and tablets have almost eclipsed textbooks entirely in their use in the classroom. It’s safe to say that we’re at the tipping point: either embrace the web or get left behind.

A Growing Trend For All Ages

It would be easy to assume that only secondary schools like colleges and universities are making the jump to online classes and web based tools. The truth is that even kindergarten aged children can go to school online. Oklahoma has the Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy, which will have “hundreds of students.” Arizona has the Arizona Virtual Academy and Insight Academy of Arizona. North Carolina expects to have at least two online schools by next fall. For parents of K-12 aged students, online school is a great way to marry the desire to homeschool their children with the need to meet federal educational mandates and benchmarks.

A Booming Market

Even with all of the growth in the K-12 demographic, the primary market for online schooling is with adults. The marriage of homeschooling and federal education statutes mirrors a similar need in adults: the need for a formal education that can be obtained around (instead of in spite of or at the expense of) the demands of work and family. It is also important to note that the average age of an undergraduate student has gone up quite a bit in the last 30 years. According to the infographic linked in the introduction to this article, the demographics of a university are shifting away from the “primarily 18-22” toward the “primarily 25-30.” The number of students over the age of 30 who choose to go back to school is growing as well.

Meeting the Demand

With all of these demographic shifts added to the average student choosing to learn via virtual sources, it’s no wonder so many universities are scrambling to figure out how to meet the demand. Schools like Gwynedd Mercy University have even started to offer advanced online degrees. Students can go on to use Gwynedd Mercy graduate programs to get advanced and even Ph.D level degrees in finance and nursing.

Fierce Competition

With all of the demand for web based curriculum edging out the demand for traditional brick and mortar classroom based educations, the competition among schools offering online courses is stiff—but not in the way you might assume. The competition is not among students seeking admission. On the contrary, it is among schools who are attempting to increase their enrollment. Enter: The MOOC. MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Class. It is something that many universities are doing to allow potential students to “shop before they buy” a school’s curriculum. These classes are offered for free in the hopes that the students attending for free will pony up the cash for a full time course load. Even Harvard has been exploring the idea of MOOCs.

What Can You Do?

As an educator, then, how do you compete with the MOOCs and the industry “big kids” like University of Phoenix? And how do you figure out if web based offerings are right for your school?
1. Are Your Students and Faculty Asking For It?
If most of your day is spent fielding questions about the lack of web based programming, it’s time to start exploring the ways in which you can implement it.
2. Start Slowly.
Your school is likely already making prodigious use of online tools to connect students with professors, course materials and even each other. Try offering one or two classes entirely online. Pick a few courses from across your school’s programs and see how they fly. The network you’re already using will likely have the ability to run an entire course online built into it.
3. Promote Your School Online.
Never trust that people will find out about your online programs on their own. You need to promote them. This means online promotion as well as the traditional “fliers in high schools, direct mailings” route you’ve gone in the past. Make sure your school has a social media presence with a full time team behind it so that potential students (and current students) questions can be answered in a timely manner. Make sure that your school’s website is functional! So many universities insist on sticking with the same old basic website they put up ten years ago. You cannot do this if you want to attract 21st century and web based students!
The simple fact is this: web based schooling isn’t a fad. It’s a growing industry and it’s a bandwagon upon which you should jump. Immediately.
James is an avid designer and coder since he was 12, James writes and curates topics on both basic web development and advanced languages with a particular focus on mobile. Read his thought on tech on Twitter and his favorite articles on Google+.

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