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Online Education Continues Rapid Growth

The flexibility, convenience and growing acceptance of online distance education is creating a new trend in how college students attend classes and earn their degrees. Today, almost all public institutions in the United States offer some type of online coursework–either through fully online programs or blended courses where students attend classroom lectures and participate in online class activities.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of students enrolled in at least one distance education course increased significantly between 2002 and 2006, from 1.1 million to 12.2 million–and the growth spurt doesn’t seem to be slowing down. In fact, the research firm Ambient Institute expects this figure to skyrocket to 22 million within the next five years. By 2014, Ambient predicts that the number of students taking all of their classes online will increase to 3.55 million, while the number of students taking all of their courses in on-campus classrooms will drop to 5.14 million.

In addition to the increased acceptance of online education by students, administrators and employers, University of North Carolina professor Leonard Annetta attributes the growth of distance learning to the younger generations’ reliance on technology. In his book, V-Learning: Distance Education in the 21st Century Through 3D Virtual Learning Environments, Annetta writes: “Generation G, the net generation, the millennials, however one might classify them, learn in fundamentally different ways than have students of the past. They have matured in a connected world where information is at their fingertips and entertainment and learning are beginning to become somewhat symbiotic. The growing use of Web 2.0 and social networking is changing how we must deliver instruction.”

Online Enrollment at an All-Time High.Research by the Sloan Consortium has found that online college enrollments have continued to grow faster than the total population of college students. This means that more and more students are taking advantage of online learning options at their colleges and universities–particularly at 2-year public universities and other schools offering associate’s degree programs.

Schools Increasing Offerings For Many Reasons.A survey of postsecondary institutions by the NCES revealed that a variety of factors influenced schools’ decisions to increase distance education offerings in the 2006-7 academic year.

92% – Meeting student demand for more flexible schedules.
89% – Providing access to college
82% – Seeking to increase enrollment
86% – Making more courses available
62% – Responding to needs of employers/business
55% – Making more degree programs available
47% – Meeting student demand for reduced seat time
34% – Making more certificate programs available


Source: NCES

Course Delivery Technology.Interactive video and other modes of communication are still far behind the asynchronous (textual or pre-recorded) media used by schools offering any distance education during the 2006-7 academic year.

92% used asynchronous Internet-based technology
31% used synchronous (real-time)
23% used two-way interactive video
19% used pre-recorded video
12% used pre-recorded audio
6% used one-way video with two-way audio

Source: NCES

Over half of the growth of online distance education has occurred at the associate’s degree level–a fact that can be attributed to the tough economic times and the desire for unemployed individuals to increase their job skills. Another large factor is the flexibility that online coursework provides. “(Community colleges) have this outreach mission to improve the literacy, to improve the employability…for their target audience, which tends to be people who are not full-time students…who have significant job responsibilities…maybe family responsibilities,” survey director for the Sloan Consortium Jeffrey Seaman said. “The ability for the…anytime, anywhere, for a lot of them is the difference between being able to go to school or not.”

Growth in online enrollment is also being reported in bachelor and graduate degree programs, but the growth is significantly smaller than that at the associate’s degree level. A 2009 report on U.S. community colleges by theInstructional Technology Council reports that enrollment in distance education programs has increased by 22 percent from 2007 to 2008 at 2-year, public institutions.

College and University Response to the Growing Demand.The Sloan Consortium found that 66 percent of postsecondary institutions were seeing an increased demand for new distance education course offerings and 73 percent were seeing an increased demand in their existing distance education coursework. The demand for on-campus classes, on the other hand, was significantly lower at 54 percent.

A collaborative study between the Sloan Consortium and Babson Research Group reports that public schools in particular are working on enhancing their online program offerings to meet student demand. While only 51 percent of for-profit and 50 percent of private, non-profit schools believed that online distance education was a critical component of their future growth, a whopping 74 percent of public colleges and universities were focused on enhancing their distance education offerings.

Lingering doubts regarding the effectiveness of online learning exist even though the Department of Education released a study that showed students in classes with an online learning component learned better than those who only attended on-campus classes. According to the Sloan Consortium study, “Those institutions most engaged in online (education) do not believe it is a concern for their own campus, but do see it as a barrier to a more widespread adoption of online education.”

This may explain the findings of the Instructional Technology Council, which found that almost all community college administrators strongly believed in the effectiveness of distance education. The study found that 82 percent of administrators at 2-year community colleges believed online courses were just as effective as on-campus courses and 9 percent believed online courses were superior to on-campus courses.

The Future of Online Distance Education.Although the Sloan Consortium reports that 69 percent of academic leaders believe student demand for online education is still growing, the rapid level of growth that has occurred over the past decade is beginning to slow down. The report states, “Compound annual growth of 20 percent is not sustainable. Most institutions that plan to offer online education are already doing so. The transition is nearing its end.”

That is not to say that the future is not bright for distance education. Of the postsecondary institutions that offer online coursework, 83 percent expect their enrollment numbers to increase over the next year–particularly in psychology, social sciences and liberal arts.

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