At several Hawaii postsecondary institutions, students can now earn entire degrees without ever setting foot on campus.
The number of online courses at University of Hawaii campuses has skyrocketed, and now accounts for more than a fifth of all classes at Kapiolani Community College alone.
And K-12 schools are increasingly turning to Web-based programs for supplemental tools, credit recovery or to offer specialized courses that they otherwise couldn’t.
Simply, online education is "growing phenomenally," said Ellen Hoffman, chairwoman of the Educational Technology Department at the University of Hawaii’s College of Education. She added, "You’re definitely going to see more of it."
But amid the growth, experts are urging caution. Online education, they say, calls for new ways of teaching, motivating and interacting with students. It can’t just be about students staring passively at a screen and ticking off assignments.
"The idea that a student is going to sit down there by themselves and do a good job just because they have a computer in front of them really is kind of naive," Hoffman said.
KCC Chancellor Leon Richards, whose goal is to see about one-third of all classes at the campus move online, agreed. "It cannot be the same as a face-to-face (course)," he said.
Over the past decade, Kapiolani has embraced online education, in part, because administrators see it as a way to help more nontraditional students access KCC courses.
But early on, Richards said, KCC faculty members were concerned online education could affect the quality of courses. So the campus launched new training initiatives, and now instructors who teach online can earn a special certification. About 120 KCC faculty have already done so.
The considerable growth in online college courses and programs locally comes as higher-education institutions see enrollments rise amid the economic downturn.
Many people have gone back to school to build on skills or retrain for new professions. And online courses are a particularly popular choice for nontraditional students who often can’t attend school during the day.
For space-strapped institutions, online courses have also proved vital to tackling the increased enrollments.
John Morton, vice president for UH community colleges, said there’s "no way" community colleges could have accommodated the 36 percent increase in students over the past four years without expanding online education offerings.
Systemwide in fall 2011, the University of Hawaii offered 821 online courses, a fourfold increase from 2006. And more than 50 credentials or degrees can now be earned, in whole or in part, through distance education.
At KCC alone about 180 online courses and 20 "hybrid" courses, which include a mix of online and face-to-face work, are now offered. That’s about 22 percent of all KCC classes.
Other Hawaii universities are also expanding their online presence.
Hawaii Pacific University will offer 268 online classes in the fall and also has a number of online degrees. BYU-Hawaii is advertising more than 50 online courses for the fall semester.
Morton said while institutions need to continue to better prepare students for the unique challenges of Web-based courses, it’s clear that online education will continue to grow — and evolve — in the future.
He said more online classes will undoubtedly incorporate simulations, gaming and other interactive elements, and added the discussion in coming years will not just be about online instruction, but about "what the online world does to even on-campus education. It’s going to change the way people learn, period."
Morton and others also pointed out that online learning is not for everyone.
Students who struggle with time management probably aren’t a good fit. Neither are students who aren’t self-motivated.
And that, KCC student Karly Yoshimura says, is why she has steered clear of online courses so far.
"I’m afraid to take them," the 30-year-old said. "You’ve got to have the initiative to do it yourself. You have to remember to check the site."
Yumiko Maruyama, a Japanese national who is studying marketing at KCC, said she has taken a few online courses but opted for the in-person variety for those she knows she’ll need extra help in. "It depends on the class," she said.
While online education has become commonplace for many Hawaii college students over the past decade, it has been slower to take at the K-12 level. But there are signs of new growth.
The Department of Education plans to expand its e-school program this school year by as many as 1,000 students, to 2,500. And many public schools are using online credit recovery courses to help students who have failed one or more classes. (Hawaii also has two charter schools that are online.)
Meanwhile, several Hawaii private schools are planning to expand the use of Web courses as a way of diversifying their offerings. And many are incorporating online learning into face-to-face classes or using online courses for enrichment.
Hoffman, of the UH College of Education, stressed Web-based learning has the power to transform education, but not if the only change is that instruction happens online instead of in person. "We ought to be talking about what is the potential of technology to help students get where they need to be," she said. "Simply replacing a teacher with a computer … ignores all the different elements that have to occur for learning."