By John Collins
LOWELL -- As the use and speed of the Internet has increased since 1996, the number of online course recipients at UMass Lowell and other institutions of higher learning has grown rapidly with it.
Fifteen years after UMass Lowell began offering online classes, students enrolled in a record-breaking 18,558 online courses in the 2010-11 academic year, the university reported last week.
This newest all-time high number of UMass Lowell online enrollments was up more than 10 percent over the previous academic year, and 200 times the participation level of the university's first-ever "distance-education" class in 1996, noted Executive Vice Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney, the program's founder.
"UMass Lowell introduced online learning so busy people can get the education they need to achieve their professional and personal goals," said Moloney, who earned a lifetime-achievement award from the Sloan Consortium, an international organization promoting quality in online education. The consortium honored Moloney for overseeing the exponential growth of UMass Lowell's online program since 1996, when the original group of 80 students chose from only eight online courses.
"Online learning is never going to totally replace the brick-and-mortar university, face-to-face classroom experience, but the truth is, students and faculty interact significantly in online education," Moloney said. "We really do try to mirror what happens in the classroom, and many of our online students and faculty will tell you they actually have more interaction online than face to face."
The mileage a student gets from the traditional university experience can vary widely depending on how extroverted or vocal they are in the classroom, Moloney noted. More introspective students, those less apt to speak up or raise their hand in a classroom setting, may benefit more from the immediate-messaging and email interactions with their instructors that online courses offer.
Also furthering the appeal of online learning annually, Moloney said, has been a steady stream of significant technological breakthroughs and advances in cyberspace that have lowered the virtual walls dividing distant students from the university's physical classroom.
"Way back when our online students were dialing in over phone lines; this summer we revamped 25 courses to take advantage of the new richer communications technology -- iPhones, iPads, and other all-new rich media -- to achieve more fully synchronous, two-way interaction," Moloney said.
Now UMass Lowell online students who take art-history classes from Professor Liana Cheney can actually hear Cheney's famous lectures on the Mona Lisa and art world's other most beautiful creations "can see and hear Liana, one of our best faculty members, speaking in her beautiful (Italian) accent, as if they are right there in the classroom with her," Moloney said.
Technology also allows online students to ask questions of Cheney and their other professors either mid-lecture or by email, day and night.
There is no more ardent fan of UMass Lowell's online offerings -- or more accomplished student in the history of the distance-learning program, according to the university's spokesman, Christine Gillette -- than Anteah Jones, who graduated summa cum laude in June with a 4.0 grade-point average and bachelor's degree in the dual majors of psychology and criminal justice.
Jones, 29, a military spouse and mother of four children, ages 2, 3, 7 and 12, is a Virginia resident who said she has never set foot in Lowell. Her husband, who is in the Navy, directed her to choose UMass Lowell's online courses after conducting a web search looking for the most prestigious online degree at the most affordable cost. It proved to be the ideal choice for her, Jones said.
"Especially for military families, or other people who travel lot and try to use that as an excuse for why they can't further their education, there's no excuse, they can," Jones said. "There's no law that says you have to go face-to-face. You can get your education online and it's the same quality, if not more, because it takes dedication, tenacity.
"It's a wonderful program and without it, I would not have been able to complete my education," added Jones, who is aiming for a career as a forensic psychologist.
A typical three-credit course at UMass Lowell for the 2011-12 academic year is $1,450; a load of 12-credits or more is $5,650 for in-state students. Students not living on campus save themselves residence-hall and dining fees totaling $9,520.
As Moloney looks back at the decision to launch UMass Lowell's online program 15 years ago while she was heading the university's Continuing Studies and Corporate Education Division, it seems to be the biggest "no-brainer" ever. Since 1995, UMass Lowell has tallied 110,000 online course enrollments.
"We were extending and expanding access for adult learners who wanted to pursue education but couldn't do so because of time constraints," she said. "We know now from the response we got and letters I have received from students over the years that it was the right thing to do. It's very rewarding."
Nationwide, the business of bringing higher education to online students is also booming, The New York Times reported on Thursday. The NYT article quoted Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs an the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, predicting that the new wave of wed-based education will continue to improve and expand.
"For some people, it will mean going from a good education to a great one," Kamenetz said. "For others, it will mean getting some kind of education instead of nothing."
As more evidence that the landscape of higher education is shifting toward online enrollment, North Carolina State University senior Lindsay Lewchuk recently graduated tops in her class, one of 33 valedictorians in a class of 1,787 seniors. Battling an auto-immune disorder, Lewchuk, 26, didn't sit through a single class on campus. She took all her courses online, the university reported.