Over the past five years, higher education has undergone a quiet revolution that promises to shape the campus experience of the future. Advances in technology that have made high-quality online education a reality sparked this transformation. According to the Going the Distance study conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board, more than 6 million students enrolled in at least one online course in Fall 2010, representing a 10.1 percent increase over the previous year. In fact, the growth of online college education is exceeding the overall growth of higher education. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, MIT President L. Rafael Reif describes the impact of online learning on the field of education as comparable to the introduction of the printing press.

The Evolution of Online Education Technology

The use of computers as learning tools began in the 1980s with standalone applications used by schools and private businesses for tutoring and training. The evolution of the Internet led to the development of online classes, which until recently were offered almost exclusively by less than reputable for-profit schools. Early online courses resembled correspondence courses, with students receiving lecture material online instead of through the mail. But as multimedia technology became more sophisticated, online platforms were introduced that allow students and instructors to interact in real time. These platforms support the academic standards of the leading providers of higher education. Over the past few years, top-tier universities including the University of Southern California, Georgetown University, the George Washington University and American University have developed graduate degree programs for the online arena that are in all ways equal to their on-campus counterparts.

Online Education Programs Today

Online graduate programs offered by elite universities enroll small groups of students and take full advantage of interactive technology to create virtual classrooms that mimic the on-campus graduate school environment. The curriculum typically includes a mixture of live instructor-led sessions conducted via video chat and well-produced course materials for students to study on their own time. Students enrolled in these online degree programs can network with their peers and consult with their professors face to face, just as they would in an on-campus program. And upon program completion, a fully accredited degree that is no different from an on-campus degree is awarded.

Available More Often and from More Locations

The Internet has provided students with more freedom in conducting research. In the future, online education promises to give students even more options in how they learn by allowing them to access pre-recorded lectures at any time and from any location. Online education will also provide flexibility for working professionals who need degree and certification programs that fit into their busy schedules. Instructors will be freed from the repetition of lecturing and will be able to devote more classroom time to discussion and questions. Since online educational platforms provide data on how students learn, there will also be new opportunities for refining and reworking the classroom experience to be most effective.

But What About the Campus?

Education experts don’t expect college campuses to disappear completely, but on-campus students can expect to see their learning experiences transformed by online education in the years ahead. For larger public universities, online courses can help ease class crowding and teacher shortages. Online education can also expand the academic opportunities for students by giving them short-term experiences at top schools. A new online program called Semester Online, offered by a consortium of colleges and universities including Duke, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame and several other top schools, allows undergraduates to enroll in courses taught live by renowned instructors from the spectrum of schools. Familiar social networking tools also help students network and connect with their peers and professors.

In the future, programs like Semester Online will allow many students to study abroad, conduct research or fulfill personal responsibilities while enrolled at a prestigious U.S. university. This would have been impossible in the days before online education.

A Future of Greater Opportunities

The evolving set of digital tools that support online education offers the promise of a university degree to those who might otherwise be unable to attend on-campus classes. Online education will also allow more students to attend the school of their dreams without having to relocate. Students with personal, professional and community ties will have new options for staying home while earning a degree.

Sarah Fudin works as the Inbound Marketing Manager for the George Washington University’s online Masters degree in Public Health program; which provides the opportunity for students to earn their online MPH degree through GW’s new innovative online platform. In her free time, Sarah enjoys running, reading and 16 Handles frozen yogurt. Follow her on twitter @sarahfudin.