More students are taking online college courses than ever before, yet the majority of faculty still aren't warming up to the concept of e-learning, according to a national survey from the country's largest association of organizations and institutions focused on online education.
Roughly 3.2 million students took at least one online course from a degree-granting institution during the fall 2005 term, the Sloan Consortium said. That's double the number who reported doing so in 2002, the first year the group collected data, and more than 800,000 above the 2004 total. While the number of online course participants has increased each year, the rate of growth slowed from 2003 to 2004.
The report, a joint partnership between the group and the College Board, defines online courses as those in which 80 percent of the content is delivered via the Internet.
The Sloan Survey of Online Learning, "Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006,"  shows that 62 percent of chief academic officers say that the learning outcomes in online education are now "as good as or superior to face-to-face instruction," and nearly 6 in 10 agree that e-learning is "critical to the long-term strategy of their institution." Both numbers are up from a year ago.
Researchers at the Sloan Consortium, which is administered through Babson College and Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, received responses from officials at more than 2,200 colleges and universities across the country. (The report makes few references to for-profit colleges, a force in the online market, in part because of a lack of survey responses from those institutions.)
Much of the report is hardly surprising. The bulk of online students are adult or "nontraditional" learners, and more than 70 percent of those surveyed said online education reaches students not served by face-to-face programs.
What stands out is the number of faculty who still don't see e-learning as a valuable tool. Only about one in four academic leaders said that their faculty members "accept the value and legitimacy of online education," the survey shows. That number has remained steady throughout the four surveys. Private nonprofit colleges were the least accepting -- about one in five faculty members reported seeing value in the programs.
Elaine Allen, co-author of the report and a Babson associate professor of statistics and entrepreneurship, said those numbers are striking.
"As a faculty member, I read that response as, 'We didn't become faculty to sit in front of a computer screen,' " Allen said. "It's a very hard adjustment. We sat in lectures for an hour when we were students, but there's a paradigm shift in how people learn."
Barbara Macaulay, chief academic officer at UMass Online, which offers programs through the University of Massachusetts, said nearly all faculty members teaching the online classes there also teach face-to-face courses, enabling them to see where an online class could fill in the gap (for instance, serving a student who is hesitant to speak up in class).
She said she isn't surprised to see data illustrating the growing popularity of online courses with students, because her program has seen rapid growth in the last year. Roughly 24,000 students are enrolled in online degree and certificate courses through the university this fall -- a 23 percent increase from a year ago, she said.
"Undergraduates see it as a way to complete their degrees -- it gives them more flexibility," Macaulay said.
The Sloan report shows that about 80 percent of students taking online courses are at the undergraduate level. About half are taking online courses through community colleges and 13 percent through doctoral and research universities, according to the survey.
Nearly all institutions with total enrollments exceeding 15,000 students have some online offerings, and about two-thirds of them have fully online programs, compared with about one in six at the smallest institutions (those with 1,500 students or fewer), the report notes. Allen said private nonprofit colleges are often set in enrollment totals and not looking to expand into the online market.
The report indicates that two-year colleges are particularly willing to be involved in online learning.
"Our institutions tend to embrace changes a little more readily and try different pedagogical styles," said Kent Phillippe, a senior research associate at the American Association of Community Colleges. The report cites a few barriers to what it calls the "widespread adoption of online learning," chief among them the concern among college officials that some of their students lack the discipline to succeed in an online setting. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents defined that as a barrier.
Allen, the report's co-author, said she thinks that issue arises mostly in classes in which work can be turned in at any time and lectures can be accessed at all hours. "If you are holding class in real time, there tends to be less attrition," she said. The report doesn't differentiate between the live and non-live online courses, but Allen said she plans to include that in next year's edition.
Few survey respondents said acceptance of online degrees by potential employers was a critical barrier -- although liberal arts college officials were more apt to see it as an issue.