February 9th, 2016

Babson Study: Distance Education Enrollment Growth Continues


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The 2015 Survey of Online Learning conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group in partnership with the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), Pearson, WCET, StudyPortals, and Tyton Partners, reveals the number of higher education students taking at least one distance education course in 2015 is up 3.9% over the previous year. Growth, however, was uneven; private non-profit institutions grew by 11.3% while private for-profit institutions saw their distance enrollments decline by 2.8%. These and other findings were published today in a report titled, “Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States.”

“The study’s findings highlight a thirteenth consecutive year of growth in the number of students taking courses at a distance” said study co-author I. Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group.

“Institutions with distance offerings remain as positive as ever, but there has been a retreat among leaders at institutions that do not have any distance offerings,” added co-author Jeff Seaman.

Growth has continued, despite muted support by faculty. The study reveals only 29.1% of academic leaders say their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online education.” The proportion of chief academic leaders reporting online learning is critical to their long-term strategy dropped to 63.3% in the most recent results.

“While enrollments in higher education institutions decreased overall, enrollments in online programs continued to increase. We have seen strong growth in online professional degree programs as learners are increasingly focused on employability and career advancement. As more institutions turn to professional degree programs to meet this new demand, we expect to see accelerated growth in online learning continue over the next 3-5 years,” said Todd Hitchcock, senior vice president, Online Learning Services, Pearson.

“The trend of increasing distance education enrollments in the face of declining overall higher ed enrollments suggests an important shift in the American higher education landscape, with contemporary learners leaning in to online options,” said Kathleen S. Ives, CEO and Executive Director, Online Learning Consortium. “The majority of academic leaders recognize this and understand online learning is critical to their institution’s long-term strategy.”

Key report findings include:

  • A year-to-year 3.9% increase in the number of distance education students, up from the 3.7% rate recorded last year.
  • More than one in four students (28%) now take at least one distance education course (a total of 5,828,826 students, a year-to-year increase of 217,275).
  • The total of 5.8 million fall 2014 distance education students is composed of 2.85 million taking all of their courses at a distance and 2.97 million taking some, but not all, distance courses.
  • Public institutions command the largest portion of distance education students, with 72.7% of all undergraduate and 38.7% of all graduate-level distance students.
  • The proportion of chief academic leaders that say online learning is critical to their long-term strategy fell from 70.8% last year to 63.3% this year.
  • The percent of academic leaders rating the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face instruction is now at 71.4%.
  • Only 29.1% of academic leaders report that their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online education.” Among schools with the largest distance enrollments, 60.1% report faculty acceptance while only 11.6% of the schools with no distance enrollments do so.

“Clearly many private, non-profit institutions are aggressively investing in distance education, ” said Russell Poulin, WCET’s Director of Policy & Analysis. “Between 2012 and 2014, students taking all their courses at a distance grew by 33% for non-profits. They were only a few hundred students away from passing the for-profit sector for having the second most number of enrollments. Public colleges still lead the way, by far. ”

The complete survey report, “Online Report Card” is available at http://onlinelearningconsortium.org/2015Survey

An infographic of the report’s findings is available at http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/2015SurveyInfo.pdf

An interactive data site containing all the enrollment data used in the report is available at http://www.studyportals.com/onlinereportcard/

WCET’s companion report with additional IPEDS distance enrollment summaries is available at http://wcet.wiche.edu/initiatives/research/WCET-Distance-Education-Enrollment-Report-2016

  • There is an astonishing lack of good research into the effectiveness of distance education. There are few, if any, long term analyses or meta analyses of distance learning outcomes. Comparisons between face to face and distance data sets are virtually non existent in journals. Yet time after time sweeping inferences and declarations [often sneering] are made about distance learning, its lack of social constructivist sense making, its poor delivery of communicative competence. But very little of this diatribe comes by way of good research. It is still an area dogged by gut opinion and off the cuff generalization.

  • The reason why don't see as many studies comparing the learning outcomes of online (including distance learning in general) vs. traditional learning environments (primarily face-to-face environments) is because a wealth of research has already been done on this with the same general conclusion……..there is no significant difference. In some cases, of course, there are differences. A good place to start is to look up the work of Thomas L. Russell and the "no significant difference phenomena." Part of his work was included in my dissertation (my doctorate is in instructional technology). We are now in a time were the focus of the research is on effective instructional delivery, engaging the learner, and assessment in online environments. Distance learning, online learning in particular, isn't going anywhere and we, as educators, need to explore how to engage adult learners in these environments. This can also enhance how we improve instructional practice in traditional face-to-face environments as well. The "lack of social constructivist sense making" and "poor delivery of communicative competence" you refer to continue to be challenges in traditional face-to-face environments as well. Just because an instructor and students are in a physical space in real-time, doesn't mean learning is occuring.