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Online Education, Growing Fast, Eyes the Truly ‘Big Time’

Orlando, Fla. — Online education is a runaway best seller. Its growth rate — 12.9 percent — dwarfs the overall pace of academe’s student expansion. More than 25 percent of all students may have taken at least one online class this year, according to a speculative estimate suggested at a distance-education conference that wraps up here today.

But the success isn’t smashing enough. Not even close.

That’s the case made by A. Frank Mayadas, an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation program director who called on online educators gathered here to meet what he sees as a major need — fast. And Mr. Mayadas, considered the Father of Online Learning, suggested in an interview following his speech that the government should step in with some $500-million to support traditional online courses — not just the experimental “free” courses that have emerged as a darling of the Obama administration.

Questions of growth and scale were key issues for some of the 1,435 people who attended this year’s Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning. The turnout, which included 170 virtual attendees, grew from last year’s 1,190 participants. That’s a notable feat during a difficult time for academic travel and a period of transition for the Sloan community, with Mr. Mayadas stepping down and his foundation ending a grant program that has poured roughly $80-million into online education.

The disappearance of this key outside support comes as online- and continuing-education operations at public institutions are under “high pressure” to generate cash surpluses to “backfill” money lost from state budget cuts, said Hunt Lambert, an associate provost at Colorado State University Continuing Education. “It seems to be happening nationwide,” he said.

The challenge for C. DeWitt Salley Jr., director of online teaching and learning at Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Mo., is how to support growth that can reach 40 percent per semester with limited resources. The one additional staff person his unit got in the past couple of years was transferred over from the library, he said.

“We always dream of a day when we’ll be able to get ahead and actually plan,” said Mr. Salley, 24, who is part of the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning. “Instead, we’re usually just on survival mode. I work 8 to midnight, usually. That’s an easy day.”

Mr. Mayadas’s call for scale raises questions about how colleges would need to change to achieve what he considers blockbuster-size programs. He thinks the need for a sensible approach to involving the faculty is one “major bottleneck,” pointing to a recent survey that revealed faculty members’ doubts about online quality.

“If we’re going to have instructor-led courses,” Mr. Mayadas said, “you better get your faculty very enthusiastic, beating on the doors, saying, ‘Give me help. I want to go online.’ And I don’t think we’ve done that.”

The recession has created a major need for re-educating workers who have lost their jobs, Mr. Mayadas said. Community colleges are both ground zero for retraining and a huge source of online growth. Mr. Mayadas used Mr. Salley’s story as evidence for why the federal government, which is proposing to spend $500-million building “open” online courses, should also invest in expanding traditional online education.

“We have a winner on our hands,” he said. “It is not up to the size it could be. It needs that push. It needs a national push. Community colleges, four-year schools, major colleges — they need assistance to cross the threshold to the big-time.”

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