Education was once a luxury of the few. Confined to classrooms with four walls, a limited number of desks and a one-size fits-all model, there was no room for people who lacked the time or money to earn their college degree, or even a high school diploma.
This is no longer the case.
In the age of virtual classrooms, unlimited by space or time, education is becoming more and more accessible — and affordable. Online and hybrid learning models are making it possible for students to complete their education at a pace that suits them, preparing them with the skills, training and credentials they need to enter the workforce and excel in their careers. Whether they are high school students who struggled in the traditional classroom, or working adults balancing a family and career, online education views them all as equals, and the doors of its virtual classroom are open to all.
As the structure of our nation’s education system continues to change, our students are changing along with it. “Student” was once a code word for a five- to 25-year-old attending a traditional primary, secondary or postsecondary institution, but this is no longer the case. The National Center for Education Statistics predicts that the number of students over age 25 is likely to increase by 20 percent by 2020. In fact, 36 percent of all students in higher education enrollments today are over 25 years old, foreshadowing a future where nearly 50 percent of all “college” students are adults.
In a sense, the nontraditional student has become the traditional student. Today’s students do not have a typical age or income level. Instead, they are all lifelong learners pursuing their educational goals throughout their lifespans. They are middle-skilled professionals who are hoping to prepare for their careers and are using online learning as a way to find a balance between their personal obligations and educational goals.
Ivan, Lesli, Tasha and Mike are four students attending Penn Foster, a leader in career-focused online and hybrid education, whose stories help to explain this definition of today’s online learners.
Ivan is a student from Puerto Rico who owned a landscaping business for 17 years in his home country. His wife came to Boston to study, and Ivan came along with her. He wanted the chance to advance his education as well, but, after just moving to a new city, he did not have a lot of free time, so he enrolled in online school as a way to pursue his interests in auto repair and graphic design, while keeping up with his work and family responsibilities.
In his classes, he also created a resume to help him with future job and career searches. For Ivan, fitting his schoolwork around his schedule was a key advantage of his online education. Ivan expects to finish both his auto repair technician career diploma and his graphic design associate’s degree in March. He would eventually like to start his own business in Boston, and he looks forward to using his knowledge of graphic design when he advertises for and markets his new venture.
Lesli has a full-time job at Beacon Hospice and multiple degrees, but she wanted to continue advancing her education. After enduring the tragic loss of her dog, Lesli decided she wanted to be able to work with pets and their owners in a veterinarian’s office as a veterinary technician to provide them with the care and support they needed along each step of their pets’ lives.
Online education is the best fit for her because she can coordinate her study schedule around her work schedule, taking time to read and do homework on weekends or weeknights. The flexibility of this educational approach also allows her to use her degree virtually anywhere in the U.S. With the help of online education, Lesli is turning her passion for animals into a career path. She is about halfway done with her degree program and hopes to graduate by the end of 2014.
Finding a career path can be challenging, especially for people struggling to balance their school, work and family responsibilities. Tasha and Mike are perfect examples of this balancing act. They fell in love on their middle school bus and married as teenagers, dropping out of high school before they were able to get their diplomas. Since then, they’ve had three children, and they want to be able to support them with good jobs.
After spending a year searching for work, Mike knew it was time to get his high school diploma, not a GED, because he would not be able to find a good job without it. He and Tasha decided to finish their secondary education together, and it became a way for them to rewrite their past, providing them with the chance to spend time with their children, work and take classes on a flexible schedule.
On top of her school and family responsibilities, Tasha struggles with dyslexia. Traditional schooling was always difficult for her because tutors and extra help were harder to come by and deadlines came and went whether she had finished her work or not. With online schooling, Tasha has found that the ability to complete assignments on her own time, and the knowledge that tutors are always standing by online to help her, has improved the quality of her work and made her educational experience a positive journey instead of a painful memory. She has finished all of her courses, earned her high school diploma and plans to continue her education and eventually pursue a career as an ultrasound technician. Mike has one more elective course to take before graduating.
The educational journeys of these students are far from over. They are just four examples of a growing population of about seven million online, nontraditional learners. As the number of online students grows, the diversity of this population will also increase. After all, education should not be reserved for those of a certain age, socio-economic class or background. Ivan, Lesli, Tasha and Mike, and the millions of other students and potential students out there, deserve equal chances for success, and online education gives them the resources to achieve this.
Content from Bostinno, How Online Learning is Changing the Way We Define Students