About 3.5 million students in post-secondary education are taking at least one online course, according to The 2007 Sloan Survey of Online Learning, which involved more than 2,500 colleges and universities in the United States. This represents a nearly 10 percent increase from last year’s study, which found 3.18 million online learners nationwide.
The primary driver behind the rapid adoption of e-learning by both students and academic institutions is, in a word, accessibility. In this sense, they’re no different from corporate learning functions.
“There are variants of what ‘access’ means, but all higher education institutions — even those that don’t have online courses — overwhelmingly believe that online programs serve an audience that is not well served by classic face-to-face programs,” said Jeff Seaman, survey director for The Sloan Consortium. “The number-one driving factor is that there are people out there who want an education, but the traditional method of driving to a campus and sitting in class just doesn’t work for them.”
Another factor behind the growth of e-learning has been the increasing demand for these offerings from colleges’ and universities’ corporate clients, Seaman said.
“We know it’s a factor, but we don’t know how big. However, it’s not the overwhelming factor. What we primarily hear about online students are the same things we’ve always heard: that they’re much more likely to be older, have familial responsibilities or have an inflexible schedule.”
The fact that online learning is now considered mainstream in academia is certainly a new development. Also novel is the scale of college-level e-learning programs on the market today.
“The big change from five years ago is the array of online learning offerings out there that are considered equal to face-to-face classroom learning is now massive,” Seaman explained. “At virtually any level and any discipline, you can find online learning that is — according to many chief academic officers — of equal quality to face-to-face offerings. Previously, you couldn’t count on that. In many cases, you’d have fly-by-night schools offering quick degrees and things like that. It’s now mainstream institutions. The public colleges and universities are leading the way on this. They’re overwhelmingly at public schools. That has a few implications, not the least of which is cost.”
However, there remains a sizable contingent of skeptics in the academic world, Seaman said.
“When you ask chief academic officers — the people who have overall responsibility for academic programs at the institution — what we hear from the ones who aren’t engaged or interested in online is that their opinion hasn’t changed much. They don’t really believe in online (learning). When asked if it’s right for their mission, they say ‘No.’ Those schools tend to be smaller, private, liberal arts schools.
“If you ask the people who do have online experience over a number of years, they tell us the quality of online and face-to-face learning is equivalent,” he added. “They don’t worry about the reputation of the degree. They think (e-learning) is perfectly viable and that it’s serving its audience well. It doesn’t mean it’s without problems, but it is working. And over the past five years, they’ve grown more positive in that regard.”
Seaman also said the number and depth of e-learning courses at colleges and universities would continue to rise in the near term, but predicted that this growth would be different than what preceded it. This is largely due to the fact that in some academic programs, the amount of learning that can be placed online has already topped out.
“The schools that are most interested in ramping up their programs and making it part of their educational strategy have already done it,” he said. “But online learning doesn’t have the same level of penetration across disciplines. You’ll see much higher levels of online courses in, say, a business program than you will in engineering. One of the things that will probably change over time is that as people get more exposure to online (learning) and technology matures, it will increase in areas where it’s not yet well-established.”