Student Studies Online

Formerly known as the Sloan Online Survey, Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States, by the Babson Survey Research Group, included responses from more than 2,800 colleges and universities. The recent data, collected in partnership with the College Board, found that 2013 saw the slowest rate of growth in students taking online courses in the last ten years and illustrated that chief academic leaders are now more skeptical of the quality and importance of online courses, especially MOOCs.

Opinions regarding online education have worsened over the past year, with the proportion of academic leaders who consider online learning critical to their long-term strategy dropping from 69.1 to 65.9 percent (page 30). College leaders have become cynical about MOOCs, believing that credentials for MOOC completion may cause confusion about higher education degrees. Although still small, the number of institutions offering MOOCs almost doubled from 2.6 to 5 percent last year, with an additional 9.3 percent planning to offer a MOOC in the future (page 23). The main reasons colleges give for offering these massive online courses are marketing-related, such as to “increase institution visibility” and to “drive student recruitment.”

The majority of college leaders have two main concerns about online education: that students need more discipline to succeed in online courses, and that student retention is much more difficult than in face-to-face classes. The survey also shows that college leaders increasingly view learning outcomes from online courses as inferior to those of face-to-face courses, but most of this increase is due to responses from institutions that offer no online courses or programs.

“Institutions with online offerings remain as positive as ever about online learning, but there has been a retreat among leaders at institutions that do not have any online offerings,” said Jeff Seaman, study co-author and Co-Director of the Babson Survey Research Group. Most of the colleges and universities without any online course offerings have less than 1,500 total students, so they have only a minor impact on the amount of students who are studying online.

In fall of 2012, there were about 412,000 more students enrolled in an online course than in fall 2011, for a total of 7.1 million students taking at least one online course (page 33). This represents a growth rate of 6.1% over the previous year: the slowest annual increase in the past five years. Ray Schoeder, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois-Springfield doesn’t see the slowing growth as a surprise. “In general, when we do research in these areas, when your number gets quite large, your percentage of growth always goes down,” he said.

Although expansion has slowed, the compounded annual growth rate of online students since 2002 has been 16.1 percent, and the proportion of students taking at least one online course is at an all-time high of 33.5 percent (page 15). “While the rate of growth in online enrollments has moderated over the past several years, it still greatly exceeds the growth in overall higher education enrollments,” said I. Elaine Allen, study co-author and Co-Director of the Babson Survey Research Group.

Regardless of other concerns, the majority of college leaders trust that online courses will become considerably less expensive than face-to-face courses over the next five years. Coupled with accessibility and convenience, the cost benefits will allow online education to persist, and nine out of ten college leaders agree that in five years it’s “very likely” or “likely” that the majority of students will be taking at least one online course (page 36). Joel Hartman, Sloan-C Board President and Vice Provost and COI of the University of Central Florida explains, “The 2013 survey findings reinforce the first-hand experience of our members, who continue to demonstrate that online learning has become a fundamental component of today’s higher education environment.”