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US: Sloan survey shows online learning up 12%

The just-published 2008 Sloan Survey of Online Learning has revealed that enrolment rose by more than 12% over a year and that nearly four million students were studying at least one online course by late 2007. Staying the Course: Online education in the United States, 2008 surveyed more than 2,500 colleges and universities nationwide, is the sixth annual report on the state of online learning in American higher education, and was a collaborative effort between the Babson Survey Research Group, the College Board and the Sloan Consortium.

The study found that online enrolments "have continued to grow at rates far in excess of the total higher education student population, with the most recent data demonstrating no signs of slowing". A 12.9% growth rate for online enrolments was far higher than the 1.2% growth of the overall student population. "Over 20% of all US higher education students were taking at least one online course in the fall of 2007," says Staying the Course.

The study looked at the impact of the economy on online enrolments, and found that colleges and universities believed shaky economic times would impact positively on overall enrolments "and that specific aspects of an economic downturn resonate closely with increasing demand for online courses with specific types of schools". There was agreement that higher fuel costs would encourage more students to select online courses, and the survey found that institutions offering programmes that serve working adults were most positive about the potential for overall enrolment growth being driven by rising unemployment.

There was wide agreement between academic leaders - who have important decision-making powers in institutions - and faculty regarding motivations for teaching online, with one key difference, the survey found. "Both chief academic officers and online teaching faculty said that flexibility in meeting the needs of students was the most important motivation for teaching online." Being required to teach online had the lowest-rated motivation among both groups, while faculty stressed student-centred issues more than academic officers. "The largest difference in view is in the ranking of additional income as a motivation; chief academic officers ranked this second of seven items, faculty ranked it fifth."

For online education to continue its rapid growth, the study postulated, it must be seen as important by chief academic officers planning future offerings. The past five years had shown "an increase followed by a levelling in the proportion of those institutions stating that online education is critical to their long-term strategy". Public institutions were most likely to believe online education was critical to their strategy, while around a third of baccalaureate institutions considered this to be the case against about half of other institutional types.

Staying the Course looked at which disciplines were best represented online, and discovered "roughly equal penetration for seven of the eight major discipline areas being examined". Engineering was the only discipline with "much lower" online representation, and public institutions had the highest penetration rates for all disciplines other than engineering, it found. One question that remained unanswered, the survey said, was whether particular disciplines are better suited than others to online learning.

Staying the Course: Online education in the United States, 2008 is freely available on the Sloan Consortium website.
Full report on the Sloan Consortium site
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