New Jersey’s fastest-growing college doesn’t even have a campus.

Thomas Edison State College, based in Trenton, has almost 21,000 students this year, more than double the 10,200 enrolled at the college a decade ago. Students never set foot in a classroom, taking all of their courses online or through other distance-learning formats.

Traditional colleges also are offering a greater number of online courses and degrees as they work to meet students’ desire for flexibility and alternate paths. But it is a challenge for colleges to keep up with rapidly changing technology that can accommodate all the ways students learn and communicate.

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“The future of online education has to change to meet student expectations,” said Matthew Cooper, assistant provost at Thomas Edison. He said the school has switched from the Blackboard delivery system to Moodle and Google Docs. It also moved content into cloud storage, where students can download it to whatever device they are using.

“We have to have technology that is compatible with all the other technology,” he said.

About 26 percent of all students at Atlantic Cape Community College take online courses, making up about 15 percent of all credits, said Ronald McArthur, dean of liberal studies. The college was an early advocate of online courses, to accommodate the 24-hour schedules of casino and tourism employees.

While the college offers more than a dozen degree programs totally online, McArthur said most students take a mix of online and on-campus courses. The college also offers hybrid courses that meet in person less frequently and allow students to do most work online.

“Students who want to test the waters will try a general education course online,” McArthur said. “But for their specialized courses, they’re still more likely to want to be in the classroom.”

Richard Stockton College offers 65 undergraduate and 30 graduate courses online, and about 5 percent of students are taking at least one online course this semester, said Susan Davenport, recently hired as the new vice provost for e-learning. An additional 5 percent of undergraduates and 18 percent of graduate students take hybrid courses.

Davenport said the most popular courses are for the RN-to-BSN degree for registered nurses who want to get their bachelor’s degrees, and the physical therapy doctoral program. Both are geared to working professionals. Stockton also wants to add courses for adults who may need just a few more credits to complete their degrees.

Davenport said while almost any course can be taught online, not all are the best fit.

“Even the new software can’t really replicate a science lab experience,” she said.

Davenport said she would recommend students take at least one online course to become familiar with the technology and the experience, as many jobs will require them to work remotely with others. She said students may know how to use a device, but still have gaps in how well they can evaluate the accuracy of the material they read online.

Testing and preventing cheating remain challenges. Students may be required to take a test at a proctored location, and software is available that tracks students’ eye-movements and keyboard styles to try to identify cheating. McArthur teaches a history course online and said he has students write more essays rather than take tests.

“The goal is what they get out of a course, not how they get it,” Davenport said.

Stockton psychology professor Mark Berg teaches both on-campus and online courses. He said students must be self-motivated to work online because it is easy to fall behind, especially during the short summer sessions.

“In class, just by showing up and interacting they are learning,” he said. “I try to provide more resources online, but students still have to be willing to look at them.”

Students who take online courses tend to be older adults with families and jobs. The average age of a Thomas Edison student is 36, and would likely be older but for a contingent of students serving in the military, said Cynthia MacMillan, director of learning outcomes at Thomas Edison. Students typically earn their bachelor’s degrees in a little more than three years, but most enroll having already earned some college credits and they can earn credits for life skills through testing.

MacMillan said the school is looking at ways to monitor student behavior to identify and help students who are struggling.

“We can’t wait until the end,” she said. “We can check how often they are logging in and if assignments are being completed on time.”

Students said it was the convenience and flexibility that convinced them to take classes online, but they had to be self-motivated to finish.

In George Coley’s case it was his daughter, who when she graduated from high school announced she didn’t need to go to college because he didn’t have a college degree but still had a job. The systems analyst at the William J. Hughes Technical Center decided it was time to go to college.

“It was something I had wanted to do, and at Thomas Edison I could pick my own schedule,” said Coley, 56, of Mays Landing. He got his associates degree in applied computer studies and is now working on his bachelor’s degree.

Jennie Ayres, of Mays Landing, was told by a high school guidance counselor that she wouldn’t amount to anything when she had a baby at 16 in 1969. But she worked and eventually got her associates degree from Atlantic Cape. She attended Rowan University (then Glassboro State College) for teaching, but the commute was too difficult. When she lost her job in 2008, she decided to finish her degree at Thomas Edison.

“It gave me the flexibility to still look for work,” she said.

She now works as the event and conference planner at Atlantic Cape, where her schedule didn’t keep her from achieving another goal — obtaining her master’s degree in management in May for her 60th birthday, also from Thomas Edison.

“I’m a people person,” she said. “But the online program worked around my schedule.”

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241

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