Student Demand for Online Courses in TN Rising: Report

The number of UT Knoxville students taking distance or online classes has nearly tripled since the 2001 school year, a new report from the state’s Offices of Education Research and Accountability says.

The number went from 514 students in 2001 to 1,413 students in 2013 and is in line with significant growth nationally in interest in flexible, online ways to learn and get a degree. The report on online learning comes at a time when soaring student loan debt has captured the attention of politicians and the public — a problem BusinessWeek says may represent “the next big threat to the economy.”

The report doesn’t suggest the final word on that, but does track the early steps in an experiment undertaken by Tennessee and other states at affordable, online learning. Last year, state lawmakers put $5 million toward the establishment of a nonprofit, online school for Tennesseans who wanted to complete their degree. Students (who tend to be 25 or older) at this accredited online university pay about half what students at UT’s flagship campus in Knoxville pay in tuition:

“(Western Governor’s University) Tennessee’s tuition will average approximately $2,890 per each six-month term for full-time enrollment of at least 12 competency hours. By comparison, tuition and fees for undergraduate students at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville will total $5,597 per semester for full-time enrollment in 2013-14; tuition and fees for MTSU will be $3,920.34.”

A degree from WGU Tennessee can cost less as the student takes on more work, since pricing is set per term instead of per credit hour. Once a student establishes competency in a subject area, he can move on to the next class in the academic progression right away. That built-in financial incentive to finish efficiently should put college within reach of more working Tennesseans who want to stay out of debt. Online learning experiments are happening on Tennessee’s traditional physical college campuses, too.

The report documents the work to develop online courses through a collaborative of Tennessee’s public universities and technology center. In the high-growth field of nursing, the introduction of online coursework has provided students with more certainty that they can access the courses they need, even if a human at their campus is not available to teach the material that semester.

The report leaves open the question of whether students actually learn as well or better online, a question that the backers of MOOCs, or massive online open courses, are also struggling to answer. Also still to be measured is any cost savings estimate the state should expect from moving more coursework to the Web. Online courses cost more to put together on the front end than traditional, in-person courses, the report says, citing a study of the University of North Carolina’s online courses.

But if the UT Knoxville numbers are any indication, the demand for them is very real and likely to grow.

As to performance of students who participate in online learning, the report indicated that mixing remote coursework with in-the-classroom experiences may actually improve education outcomes over those who stick with classroom-only experiences. The OREA study  noted that the U.S. Department of Education has published research findings that suggest “students in online conditions perform moderately better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.” Those conclusions, however, are disputed by some.

Last summer, Gov. Bill Haslam signed a memorandum of understanding that launched Wester Governors University in Tennessee as part of his “Drive to 55” effort to enroll more Tennesseans in higher learning curriculums.