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Online Grows, Doubts Persist

November 9, 2011

Despite theories that online enrollments might be approaching a plateau, the number of students taking at least one online course grew substantially for the ninth straight year, according to a new survey from the Babson Survey Research Group.

However, belief among academic deans and faculty that the quality of online education is at least as good as the face-to-face alternative continues to grow in grudgingly small increments, says the survey.

The new survey is the ninth iteration of an annual poll of academic administrators about online learning. Until this year, it was sponsored by the Sloan Consortium and administered by the Babson Survey Research Group, it was commonly known as the "Sloan-C survey." This year Babson is producing the survey itself, with sponsorship from Sloan and several other entities (including Inside Higher Ed). The researchers garnered responses from 2,512 colleges and universities, including both nonprofit and for-profit institutions.

Online enrollments grew 10 percent, as the number of students taking at least one online course (“online” defined here as a course where most or all content exchanges and class meetings occur virtually) crept past six million. It was the smallest bump in enrollments since 2006, and less than half the growth online programs saw last year (21.1 percent).

Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, had predicted a slowdown this year in light of possible capacity issues in the cash-poor public sector and regulatory scrutiny among for-profit institutions. In light of those pressures, which led some to forecast a full stall in online enrollments, Seaman told Inside Higher Ed that even 10 percent growth in the last year came as a surprise.

Meanwhile, views on the quality of online education compared to traditional courses have shifted by only 10 percent over the last eight years. In 2003, the first year the Babson group and Sloan-C conducted the survey, 57 percent of academic leaders estimated that learning outcomes in online courses were equal or superior to those of face-to-face courses. This year, the figure was 67 percent.

Though it did not sample faculty opinion directly, responses from those same academic leaders suggest that professors have also been slow to completely come around on online education. Since 2003, the proportion of respondents who agree that their faculty “fully accept” the “value and legitimacy of online education” has edged up from 30.4 percent to 32 percent.

Meanwhile, online enrollments have grown by 348 percent over that time. They now account for nearly a third of all enrollments in higher education.

Seaman and I. Elaine Allen, co-director of the survey and associate professor of statistics and entrepreneurship at Babson College, pressed the academic leaders with more specific questions to try to pinpoint what might account for their persistent reluctance to rate the quality of online education on par with face-to-face. The respondents acknowledged that online education was likely superior as far as flexibility of pace and scheduling. The traditional classroom won out on “student-to-student communications,” with the respondents giving the edge to face-to-face by a 12 percent margin (42 percent to 30 percent). Several other metrics were not listed in the draft report, but Seaman and Allen said opinions were pretty evenly split for each of them.

Taken together, the breakdown did not explain why a third of the respondents think students learn less effectively online.

“Examination of several specific aspects of instruction quality does not provide a clear determination of why academic leaders hold this view,” the authors wrote. “They rate online and face-to-face as equivalent along most dimensions, with a clear preference for face-to-face for only the single aspect of student-to-student communications.”

OER and for-profit sector

One new feature of this year’s survey was the inclusion of data on how academic leaders feel about open educational resources, or OER.

Spearheaded years ago by organizations such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, and the University of California at Berkeley, among others, OER has expanded and matured, with investments from governments, such as Washington State; organizations, such as Saylor.org; and even commercial vendors, such as Blackboard, which recently took steps to make it easier for instructors to find and use open resources.

The majority of academic leaders see OER as potentially valuable for their institutions: 56.6 percent agreed that “open educational resources will be of value for my campus,” with less than 5 percent disagreeing (the rest abstained from taking a definitive stance).

But to Seaman, the most surprising finding about administrative views on the value of OER was how warmly -- and recently -- the concept has been embraced by leaders at for-profit institutions.

In 2009, Seaman collected benchmarking data on respondents’ regard for OER in each sector of higher education, but ended up cutting that section from the final report. After reintroducing the questions about OER on the 2011 survey, Seaman drew on the 2009 figures to check on whether opinion had changed over the last two years. For public and private nonprofit institutions it had, but only marginally.

Among for-profits, though, the academic leaders’ estimation of OER rose considerably: from 47.5 percent saying open resources would prove valuable to their institutions in 2009, to 72.4 percent in 2011.

In attempting to account for this finding, Seaman and Allen reasoned that since their data showed a heightened awareness of OER among institutions with fully online courses and programs, and for-profit institutions tend to serve large online clienteles, it might be more likely that academic leaders at for-profit institutions know more about OER and recognize its potential value. The fact that for-profit institutions like coming up with creative ways to curb the costs of course content -- and, because of their centralized governance models, can pursue those cost savings swiftly via sweeping, institution-wide mandates -- might also play a role.

“Open Education Resources are seen as having the potential to reduce costs -- nearly two-thirds of all surveyed chief academic officers agree with this statement,” the authors wrote.

“Concerns about acceptance and quality are low,” they add. “Less than one in ten [academic leaders] think that their faculty will not accept OER and only one-fifth believe OER resources ‘are not yet of sufficient quality for my institution.’ ”

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