Social media and the Web have dramatically changed how colleges recruit and teach students. Even the coveted acceptance letter has become passé.

Debra Smith teaches several courses at Ohio University’s Lancaster campus that would have been hard to imagine 20 years ago. Hard to imagine because the assistant professor of health technology rarely meets face-to-face with her students.

All of Smith’s class lectures and exams and 90 percent of the coursework are conducted online. Students mainly communicate with her through email, and they are more likely to hear her voice by watching one of her many seven-minute online lectures than they are to hear her speak in person.

In fact, Smith meets with her students just five times each quarter, during scheduled class meetings. “They are used for questions or further discussions,” she says. “Everything they do to earn their grade is done online.”

Welcome to the university of the 21st century. Not all college and university classes are conducted online, of course, but in just the past few years, technology has dramatically changed the way higher education students learn. Even traditional face-to-face classes are being reshaped by technology innovations—and by changing attitudes among students who grew up with the World Wide Web.

The notion that technology could transform education has been around a long time. Tom Erney, dean of distance education at Columbus State Community College, notes that educators spent a lot of time decades ago talking about how radio or television would reshape the classroom, but their impact was relatively minimal. Students continued to learn in much the same way they had for centuries: with textbooks, papers and instructors lecturing in a classroom at a predetermined time.

“Not until the advent of the Web has there been such an impact on teaching and the way that students are learning,” Erney says.

The Digital Classroom

Much of the impact that technology has had on higher education wouldn’t be readily apparent to a visitor dropping by a classroom. That’s because, increasingly, much of the coursework and administrative aspects take place online, before or after the class itself.

At Ohio State University, students use “Carmen,” the university’s course management system, to keep up with what’s happening in class. An instructor can put up a syllabus, distribute notes and collect assignments.

More than just a supplement to the course, these online components are changing the very definition of what it means to go to class, says Liv Gjestvang, outreach lead for OSU’s learning technology team.

In the past, much classroom time was spent disseminating information one way, from instructor to student. But with more material available online, the “sage on a stage” doesn’t need to occupy the lion’s share of those on-campus hours. “Rather than collecting information, they’re actually working through that material with the instructor and students,” Gjestvang says.

Today, for example, the first day of class is rarely a lengthy overview of the syllabus (that’s already online) or a discussion of what texts need to be read (those may already have been assigned and completed).

Erney says he has noticed this impact at Columbus State. “[Instructors] use the web as a way of presenting the content of the course,” he says. “You can spend your classroom time going over class projects, having class discussions and going over homework.”

That’s provided you have “classroom time” at all. Increasingly, the “time shifting” attributes of technology, such as digital video recorders and downloadable content, are coming to the classroom environment.

“The days of having to be home at 8 o’clock to watch ‘Seinfeld’ is over,” says Mike Hofherr, senior director of learning technology at Ohio State University. He says today’s teens and twenty-somethings want that same flexibility with their coursework. “They don’t understand why they have to be in a classroom at 2:55 and be there for 90 minutes,” he says. “That’s the students’ expectations about learning.”

Increasingly, students are taking advantage of tools such as online lectures that allow them to learn at any time of the day or night and review, as often as they want, content they have difficulty with. “We have a streaming media service, where we provide faculty the ability to post content online,” Hofherr says. In 2011, streaming lectures at Ohio State received 3.3 million hits. “The scale is enormous. It’s using technology to develop those flexible solutions to students’ needs. It’s meeting their lifestyles. Just because you’re not in a classroom doesn’t mean that you’re not present,” he says.

‘Much More Effective’

Perhaps it’s because the new technology is so accommodating, so flexible—so easy—that there is a lingering perception that online classes and education are somehow substandard.

“I would debate that in any forum, at any time, in any place,” says Smith. “That’s just not the case.” She contends it’s just the opposite: “I can be much more effective, one-on-one with my students. In a [classroom setting] of 40 people, I might get a chance to get to know and interact with 10 people because they are the ones that are active.

“Online, they can’t hide from me,” Smith says. Through email, she can give each student individual attention without worrying that classmates are being shortchanged. “I can send students what they need to meet an objective, and there’s no way to do that in a face-to-face class.”

This level of attention can come as a surprise to students, some of whom believe that an online course is a shortcut to an easy A. “They are not prepared for the amount of work that it takes to do well in an online class,” Smith says. “I think there’s a perception that anything online is faster, easier and presented in a way that’s a shortcut to real information. That’s what Google does for them. That’s what it’s like when they text.”

The technologies used in classes today are just tools for learning, professors say, and the content shouldn’t be judged by the tools. “It’s like a blackboard or slate that people used in the 1800s,” Smith says. “They make assumptions because of the vehicle I’m using to deliver the subject matter that it’s going to be easier.”

Catching on Quickly

Easier or not, online classes are wildly popular. At Columbus State, for example, the number of “seats sold” for online courses more than doubled between 2007 and fall 2011, from 11,678 to 24,857. The college averaged a 21.4 percent growth rate in student participation in online classes annually during that same period.

