More than 19,000 Ivy Tech studentsroughly one in fivetook an online course last fall. That's a 25-percent increase from just two years ago. Meanwhile, total enrollment climbed 23 percent, to 88,017 students.
Rapid expansion across the 23 campuses is pushing computer coursework as an alternative to the traditional classroom, said Stan Jones, Indiana's commissioner for higher education.
"The growth at Ivy Tech has been phenomenal," he said. "They can't build buildings fast enough."
Recognizing online education as the "wave of the future," the state Commission for Higher Education turns thumbs up or down within just 60 days on requests by colleges and universities to add online courses, Jones said.
Ivy Tech's online program, which has existed since 1996, is being fueled partly by working adults returning to school to better their careers.
Take Chrystal Boston, a 28-year-old mother of three. As a customer service representative in Ivy Tech's financial aid department, Boston struggles to juggle work, parenting and class.
The four online courses she took during the fall semester should help her earn a two-year degree this spring in business management with an emphasis on human resources.
"It was just more flexible than having to worry about being in class or having to take my children to the dentist," Boston said. "I can take my homework anywhere I can get Wi-Fi access."
Boston is among scores of students who prefer studying online. More than 3.9 million took at least one online course during the fall of 2007, a 13-percent jump from the same period a year earlier, according to Massachusetts-based Sloan Consortium Inc. The increase far exceeds the 1.2-percent growth in overall student population.
The organization, which is dedicated to integrating online education into colleges and universities, said high gas prices, rising unemployment and universities' recognizing a need to better serve working adults are driving the growth.
Michael Lambert, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Distance Education and Training Council, an accreditor of distance-learning programs, sees no signs of slowing.
"As we go forward in the next 10 years, online education will become so mainstream we won't even talk about it anymore; it will be a way of life," he said.
Lambert expects the number of students taking classes online will equal the amount in classrooms and that higher education ultimately will become a hybrid of the two. In fact, that's happening on many campuses now.
Ivy Tech offers 397 online courses, including accelerated versions enabling students to complete classes quicker than the traditional 16 weeks.
They even can complete an entire degree online. Ivy Tech has 10 programs available: accounting, business administration, computer information systems, criminal justice, early childhood education, general studies, human services, library technical assistant and office administration.
The college plans to offer additional online programs and already allows students to transfer online courses to other universities. A student at Purdue University, for example, can take a class at Ivy Tech that transfers as an equivalent offering at Purdue. The option is particularly attractive during the summer, said Kara Monroe, executive director of Ivy Tech's Center of Instructional Technology.
Ivy Tech created Monroe's position roughly a year ago to meet rising demand for electronic academics.
"Online courses attract people simply because they like an independent learning style," she said. "They can take online classes on a schedule that meets their needs."
The independence comes with a small additional cost. Ivy Tech students pay a $10 fee per credit on top of the normal cost of the class. They can log on to complete their studies any time they wish. The only time they need to visit campus is to take an exam, which typically is administered in a learning or tutoring center free of fellow students. Assignments still need to be completed, just like in a classroom.
For that reason, online advocates agree that the less-disciplined probably should avoid the programs. The ideal online student is 25 to 50 years old, and typically more mature and structured, said Lambert at DETC.
Boston, the Ivy Tech student, agreed.
"There is no one telling you to do your homework; there's no one there to push you," she said. "You have to be extremely self-motivated."
And Lambert cautioned that anyone wishing to study online should first consult the Washington, D.C.-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation's Web site, chea.org, to ensure the program is accredited. If not, he warned, "you could be sending your money away to a fly-by-night institution."