February 5th, 2015

Babson Study: Distance Education Enrollment Growth Continues, But at Slowest Rate Ever

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The 2014 Survey of Online Learning conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and co-sponsored by the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), Pearson and Tyton Partners, reveals the number of higher education students taking at least one distance education course in 2014 is up 3.7 percent from the previous year. While this represents the slowest rate of increase in over a decade, online enrollment growth far exceeded that of overall higher education.

“The study’s findings point to a competitive marketplace, in which traditional institutions are gaining ground on the for-profits in online and distance education,” said study co-author Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group. “While the rapid pace of online learning growth has moderated, it still accounts for nearly three-quarters of all US higher education’s enrollment increases last year.”

The study also reveals the challenges for institutions in realizing the long-term strategic value of online learning while addressing concerns such as retention rates and acceptance by faculty. The proportion of chief academic leaders reporting online learning is critical to their long-term strategy reached a new high of 70.8 percent. At the same time, only 28 percent of academic leaders say that their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online education.”

“While the number of students taking online courses has grown by the millions over the past decade, it has not come without considerable concerns,” said co-author I. Elaine Allen. “Faculty acceptance has lagged, concerns about student retention linger and leaders continue to worry that online courses require more faculty effort than does face-to-face instruction.”

Key report findings include:

  • The year-to-year 3.7% increase in the number of distance education students is the lowest recorded over the 13 years of this report series.
  • Public and private nonprofit institutions recorded distance enrollment growth, but these were offset by a decrease among for-profit institutions.
  • New federal data shows 5,257,379 students now taking one of more distance education courses, an increase of 189,187.
  • The percent of academic leaders rating the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face remained unchanged at 74.1%.
  • The proportion of chief academic leaders reporting online learning is critical to their long-term strategy reached a new high of 70.8%.
  • Only 28.0% of academic leaders say that their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online education.”
  • The adoption of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) is reaching a plateau, only 8.0% of higher education institutions currently offer one, another 5.6% report MOOCs are in the planning stages.
  • The proportion of academic leaders who believe that MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses dropped to 18.7%.

“Online learning has now shifted to be a mainstream form of delivery for the majority of higher education institutions,” said Todd Hitchcock, SVP, Pearson Online Learning Services. “We are now seeing colleges and universities take a much more strategic approach to creating program offerings that are scalable, sustainable and personalized to improve academic and employment outcomes for learners.”

“With a convincing majority of responding academic leaders saying that online learning is critical to their institution’s long-term strategy, and nearly three-quarters claiming student outcomes from online learning are the same or better than outcomes from face-to-face instruction, I think we can safely say that online learning has become an established and increasingly important component of the American higher education landscape,” said Joel Hartman, Vice Provost and CIO of the University of Central Florida and OLC Board President.

The twelfth annual survey is the leading barometer of online learning in the United States. Based on responses from over 2,800 academic leaders, the complete survey report, “Grade Level” is available at http://onlinelearningconsortium.org/2014Survey.