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Survey: Even as Online Course Enrollment Rises, Institutional Support Shrinks

Even as online course registrations continue to rise, fewer academic leaders consider online learning critical to their "long-term" strategies or rate the learning outcomes in online education as equal or superior to face-to-face instruction, according to a new report from the Babson Survey Research Group. This year's Survey of Online Learning was sponsored by Pearson, the Online Learning Consortium, StudyPortals, Tyton Partners and the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies.

While the number of students taking at least one online course was just 3.9 percent higher in 2015 than the previous year, private nonprofit schools saw a major uptick: a growth of 11.3 percent. Private for-profit institutions, on the other hand, saw distance enrollments shrink by 2.8 percent.

The total number of students in online courses was 5.8 million for fall 2014. That population is almost evenly split between those who take all of their courses online (2.85 million) and those taking just some online (2.97 million).

The largest number of students in distance education is at public institutions, which supply almost 73 percent of undergraduates and nearly 39 percent of graduate students in online courses.

On the administration side, while the majority of institutions reported that they remain "steadfast" in believing that distance offerings are "critical" for their long-term strategies (77 percent in both 2014 and 2015), the proportion of college leaders who stated that online learning is "critical" continued its slide from 71 percent in 2014 to 63 percent in 2015. According to the report, the change is coming from institutions that lack online offerings. Whereas 34 percent of those schools thought the distance offerings were important in 2014, that proportion was only 19.5 percent in 2015.

There was also a slip in the percentage of academic leaders who rated the learning outcomes from online education as good as or superior to face-to-face instruction. While that sentiment grew from 57 percent in 2003 to 77 percent in 2014, the rate for 2015 shrank by six percentage points to 71 percent in 2015.

In spite of an overall happiness with learning outcomes, the academic leaders continue to perceive little faculty acceptance for distance courses. Only 29 percent "believe their faculty members accept the value and legitimacy of online education." That's a lower rate than was recorded in 2004. The most positive view exists within those institutions with large distance enrollments, where six in 10 academic leaders report faculty acceptance of online programs.

Support for massive open online courses (MOOCs) continues to grow, albeit slowly. Whereas MOOC offerings were delivered by 2.6 percent of institutions in 2012 and 8 percent in 2014, now that statistic stands at 11 percent. Almost six in 10 (59 percent) schools say they have no plans to offer MOOCs.

"The study's findings highlight a 13th consecutive year of growth in the number of students taking courses at a distance" said study co-author I. Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, in a prepared statement.

Even as institutions with distance offerings continue to be "as positive as ever," added co-author Jeff Seaman, "there has been a retreat among leaders at institutions that do not have any distance offerings."

The research firm said this would be the final year for the Survey of Online Learning research project. Babson has been producing "annual reports" to monitor the state of online learning since 2003. However, now the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) has begun tracking distance education alongside the research efforts of a number of other organizations, marking a "coming of age" for online and distance education. As the authors explained in the foreword of this year's report, "When more than one-quarter of higher education students are taking a course online, distance education is clearly mainstream."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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