Many of these “seats” were occupied by students who also took traditional classes, but roughly 6,632 Columbus State students took only distance learning classes during the most recent fall quarter—roughly 22 percent of the total student population. “When the online courses were first offered, there were a lot of questions, both inside the institution and outside the institution, about whether this was more of a fad, or if this is something that is taking hold,” Erney says.

“As time has passed and more institutions have been involved in online learning, attitudes have changed,” he says. “As more institutions have done that, more students have entered into those programs and more students are realizing it’s a viable way to go to college.”

It’s particularly viable, Erney says, for people whose lifestyles don’t mesh well with the schedules and demands of a traditional college education: “We attract a lot of students who have busy lives. We have a lot of students who are working full time. Having this accessibility from their home and their office has been very helpful for them.”

Online education can also be found at Ohio State, which had 111 distance learning classes among about 7,000 offerings during fall quarter 2011. Many, however, were not purely online, but a combination of online and in-class experiences. OU’s Lancaster and Pickerington locations had 408 students enrolled in online classes and 273 in blended classes during the fall quarter.

Surprisingly, one thing that hasn’t changed all that much on campus is the use of books. While the general public has found iPads, Kindles and Nooks a great alternative to carrying around hardbound tomes, the textbook publishing industry has been reluctant to give up such a lucrative business model.

While much class reading material is online, the books themselves are only beginning to move to digital versions. “It’s a revolution that’s starting now, and we’re embracing it here at Ohio State,” Hofherr says.

To be valuable, digital books need to be more than just PDF versions of the written text. Hofherr says future “textbooks” could include videos to explain concepts or 3-D models of, say, a molecule to better show its form. “It’s about making an interactive piece of media for the students to consume,” he says.

Digital Recruiting

Just as it is revolutionizing the classroom, technology also is changing the way colleges recruit students. Remember waiting by the mailbox for a college acceptance letter? Today, that experience is an exception, not the rule. Prospective students also have a lot more sources of information about a college or university than a glossy brochure that features students laughing while sitting on a lawn in front of an ivy-covered brick building.

“Technology in general has shaped students’ and families’ expectations,” says Candace Boeninger, assistant vice provost for enrollment management and director of undergraduate admissions at Ohio University. “The university has responded, redeveloping how we talk to students, their families, counselors and other influencers.”

Expectations have changed in a number of ways, she says. A generation used to instant messages wants instant answers—and they’re getting them. OU’s student information system lets students apply, and later learn whether they’ve been accepted, online. “It allows us to communicate admission decisions in real time,” Boeninger says. “They can log in and the minute that an admissions advisor has clicked the ‘admit’ button, basically, [students] can see that they’ve been admitted.”

Boeninger stresses that computers don’t pick who gets in. “Human beings look at every single document we get and make admission decisions,” she says. However, putting the process online minimizes the paperwork and allows admissions advisors to spend more time reviewing applications. “We can think more about the applicant’s credentials,” she says.

Technology has cut down on paperwork for both the university and students, but it hasn’t necessarily brought a net savings in time to OU, whose application pool has grown from 12,367 to 13,271 between 2005 and 2011. “The prevalence of online applications has encouraged students to apply to more colleges and universities—it’s far easier to apply online,” Boeninger says.

It’s also far easier to get information online then it used to be. Today, it’s unthinkable for a college or university not to have an extensive presence on the Internet geared to attracting students and answering their questions.

Mark Cooper, director of marketing and communication at Ohio Wesleyan University, says he remembers attending a marketing conference in 2000 where it was reported that 65 percent of students began their college searches online. “Today, it’s virtually 100 percent,” he says. “The importance of having a robust online presence that engages students from the beginning is critically important.”

Ohio Wesleyan just launched a new admissions website, which includes videos promoting the university. “Many are student-produced, first-hand accounts of things on campus,” Cooper says. “It’s much more real and organic, rather than having it filtered.”

Columbus State, OU and OSU also have pages on their websites dedicated exclusively to the admissions process and incluce the ability to apply online.

Social media also has a role in recruiting, although not as much as you might think considering the amount of time high schools students spend detailing their lives online. Boeninger says students have specific ideas about how they want to interact with colleges and universities. “They want us to maintain a Facebook page and a Twitter feed, but they don’t necessarily want us friending them on Facebook. They want to maintain some boundaries,” she says. “We’re trying, in everything that we do, to be on their terms in their space and in the medium that they choose.”

Keeping up with the demands of potential students can be a challenge, Cooper says. “When I first began in higher education in 1994, the question was, ‘Do we have to have a website up?’ ” he says. “Now, not only do we have a website up, but it changes not just daily, but hourly. It requires a level of attention we just could not have imagined 15 years ago.”

The impact of technology on colleges and universities has been dramatic—and there’s no sign of a slowdown. “There’s always something new coming along,” Cooper says. “Google+ is rolling out, and we’ve been asked what we’re going to do with that.”

The challenge is figuring out what new tech wizardry will be a flash in the pan and which tools are here to stay. After all, schools only have so much time, money and resources.

“We look at each new toy and decide which one is going to work for us,” Cooper says. “You have to be much more diligent about what’s coming down the pike because you have to find a way to find resources [to support it] if it looks like one of those things that’s going to change the world again.”

Lawrence Houck is a freelance writer.

Reprinted from the February 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.