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The digital revolution has forever changed how students obtain a higher education. According to U.S. News & World Report, more students are enrolled in at least one online college class than ever before. Then, consider these numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics: In fall 2012, the largest U.S. university campus by enrollment was Arizona State University, which clocked in at 60,169 students. Now compare this to the 380,232 students enrolled in the primarily online University of Phoenix, or the 70,011 enrolled in the all-online Kaplan University.

What’s it all mean for traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities? Is online learning poised to become the new norm?

Online Learning Goes Mainstream

It's doubtful the virtual classroom will replace the physical classroom anytime soon, but the evidence does suggest that distance education will become the predominant form of education in the future. What’s abundantly clear is that traditional universities are offering more online classes in an effort to compete with distance education universities.

For example, in fall 2012 the educational powerhouses MIT and Harvard launched edX, a venture that offers free online courses to anybody with an Internet connection, with the goal of creating an online community attended by millions. Though these particular types of classes, known as massive open online courses (MOOCs), offer no credit toward a degree, they are surging in popularity, and the two institutions expect other respected universities to join in this venture. Similarly, Stanford has Udacity, and Princeton, Yale and Carnegie Mellon are following suit with their own MOOCs. Add to this the number of the nation’s top programs that can be found online, and it’s evident higher education is experiencing a revolution.

The Pros of Getting an Online Education

So what does online education have going for it?

Improves accessibility. Online education makes it easier for everyone to get the same quality of education, whereas attending traditional college isn’t always possible to those from certain geographical areas or walks of life. Disabled students may find access to a higher education is easier than attending college on a traditional campus, and people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to go to college due to work and family obligations can now study on their own time from the comfort of home.

It’s usually cheaper. There are many factors that come into play as far as which is more expensive, online school or brick-and-mortar colleges, including whether a student chooses to go to a public or private institution, in-state or out-of-state, and the amount of financial aid granted. One thing is for certain – the costs associated with attending a traditional college (room and board, commuting costs) are greater than attending college online.

The Cons of Online Learning

There are drawbacks to online learning, as well.

Lack of widespread respect. When it comes to hiring graduates who earned their degrees online, it's really a crapshoot as to whether the hiring manager will view that degree as valid. Skepticism still exists, especially when it comes to the matter of accreditation.

Lack of “real world” experience. Students are in a more isolated learning environment online. Many cite the inability to exchange ideas with peers and educators face to face as a detraction.

Will State Schools Join the Frenzy?

The prized concept of a free marketplace is playing to the advantage of distance education students. While online schools have high enrollment numbers, state schools are in the position of being able to offer the flexibility distance education provides while still offering degrees held in high esteem by businesses and companies across America. Most states prize education and funnel taxpayer money to their state schools in an effort to reduce the financial burden on students. In cases where a student is pursuing a degree based on a cost perspective, state schools can often be much more affordable.

Online universities are certainly expected to gain more momentum, as people are increasingly interested in going to college exclusively online. How dramatically this will affect higher education as it exists today remains to be seen.

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