Surge in Distance Ed at Community Colleges

Study finds increasing student demand, growth in online student services, and possible changes in course management systems.
April 16, 2007

Community college enrollment growth is increasingly coming from online students, leading many institutions to create extensive online student service operations. Many of those institutions are also considering a shift in their course management systems -- just as Blackboard's purchase of WebCT would seem to have solidified its dominant position in that market.

Those are some of the key findings from a new study on e-learning in community colleges, released Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges. The study was conducted by the Instructional Technology Council, a group of nearly 500 colleges -- almost all of them two-year institutions -- with a strong interest in online education. The council has been doing similar surveys of its members for several years, but shifted gears this year to conduct its survey from the full membership of AACC, hoping to get a more accurate picture of distance education at community colleges.

In the survey -- completed by 320 institutions, a representative sample of community colleges nationally -- the council found that online enrollments had increased by 15 percent on average over the last year, during a period when community colleges' total enrollment was up by 2 percent.

In addition, 70 percent of responding institutions reported that there was more student demand for distance learning than they could meet.

"I think this shows that this is the area where a lot of the future growth and vitality of community colleges will be found," said Fred Lokken, a member of the board of the council who presented the data at the AACC meeting, in Tampa.

Lokken, associate dean for e-learning at Truckee Meadows Community College, said that his institution's experience was consistent with the national report. Of the roughly 6,000 FTE students enrolled at the Reno institution, 24 percent are enrolled in online programs. Their numbers have increased 26 percent in the last year, compared to a 4 percent overall increase.

Over 95 percent of the online students are from Nevada, the vast majority of them from the same part of the state Truckee Meadows serves with in-person classes. "We are tapping the regular student," Lokken said. In fact, he said he "would love to do away with the phrase 'distance education' " because so few community college online students are really at a great distance.

Other findings in the survey reflect the continued growth of online education at community colleges and the sense that it is becoming normal, not exceptional. Sixty-four percent of those responding (the survey was completed by those who run distance education) report to either a vice president for academic affairs or a dean of students. Lokken said that previous surveys had found smaller percentages reporting to academic officials, as opposed to IT administrators.

The shift to an academic reporting line makes sense, he said, "because the issue for growing programs is working with faculty and deans."

A few years back, those organizing distance programs at community colleges would complain that faculty skepticism was a big obstacle, but Lokken said that the survey found that is no longer the case. Relatively few distance education directors identified that as a problem (they were far more likely to identify as problems the need for more training for support staff, budget issues, and the need for student services for distance students).

"I think there has been real buy-in," Lokken said.

In selected areas, the survey did find that either faculty skepticism or pedagogical challenges were limiting the growth of distance education. These included: lab-based science, speech, fine arts, nursing, mathematics, industrial technology, foreign languages and computer hardware.

All the growth in enrollments has prompted many colleges to create significant online student services infrastructures, the study found.

In many categories of student services, all or nearly all colleges identified themselves as either having those services now or as planned for the next one-two years.

Status of Services for Online Students at Community Colleges

Service Currently Offer Plan to Offer in Next 1-2 Years
Campus testing center for distance students 69% 30%
Distance ed specific faculty training 92% 8%
Online admissions 77% 14%
Online counseling / advising 43% 35%
Online library services 96% 1%
Online plagiarism evaluation 48% 52%
Online registration 87% 13%
Online student orientation for distance classes 66% 33%
Online textbook sales 66% 33%
Online tutoring assistance 42% 57%

Another issue examined by the survey was the relative market share -- and potential for change -- in the course management software industry. The survey, conducted last fall after Blackboard's absorption of WebCT had cleared Justice Department approval, found to no surprise that the combined entity dominates the market. Of those in the survey, 43 percent were Blackboard customers and 41 percent identified themselves as WebCT customers, for an overwhelming market share for the combined company.

Moodle, Angel, Desire2Learn, Etudes, and Sakai were well behind. But in a sign that may provide hope for some of those competitors, 31 percent of respondents indicated that they were considering a switch in platforms in the next few years.


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