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Online Education Growth Rate Slows

Curriculum Planning and Development

Online Education Growth Rate Slows

Since 2003, the first year that the Babson Survey Research Group and Sloan-C published their national annual survey of the state of distance education, the report has shown online learning growing at a faster rate than traditional higher education.

The rate of that growth, however, has slowed in the past few years. The growth rate of 6.1 percent included in the latest report is the lowest in the study’s 11-year history.

In addition to enrollments, this year’s report, Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States, looks at chief academic officers’ perceptions of online learning, including their thoughts on the future of MOOCs.

In 2003 less than half of CAO respondents said that online education was a strategic priority; in 2012, the proportion hit an all-time high of nearly 70 percent.

According to the 2013 study, the proportion of respondents saying that online education is a critical part of institutional strategy fell to 66 percent. The authors say the drop can be attributed to CAOs who had anticipated creating online offerings that never materialized.

CAOs from institutions with online offerings remain positive about their strategic priority.

In another wrinkle, “over 20 percent of all higher education institutions claim that online education is critical for their long-term strategy but also report that online education is not ‘significantly represented in my institution’s formal strategic plan,’” the report notes.

The future of online learning
The study also asked CAOs for their predictions for online learning. About 90 percent said they think that within five years a majority of postsecondary students will be taking at least one online course. About two-thirds said they expect “substantial use” of online courses’ self-paced educational components. Fewer than one third, however, said that concerns about online courses’ quality will disappear.

Many respondents said that technological improvements will make online courses less expensive to develop and deliver. School size appears to matter in the CAOs’ opinions on this: although more than two-thirds of respondents at schools with fewer than 1,500 students were optimistic about technological improvements, fewer than half of respondents at schools with more than 15,000 students shared that optimism. The study authors note that the larger schools are likely to be public institutions with relatively low costs per course to begin with.

The study finds that very few institutions are experimenting with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The percentage of institutions offering a MOOC doubled from 2012 to 2013—but from only 2.6 percent to 5 percent. Only 9.3 percent of respondents report that their institution is in the planning stages.

More than half the respondents say they are undecided about MOOCs, and a third say they have no plans to participate in MOOCs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the largest institutions are the most likely to be exploring offering MOOCs.

The study suggests that institutions offering or planning to offer MOOCs view them as marketing tools.

The proportion of respondents who say that MOOCs are a sustainable way to offer online courses has decreased and now stands at about 25 percent. Interestingly, survey respondents from schools with the most experience with traditional online instruction are the least likely to be optimistic about MOOCs’ long-term future, the authors write.

A copy of Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States can be downloaded through http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/grade-change-2013 (registration required).

Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is a writer, speaker, and consultant who focuses on higher education issues and has worked in higher education for more than 20 years.

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