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Growth for Online Learning

January 8, 2013

MOOCs may have snared most of the headlines, but traditional, credit-based online learning continued to chug along just fine last year, thank you very much.

More than 6.7 million, or roughly a third, of all students enrolled in postsecondary education took an online course for credit in fall 2011, according to the 2012 iteration of the Babson Survey Research Group's annual Survey of Online Learning. While the upturn in the number of online enrollees (9.3 percent) represented the smallest percentage increase in the 10 years that Babson has conducted this study, overall enrollment in American colleges and universities fell in 2011 for the first time in 15 years, to put the slowing of online growth in some context.

And speaking of said MOOCs -- the massive open online courses that have captured the imagination of the public and turbocharged the discussion about digitally delivered instruction in many quarters -- the Babson survey for the first time queried institutional officials about their views about the courses.

Given their relative newness, the answers are probably unsurprising: lots of uncertainty about whether to embrace them, and significant skepticism about whether the free open courses (at least as of the time when the survey was conducted) present a "sustainable method for offering online courses."

Slowing But No Plateau

With college enrollments flattening over all, driven by the end of the baby boom echo and the incremental improvement of the job market, online enrollments might be expected to flatten. But as the table below shows, while the rate of growth fell to its lowest level in at least a decade, the survey shows that enrollment in distance courses and programs continues to be more than healthy. (This being the survey's 10th year, the report's authors, I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, the Babson group's co-directors, included data on changes over the decade they've been conducting it.)

Online Enrollments, 2002-2011

  Students Taking at Least 1 Online Course Increase Over Previous Year % Increase
2002 1,602,970 n/a n/a
2003 1,971,397 368,427 23.0%
2004 2,329,783 358,386 18.2
2005 3,180,050 850,267 36.5
2006 3,488,381 308,331 9.7
2007 3,938,111 449,730 12.9
2008 4,606,353 668,242 16.9
2009 5,579,022 972,669 21.1
2010 6,142,280 563,258 10.1
2011 6,714,792 572,512 9.3

Perhaps most strikingly, online enrollments continue to make up an increasing proportion of all enrollments in higher education, as seen in the chart below.

And as seen in this chart, more than 7 in 10 public and for-profit colleges are now offering full academic programs (as opposed to merely freestanding courses) online, far more than were doing so a decade ago. Nearly half of private nonprofit colleges are offering fully online programs, about double the number that were doing so in 2002.

Measuring MOOCs

The Babson researchers asked a series of questions about institutions' usage of and plans for MOOCs.

A small fraction (2.6 percent) of the roughly 2,500 responding colleges said they currently have massive open courses, and another 9.4 percent said they are planning one.

Chief academic officers queried about the sustainability of MOOCs as a way of offering courses were deeply divided. Nearly half were neutral, with the rest evenly split between yes and no. There was much more widespread support for the idea that MOOCs could help institutions learn about online pedagogy, with nearly three in five respondents agreeing that they would serve that purpose.

Among other highlights of the survey:

  • Nearly 7 in 10 chief academic leaders (69.1 percent) now say that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy. And just 11.2 percent say it is not.
  • More than three-quarters (77.0 percent) of chief academic officers rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face courses, up from 57.2 percent when Babson first asked the question in 2003.
  • Fewer than a third (30.2 percent) of CAOs believe that faculty members on their campuses accept the value and legitimacy of online education -- lower than the rate in 2004.

 

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