From pioneers to modern-day travelers, online learning has come a long way in the last decade. 

Each November, the United States Distance Learning Association shines a spotlight on what's happening with distance education programs, most of which take place online. This year is no different, as the association hosted webinars, and schools and colleges designed their own programs around National Distance Learning Week (NDLW), held Nov. 9-13.

"The overall mission of NDLW is really to bring awareness of online programming and also to celebrate what all of the schools and organizations and universities are doing," said Kim Airasian, the director of corporate and legal services at the association, who is in charge of the week's official events.

That celebration becomes even sweeter when education leaders remember where online learning used to be. A decade ago, just a small number of schools and universities had online programs, and they were really on the fringe of their operations.

"You almost felt like a pioneer, that you had this new land that was now yours and you needed to till it and get crops to grow, and you needed to build a place for your family, in this case, the students and the faculty," said Karen Pedersen, chief knowledge officer at the Online Learning Consortium, who remembers her experience building a program from scratch.

Today, online learning is a core component of higher education institutions' academic missions and operations. And it's hard to find K-12 or higher education institutions that don't have online programs.  

In higher education, this shift from a fringe effort to a strategic pillar has taken place, due in part to changes in both marketplace demands and how universities are funded. Students need more degrees and more flexible ways to earn them in today's economy, where degrees are more important. As state funding decreases, institutions are becoming more student-centered and looking to serve students more like customers.

Challenges to tackle

This funding drop in numerous states poses one of many challenges that institutions face as they consider investing in more online learning. Along with funding challenges, there's more competition for enrollment as students have more choices than ever to earn degrees online. That means universities must determine how to differentiate themselves with quality programs. 

Three federal challenges also need to be addressed. Federal policymakers are still skeptical that online learning is legitimate, so online learning professionals have to work twice as hard to prove that their work matters. 

Online learning authorization is a costly compliance measure for universities and companies that want to be approved to teach in multiple states, because they must be authorized by each state individually. While the State Authorization Reciprocity Act (SARA) lays out a governance structure that shows promise, not everyone accepts it. Thirty-six states and territories have laws on the books that require states to approve the institutions that are based within their territory. Once those states have approved an institution, the other states that have approved SARA will allow them to operate in their space without requiring them to do anything else.

In addition to these two federal challenges, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is important, but costly for online course accessibility, particularly when it comes to captioning videos. 

"ADA is very necessary, and it's not something that we should wish away," said Witt Salley, executive director of Clemson University's Clemson Online. "We should rather just wish for more cost-effective solutions for ensuring that our educational offerings are universally accessible."

Federal challenges aside, universities are still trying to work out how to authenticate student identity so credit is given to the person who actually took a course. Depending on the institution, they're still working through faculty and leadership resistance to online learning and trying to educate employers so that they will accept alternative credentials. Three other challenges include keeping pace with new technology, providing the proper infrastructure to support online learning, and making technology devices and learning management systems easy to use.

The next frontier

While online educators will always have challenges to deal with, they also have a future to look forward to — a future where mobile devices and Internet access can help provide more education opportunities to students around the world.

Learning sciences and data analytics will inform teaching and learning, and other university decisions in even more ways than they are now. Competency-based, adaptive and personalized learning will help meet students' needs better at schools and universities. And student support will become more of a priority.

Online learning will also continue its trajectory of consistent growth and become even more mainstream than it is now.

"I don't think it's an industry that's on a downward spiral," said John G. Flores, managing director of the United States Distance Learning Association and professor of educational leadership at Nova Southeastern University. "If anything, I think it's on a continuous vertical climb."