US: Online education growth dwarfs overall enrolment

I am co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group which, for the last nine years, has published a survey of online education in the United States. It has yet to see any clear indication of an overall slowdown in the growth of online education but there are changes in the differential growth of programmes and in the belief that, in some areas, online education is superior for students.

The rate of growth of online enrolments was slower over the last year, but it continues to outpace the rate of growth of the total higher education student population in the US. Every year since the first report in this series in 2003, the number of students taking at least one online course has increased at a rate far in excess of the growth of the overall student body.

The most recent estimate, for the autumn of 2010, shows an increase of 10% over autumn 2009 to a total of 6.1 million students taking at least one course online for that semester.

This is an almost four-fold increase in students taking courses online since our first survey in 2002, and represents a compound annual growth rate of 18.3% over the nine-year period. By comparison, the overall higher education student body in the US has grown at an annual rate of just over 2% during this same period.

Thirty-one per cent of all higher education students now take at least one course online.

There has been wide variability in the year-to-year growth of online education, with large increases through to 2005, smaller rates in 2006 and 2007, and jumps in 2008 and 2009 which are believed to be due to the economic recession sending many people back to school to finish degrees and improve their marketability for jobs.

There has also been a shift in the types of online programmes that are growing, shrinking or maintaining steady enrolment. Engineering, which saw some decreased enrolment in earlier surveys, is now showing steady enrolment and growth areas are health professions and related sciences and the liberal arts.

How academics rate online courses

The view that online education is 'just as good as' face-to-face instruction is by no means universally held.

There has been a slow but steady increase in the proportion of academic leaders who have a positive view of the relative quality of the learning outcomes for online courses against comparable face-to-face courses, but there remains a consistent and sizable minority who see online classes as inferior.

This year's results show a small increase among those who say online is at least as good as face-to-face classes. The proportion of academic leaders who now believe online education is as good as or better than face-to-face classes is now just over two thirds of all respondents, up from 57% in the first year of the study.

This does translate to a significant minority of one third of all academic leaders polled who continue to believe that the learning outcomes for online courses are inferior to those for face-to-face instruction. And this assessment shows a stronger dichotomy if we classify the institutions by whether they currently have any online offerings.

There are several areas of education where academic leaders rate online classes higher than face-to-face classes: student satisfaction, scheduling flexibility and the ability for students to learn at their own pace. At the other end of the spectrum, a majority believe that student-to-student interaction suffers in online courses and opinions are split on the quality of faculty-to-student communication.

Acceptance of online education

Faculty acceptance of online education has changed little since our first report. The perceived acceptance rate by academics varies widely between colleges and universities with online offerings and those without such offerings.

More than a quarter of chief academic officers at institutions with no online offerings report that their academics do not accept its value; which is, perhaps, a self-fulfilling prophecy. Institutions that offer only online courses and those that offer both online courses and full online programmes report that only 7% of their academics do not fully accept online education.

While the acceptance at institutions that are more engaged in online education is greater than at other institutions, there remains a level of concern among all academic leaders about the full acceptance of online instruction by their faculty.

Part of this observed pattern may be the result of hiring practices - institutions with extensive online offerings may be hiring teachers specifically for online education. In addition to this, fewer than one third of respondents reported that their academics receive any training for teaching face-to-face courses, but more than three quarters report training (internal or external programmes or mentoring) for faculty teaching online. This may also influence their belief in faculty acceptance of online education.

Use of open educational resources

Finally, new to the survey last year and asked again in 2011, was knowledge and use of an increasing number of open educational resources available for all courses (online or face-to-face).

Most surveyed academic leaders believe that open education resources will have value for their campus; 57% agree that they have value and fewer than 5% disagree.

These results are similar to those for the same question when asked two years ago, with one notable difference. The proportion of for-profit institutions agreeing with this statement has shown a large increase over the two-year period (moving from 49.8% in 2009 to 72.4% in 2011). Both private non-profit institutions and public institutions display smaller increases over this period.

* I Elaine Allen is professor of statistics and entrepreneurship at Babson College in the US, and co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group at Babson College.

* The full survey report for 2011 is available here. For more information on the Babson Survey Research Group, click here