To make their courses more convenient for working adult students, some schools are replacing job-unfriendly 13-week semesters with shorter, more intense courses. And some online universities, such as Capella, are trying to reduce frustration with online student collaboration by accepting only more mature students.
Many colleges are also ratcheting up the rigor of online schoolwork. Online courses now typically require students to post gradable comments about each week's assignment, which means that online students can't sit in the back of the class hoping the professor won't call on them. And several schools are cracking down on cheating. Some professors now require online students to collaborate on projects using software that shows who made what changes, so they'll know if any team members slacked off. Troy University in Alabama requires online students who want to take their tests at home to install software that locks down their Web browsers and a spy camera so that remote observers can make sure they don't cheat.
Colleges are also trying to make online courses more engaging by moving beyond simple reading assignments and videotaped lectures. Jeannette E. Riley, named the best online teacher for 2008 by the Sloan Consortium, uses and assigns podcasts and videos in her online English and women's studies classes at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. Good online courses require more work on the part of instructors and students, which can pay off in more learning, she says. "I love online teaching because no one can hide. Every voice is heard."
All of these new changes are drawing in students like Linda Summers, a 51-year-old corporate trainer in Canton, Ga., who wanted to beef up her résuméand skills but didn't have the time to travel to a university campus. When she signed up for her first online graduate education course at Troy University, "I thought: 'What have I done?' I thought I had made the biggest mistake," because that course required about 20 hours a week on top of her 40-hour-a-week work schedule. But now, in her second course, Summers is comfortable with the homework and has been pleasantly surprised by how much she enjoys the online conversations with the other adult students. "Online courses are perfect for me," she says.