The 21st century has ushered a host of innovation into the halls of colleges and universities across the nation. Students have warmed up to and embraced a number of these advancements, yet they still remain on the fence about virtual classrooms.

Though online courses give students latitude in terms of pacing and time management, nothing can make up for face-to-face interaction with professors and peers. A recent survey revealed that 78% of respondents felt that learning was easier in a classroom. However, this sentiment is unlikely to stop the proliferation of online courses and virtual campuses.

Virtual campuses manifest themselves in a number of ways. Not long ago, universities took “virtual” literally as they sought to recreate the on-campus experience online and use an online space as an answer to overcrowding. Virtual-reality programs such as Second Life are home to a number of institutions, even though the initial fervor has subsided amid disputes with Second Life’s proprietor, Linden Labs.

The potential of technology to address gaps in university resources or students’ attention spans has come into question before. The answer is never the same. Faculty once imagined that Facebook would allow them to connect with their student on a more visceral level. Concerns about impropriety have led most professors to eschew that social medium, with only 33% reporting that they use social media for instructional purposes.

Competition keeps any particular online environment from claiming preeminence, but universities’ widespread support of learning management systems has placed these systems at the forefront of digital education. Learning management systems such as Moodle, Sakai and Blackboard allow students to obtain coursework and interface with their peers and instructors through blogs, message boards and chat rooms.

Additionally, recent revelations such as Blackboard throwing its hat into the ring with MOOCs and competitors like Pearson signing deals to manage online degree programs offered by established universities, show that online learning is becoming more entrenched within and integrated into the higher education experience by the day.

Whether the virtual environments and digital education offerings of today will fall from grace like Second Life is anyone’s guess. The students and professors of tomorrow may yet warm up to the idea of online learning despite the format, especially if the educational quality remains constant even as the overall costs associated with the courses decrease.