2007 April 01 Sunday
Online Higher Education Spread Accelerates

A recent Sloan Consortium report about online higher education finds that online education is rapidly expanding.

Background:  For the past several years, online enrollments have been growing substantially faster than the overall higher education student body.  However, last year’s study, while reporting the same numeric increase as the previous year, had a lower percentage growth rate.  Could this be an early indicator that online enrollment growth has finally begun to plateau?
The evidence:  There has been no leveling of the growth rate of online enrollments; institutions of higher education report record online enrollment growth on both a numeric and a percentage basis.

  • Nearly 3.2 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2005 term, a substantial increase over the 2.3 million reported the previous year.
  • The more than 800,000 additional online students is more than twice the number added in any previous year.

My take: faculties at colleges and universities mostly fear online education and see it as a threat to their job security. But administrators and boards of trustees probably are starting to feel more fear of competing institutions which start offering online education and start grabbing away student customers. Yes, customers. Online education will force colleges to compete more directly and to start treating students more like customers.

The shift in the dynamic away from fearing entrenched internal bureaucratic interests and toward fearing online competitors at other existing accredited bricks-and-mortar institutions should accelerate as more students start choosing online courses. Existing institutions have to either rapidly embrace online education or dwindle. The elite schools can ignore it for the longest period of time. The lower ranked schools do not have that luxury.

The bigger schools and the schools with lots of researchers (i.e. lots of brain power) have the most online offerings.

  • More than 96 percent of the very largest institutions (more than 15,000 total enrollments) have some online offerings, which is more than double the rate observed for the smallest institutions.
  • The proportion of institutions with fully online programs rises steadily as institutional size increases, and about two-thirds of the very largest institutions have fully online programs, compared to only about one-sixth of the smallest institutions.
  • Doctoral/Research institutions have the greatest penetration of offering online programs as well as the highest overall rate (more than 80%) of having some form of online offering (either courses or full programs).
  • This makes sense intuitively for a number of reasons. First off, a large school can amortize their online web site administration costs over more courses. Second, the larger schools have more courses and departments and so have more choices on what to put online. Plus, some of the public universities have state mandates to provide continuing education to adults (e.g. University of California Extension) and online courses offer more convenient and cheaper ways to do this.

    I see an opening here for private foundations which want to spread ideas and improve education: Film great lecture series on topics you want to promote. Then develop web site software for delivering online courses, lectures, course materials, and automated tests. Then offer all this for free to smaller colleges to let them get started in online education. I've pitched this idea to a couple of foundations recently. Hope they pick up on it.

    Chief Academic Officers do not see quality as a barrier to the spread of online learning.

    Background:  The first study in this series found that a majority of Chief Academic Officers rated the learning outcomes for online education “as good as or better” than those for face-to-face instruction.  The following year’s report displayed similar results.  Do academic leaders hold the same opinion today, given the rapid growth in the numbers of online students?
    The evidence:  By an increasing margin, most Chief Academic Officers believe that the quality of online instruction is equal to or superior to that of face-to-face learning. 

    • In 2003, 57 percent of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face.  That number is now 62 percent, a small but noteworthy increase.
    • The proportion who believe that online learning outcomes are superior to those for face-to-face is still relatively small but has grown by 40 percent since 2003 from 12.1 percent in 2003 to 16.9 percent.

    In the long run the percentage who see online outcomes as superior should rise. The small number of very best lecturers on each topic get seen now only by a small group of people in a single room at a single moment in time. But video recording of lectures will enable each student to see the best lectures and even see multiple excellent lecturers each tackle the same topic. What caused the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? Why not watch a half dozen historians argue their interpretations? Want to understand theories on the biology of aging? Again, watch several experts offer their own reviews of the evidence.

    If by "online education" they mean over the internet then that's really a subset of computer-based education. Whether one loads a video off of a web site or a DVD is an implementation detail. The DVD delivery mechanism is very important because it unchains the learner from the internet. Ditto for learning game cartridges. Computers should provide instruction just as well if you are sitting in the middle of a forest or on an airplane or tethered to the internet in a city apartment.

    Education has become far too expensive and slow. Many leave college with a degree after 5 years burdened with 5 and 6 figure education debts to start off their working lives. Their living standards remain low for years and their parents suffer lower living standards as well.

    College is also incredibly inconvenient in an age where convenience defines so many other parts of life. Want to go to a grocery store at 2 AM? One's probably open. Want cash from a bank on a Sunday? Find an ATM machine - and many are located away from banks in shopping malls. Want to book an airline flight? Do searches online and choose from dozens of choices. By contrast, colleges make you take courses in bricks-and-mortar buildings at the hours and days of their choosing and at the rates that were chosen by centuries old traditions. Your course will last a semester of about 12 weeks. It will start on a particular day. It might only get offered once a year. Take it or leave it. Your instructor might be bored, unenthused, and perhaps not even speak English very well. You'll have to buy a big thick textbook and lug it around. This is all incredibly inconvenient. I say down with tradition. Time to automate and make education cheap and convenient.

    Update: Online enrollments are growing fastest in the Old South with twice the growth rate as the rest of the nation and the Old South has over one third of total online course enrollments.

    Southern online enrollments are growing at twice the rate as the rest of the nation; there are now over 1.1 million students taking at least on online course at southern institutions.

    ...

    The sixteen southern states represent over one-third of total online enrollments, with over 1.1 million students taking at least one online course in the fall 2005 term.

    Why is that? One possibility: Conservative Southerners are less enthralled with liberal-dominated higher educational institutions and perhaps their boards of directors have pressured the universities and colleges to move online more rapidly.

    The Sloan Consortium also has a Midwestern edition of their online education reports.

    Share |      By Randall Parker at 2007 April 01 10:23 AM  Education Online


    Comments
    crush41 said at April 4, 2007 12:26 AM:

    An Talk of the Nation hour focused on online education a few months back. One minor supplement to add to a typically great post on the shift toward more customizable and cheaper virtual pedagogy--most of the business world supports it. While only ~1/3 of students believe it to be equal to or better than a traditional education, 62% of business leaders do. There are obvious pragmatic reasons for this, but quality (or no deterioration thereof) probably ranks up there as well.

    Samuel A. Matz said at April 10, 2007 8:14 PM:

    A book that analyzes the properties and prospects of on-line education ("distant teaching methods") is : "Twilight of the Universities" by F X Foulke-ffeinberg. The author predicts the decay and collapse of conventional institutions of higher education, with complete replacement by online courses. Some teaching facilities will be located near the neighborhoods where the students live, while other students will learn from online computers in their own home. The author predicts enormous savings, and the changeover of campuses to housing, retail stores, parks, etc., and suggests that current faculty should be pensioned off (he considers they are incapable of constructive work). I have read it and it's pretty good. I believe there are places to buy it on the Internet, a simple Google search should bring them up.


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