Tracking Online Education: 2013 Survey Report

online education reportThis week The Sloan Consortium released the results of its annual survey on distance education. Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States is the 11th report in this series, a collaborative effort with the Babson Survey Research Group, Pearson, and the College Board.

Highly anticipated and often cited, these reports offer a look at not only current online enrollment, but also perceptions about online education quality and predictions for the future. You’ll see this study quoted here at Inside Online Learning throughout the year, as well as in other higher education circles, so what does it mean for you?

Here is my overview of the report and selected highlights for those who are perhaps the most directly affected by decisions about online education – students and instructors.

The Nature and Extent of Online Education

Academic leaders at more than 2,800 degree-granting institutions responded to the 2013 survey, providing input that reflects current practices and expectations at public and private, for-profit and not-for-profit schools. The results can be organized with a few critical questions.

How many students are learning online?

More than 7 million students took at least one course online in 2013, which is one-third of higher education students overall. This shows an increase since the 2012 study, with online enrollment now “at an all time high,” but growing at a slower rate than in recent years.

How does learning in online and traditional settings compare?

This question relates to course quality and academic value. The majority of survey participants (74%) “rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior as those in face-to-face instruction.” This was a decline from 77% in 2012, but it is interesting to note that the report attributes the decrease to schools not currently offering online education.

The study found distinct differences in the overall perception of online education from administrators at schools that offer it and those working at schools that do not. Report co-author Jeff Seaman, as cited in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, suggests that we “call them the ‘have’ and the ‘don’t want’” schools, stressing that online education isn’t right for all students or all institutions, and has been adopted by every school.

What is the role of MOOCs?

The 2012 study‘s expanded coverage included Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which have been a growing trend in the industry. MOOCs continued to gain popularity in 2013, but are not offered by a large number of higher education institutions. Currently, only 5% of survey participants report offering MOOCs, and one-third still “say they have no plans for a MOOC.”

The Instructor’s Perspective

As an online adjunct instructor, this report provides me with a broad look at the expectations of senior-level administrators in higher education. Their decisions about curricula and delivery platforms, and understanding of student challenges, inform my work at the course level. The study draws attention to the following:

  • Retention of online students is a concern. More than 40% of academic leaders reported, “retaining students was a greater problem for online courses than for face-to-face courses.” This could be due to student demographics (i.e., those enrolled while also working and/or caring for families).
  • Online learning is part of long-term strategy. This year saw a drop in the inclusion of online education as part of an institution’s long-term strategy, moving from 70% in 2012 to 66% in 2013. The authors indicate, however, that the decline is specific to schools that are not offering online courses now.
  • Learning environments are defined. This annual study provides a helpful definition of “online” courses (i.e., 80% or more of content delivered online with no face-to-face meetings), as well as “web-facilitated,” “blended/hybrid,” courses, and MOOCs. But these may be due for revision. How do your courses compare?

What are your institution’s plans for, and concerns about, online education? Take some time to review published announcements and studies conducted at your school to find out how they relate to national trends like those found in the Sloan study.

Insights for Students

For online students, and those comparing online and on-campus alternatives, the Sloan study provides a general view of institution-level priorities and plans for the future. Some of the highlights of this year’s report include:

  • Options for learners are evolving. Two-thirds of academic leaders expect “substantial use of student-directed, self-paced components in future online courses.” This could be interpreted as more hybrid or blended course options, which require students to complete work on their own before meeting in person.
  • More discipline required for online courses. If you already have experience as an online student this should not be a surprise – 70% of leaders at institutions already offering online education report that these courses take more discipline to complete. The nature of online learning’s flexibility and convenience, means taking the initiative to be an active participant and making time to study.
  • New technology leads to cost reduction. This is predicted to be the case for the process of developing and delivering courses. But it’s not clear whether any savings in these areas will be passed along to students. Tuition rates have been steadily rising, will this trend continue?

How do these items compare with your experiences as an online student? Consider getting involved with student groups at your school, and meetings with your advisors, that allow you to share your ideas about improvements to courses and support services.

Looking Ahead … Ideas for Future Research

Thank you to The Babson Survey Research Group and its collaborators for conducting this annual study. It provides all of us – administrators, instructors, and students – with information we need to make decisions about our own online learning initiatives.

As with many research studies, this report is also sparks helpful conversations. It offers a starting point for comparison, exploration, and planning for improvement. Here are a few of the conversations I would like to see continue into 2014, and potentially inspire new project ideas:

  • How can we better define “online” course? While the question seems like a basic one, there are multiple ways to describe the experience, and it’s often up to the college or university to define. As blended and hybrid models evolve, it may be time to reconsider the idea of online and off-line and speak more generally about “courses.”
  • Broadening the definition of face-to-face: Could the use of video in a course, through a tool like Skype or a Google Hangout, be considered “face-to-face” interaction? As the capabilities of available technologies expand, it may be helpful to reframe how we describe and compare communication in the context of higher education.
  • Online learning and online education: The Sloan report indicates that MOOC adoption has been slow at colleges and universities. And there’s a lot of debate as to the value of open online learning, as well as how it might be assessed, with evidence and opinion both for and against. Whether or not open courses become mainstream at college and universities, there may be a benefit of further exploring the options with the understanding that the experience is different than that of a formal academic course, as students strive to reach different kinds of learning goals.

What are your expectations for the future of online education? Share your ideas and recommendations with us, and with your institutions. Contribute your knowledge and experience of the process to improve and expand the options for tomorrow’s online learners.

Source: Inside Online Learning Blog