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Digital Tweed: Mapping the Terrain of Online Education

Two Sloan-C reports provide both firm definitions for and hard data about the numbers of students involved in online education.

Like so many things in education and the academic community, much of the (sometimes polite, sometimes passionate) conversation about big issues is often driven by opinion and epiphany, rather than data and evidence. Certainly, the decade-long discussions on and off campus about distance and online education, fall into this mode. All (or at least many) of us have fixed and firm opinions about the efficacy and quality of online and distance education, and the impact of these programs for students and institutions.

“Online education is now clearly part of the evolving, 21st century landscape of American higher education.”

Consequently, it is useful and refreshing to find informative reports with credible data that help map the still somewhat uncharted territory of online and distance learning in American higher education. The November 2004 Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) Report, “Entering the Mainstream,” coupled with the Consortium’s September 2003 report, “Sizing the Opportunity” (both available at, bring timely, informative data to the occasionally contentious conversations about online and distance education. (Sloan-C, a consortium of institutions and organizations committed to quality online education, receives financial support from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation;

The two Sloan-C reports provide both firm definitions for and hard data about the numbers of students involved in online education. As defined by Sloan-C, an online course is one “where most [80 percent] or all of the content is delivered online” and “typically involves no face-to-face meetings.” Some 1.92 million students were enrolled in at least one online course as of fall 2003, up almost 20 percent from 1.6 million in Fall 2002. Sloan-C projected the Fall 2003 online course enrollment numbers would increase by a third to 2.63 million students for Fall 2004.

Not surprisingly, the Sloan-C data reveal that public and private-for-profit institutions are more likely to offer online courses than private colleges and universities. But much of the variation can be explained as a function of mission and markets: Many private liberal arts colleges (i.e., baccalaureate institutions) may offer what Sloan-C defines as Web-facilitated or blended/hybrid courses (courses with both “traditional” and online content that are still structured around traditional, face-to-face class sessions), and which serve their largely residential undergraduate populations. In contrast, both public and for-profit institutions find that online courses respond to both mission mandates (access and training for public institutions) and market opportunities (new or underserved markets, as well as revenue opportunities for all sectors).

These data confirm that online education (single courses or complete degree programs) is now clearly part of the evolving, 21st century landscape of American higher education.

Beyond the enrollment data, the Sloan-C reports provide important information about how chief academic officers assess the role and value of online education for their institutions. Just over half of the 1,170 respondents participating in the 2004 Sloan-C survey, typically chief academic officers, agree that “online education is critical to long-term [institutional] strategy.” In contrast, just 12.3 percent strongly disagree (23.3 percent among private institutions). Similarly, just two-fifths (40.6 percent) of the survey respondents strongly agree that “students are at least as satisfied with an online course” as compared to a “traditional” course (highest in private, for-profit institutions: 64.1 percent; lowest in private institutions, at 28 percent).

Asked to compare learning outcomes, roughly half (50.6 percent) of the Sloan-C survey respondents seem to feel that learning outcomes in online education are “about the same” as in traditional, face-to-face courses. Almost two-fifths (38.5 percent) believe current online offerings are inferior to traditional courses, while a tenth (11 percent) believe online to be superior. Perhaps not surprisingly, academic officers in private/for-profit institutions seem more positive about learning outcomes than their peers in other sectors: 82.6 percent view current online courses to be the same as or superior to traditional classes, compared to 75.4 percent in public institutions and 43.8 percent in private institutions.

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprising, academic officers across all sectors believe that the quality of online courses will improve over the next three years: Almost a third (30.5 percent) believe that online courses will be superior to traditional, classroom-based courses in three years, up from a tenth (11 percent) who view online courses as superior today. Officials in private/for-profit institutions are most optimistic about the opportunity to enhance the quality and outcomes of online courses: 58 percent see outcomes in online courses as being superior to in-class offerings in three years, compared to 37.5 percent in public institutions and just 20.9 percent in private institutions.

Admittedly, I’ve drawn selectively from the Sloan-C data, which is snapshot of the landscape of online learning. The Sloan-C data document past and prospective growth, and confirm that online courses and programs are now, without question, core to institutional strategy across all sectors. Too, the Sloan-C data suggest some critical “reach & grasp” issues in the area of student satisfaction, course quality, and learning outcomes. Although quality has always been difficult to define, let alone measure, academic officers participating in the Sloan-C survey acknowledge that online (and by extension, distance) education generally “has some distance” to go before it provides comparable outcomes to more traditional, classroom-based offerings. Future editions of the Sloan-C survey will certainly help those of us in the campus community who are interested in online learning understand the evolving terrain, tracking numbers for growth while also addressing the important nuances that involve quality and outcomes.

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