CHICAGO — Learning online might be a way of attending class in your pajamas. But for students like Maria Treto-French, it means listening to a lecture while watching your daughter’s volleyball game.
“The hardest part was making sure I had Internet access,” Treto-French said with a laugh about juggling working full time, earning her graduate degree at Northern Illinois University and hustling between after-school activities of her three children.
Treto-French is part of a growing number of students — 7.1 million, according to a January study by the Babson Survey Research Group — who snap open their devices and log on to learn. Babson also reported that about 34 percent, an all-time high, of higher education students take at least one course online.
Here is how most online courses work: Students connect to a website used by the school that allows them access to a variety of class materials, including but not limited to readings, lectures, group project plans and questions for their professor. Most classes are asynchronous — students aren’t present or doing work at the exact same time — though techniques and schedules also vary from school to school. Synchronous programs also exist but can be more difficult for students with fluctuating schedules.
When Treto-French attended graduate classes at the School of Business Management, it was almost old hat to her.
In 2011, when Treto-French went back to school, she studied at the largest university in the U.S., the University of Phoenix. Treto-French sailed through in less than three years, getting her degree and a certification for businesspeople overseeing technology in schools — a move that resulted in a promotion.
Like many of the students of online courses, Treto-French said she feels she is achieving not just for herself, but to be an example.
“I didn’t want my daughters to see their lives with limitations,” she said.
Some roots of online learning might be in “distance learning,” a concept that harks back to 1840, when the Englishman Isaac Pitman created a way for people to learn shorthand through the mail.
Moving forward through time, distance learning ran parallel to technology: As methods of communication evolved, so did the ability to educate huge numbers of people online.
Follow the fiber-optic cables to the present day, and learning online has exploded: The largest for-profit university in the U.S., the University of Phoenix, is exclusively online with more than 300,000 students worldwide.
Though there is some pushback about the challenges involved in learning online, huge swaths of people spread out across the world have been able to learn everything from business technology to advanced particle physics because of online courses.
This boom also has meant good news to students who hold online degrees.
The ubiquity of online programs has boosted the value of online diplomas. A Gallup poll released in April showed that 37 percent of Americans believe online degrees are as trustworthy as traditional degrees, up from 30 percent in 2011, the first year Gallup posed the question.
A study by the Pew Research Center showed that 51 percent of college presidents valued online learning equally to courses taken in a classroom.
The general public is more difficult to convince, though — just 29 percent in that same study said they believe online learning imparts the same kind of wisdom.
“Overall it has just opened up a lot of flexibility for people,” said Scott Jaschik, editor and co-founder of InsideHigherEd.com. “One of the biggest-growing groups is students who are enrolled at a campus institution.”
That means that even students paying for real-life face time with professors are opting for the online class model as well.
Jaschik said that especially for professors of MOOCS — Massive Open Online Courses, offered to many thousands of students at once — the classes can stretch a professor’s resources and a university’s campus services to their limit.
“This is a generation of students that expects an email (response),” he said. But that is good news for professors: as tenure-track positions disappear and universities face funding cutbacks, online positions can be ideal for professors teaching at universities across the country to add to their portfolio.
“I know a lot of adjuncts who are thrilled with online education — it can open up a lot of opportunities to them,” Jaschik said.