Online learning comes of age

Distance learning, not least the online version, has always been known for plenty of hype, a lot of growth and not much data. Even in the United States, where online higher education has boomed over the past decade, there were no comprehensive enrolment numbers.

In an attempt to address the gap, private outfits such as Sloan-C and Eduventures made do with special surveys and clever estimates.

Confirmation that online higher education has paid its dues and is here to stay, is the recent inclusion of distance learning data in the US federal government’s IPEDS – Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System – database.

The fact that inclusion comes 15 years after the online higher education growth ride began, means such decisions are not made lightly.

In the slow-and-steady business of official data collection, variables must have staying power, definitions must be commonplace and institutions must actually collect the numbers in reasonably reliable fashion.

While the federal data is concerned with multiple ‘distance’ modalities, all the US supply and demand evidence I’ve ever seen suggests all but a small fraction represents online delivery.

What the data reveals

What does the new data reveal?

In autumn 2012, there were just over two million undergraduates in the United States studying exclusively at a distance, plus about 650,000 graduate students. This represents about 11% of all undergraduate and about 22% of all graduate students.

We know from other sources that most of these students are in their late 20s and above, balancing college with job and family.

The ‘some distance’ students range from those taking one to many courses remotely, and it is not possible to distinguish majority from minority distance students. Overall, the ‘some distance’ students numbered about 2.6 million undergraduates and 225,000 graduate students.

Most of the ‘some distance’ undergraduates are just taking one or two courses online as part of an otherwise conventional experience, while many graduate students are enrolled in low residency programmes where the off-campus portion is conducted online.

It is reasonable to conclude that close to one-third of US graduate students are currently studying exclusively or majority online. Such a high ratio is testament to how far online learning has come.

Market concentration

A mere 20 institutions command one-third of the wholly distance market in the US – a mix of for-profit schools such as University of Phoenix, specialist distance learning non-profits such as Western Governors University, as well as one or two more ‘traditional’ universities such as Liberty University, a private religious institution that embraced online at scale, boasting almost 62,000 exclusively distance students in autumn 2012, the third highest total in the nation.

Market concentration by a handful of institutions emphasises that the majority are still wrestling with the medium, struggling with which programmes to offer, how to motivate faculty, which tools to use and how to thrive in an ever-more competitive environment.

Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see whether the big players lose ground, as some for-profits have already done, and the market fragments as a result, or whether leaders can make more of a virtue of scale from a student or regulator perspective.

In autumn 2012 more than 2,000 universities, colleges and campuses reported at least 50 distance learning students, suggesting plenty of institutions with further growth ambitions and an increasingly crowded market.

Local but at a distance

The IPEDS database indicates that exclusively distance enrolment in the US represents about 51% residents of the same state where the campus is located, about 45% residents from another US state, about 1.3% international and the tiny remainder unknown.

This distribution points to how ‘local’ so-called distance learning can be, propelled by the convenience of not having to attend campus rather than lack of access in rural areas. The onus is on institutions to demonstrate the benefit of studying at a far-off school, where online has to bear all or the vast majority of the instructional burden.

With online options at local institutions in every state, it may be more challenging for institutions to turn to online programming as a way to break out of local geography.

The very low international student ratio is a reminder that it has been very difficult for US or any other institutions to make a success of wholly online programmes across national borders.

It would be fascinating to know if the ‘some distance’ students are somewhat more international, suggesting that online alone remains too immature to truly break international markets.

There is no question that as the domestic online market gets more crowded, institutions are increasingly turning to international opportunities. The 1.3% international student share in autumn 2012 should caution schools that blended learning may be the way forward.

So now, finally, we have comprehensive student data for distance learning in the United States, even if enrolment by field of study still necessitates estimation.

With aggregated data also available for other big English-speaking countries like Australia and the United Kingdom, the global puzzle is a little less vexing.

The challenge for US institutions is to continue to hone a differentiated strategy, whether domestic or international, in this complex, crowded and now better-illuminated online market.

* Richard Garrett is director of performance analytics, North America, representing i-graduate and Benchmark +, both part of Tribal Group. He was formerly at Eduventures, where he led the company’s work in online higher education. Email: Richard.Garrett@i-graduate.org.