According to a new report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education, more students than ever before have been taking online courses. The full report, entitled "Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States 2006," estimates that nearly 3.2 million students took at least one online course during the fall 2005 term, an increase of nearly a million people from the previous year.
Nearly three-quarters of those hopping online to learn are undergraduate students looking to complete either Bachelor’s or Associate’s degrees, while most of the rest are doing work towards a Master’s designation. Among undergrads, the majority of students are in Associate’s programs.
More than 96 percent of schools with more than 15,000 students offer some form of online courses. About two-thirds of the very largest organizations offer complete programs online which purport to allow students to complete nearly all of their degree work remotely. These figures, which have also increased from 2004, show that online education has definitely entered the mainstream as far as higher education is concerned. The overall percentage of schools who identified online education as a critical long-term strategy grew from 49 percent in 2003 to 56 percent in 2005.
Not all the news about online education is positive. Educators still have some concerns about the extra discipline required from online students compared to their in-class counterparts. In general, the report says, teachers believe that it takes more effort to teach a class online than face-to-face. However, the consensus among educators was that evaluation was no more difficult in online courses.
Just as important, the report says that college and university education leaders by and large believe that online education is as good as traditional face-to-face education, with nearly 17 percent saying that it’s actually better. Of course, those same leaders are in charge of developing and ultimately marketing their own online programs, which undoubtedly leads some of them to be bullish in their assessments.
Whatever the case, online education is indeed growing rapidly, but the overwhelming majority of students who use it are supplementing traditional face-to-face education, not replacing it. Will that change? According to the report, educators generally feel that it is the student themselves that are holding back online education, with nearly two-third suggesting that the biggest challenge facing students is their own discipline to complete an online course.
After all, at least with traditional face-to-face education, regular course meetings help to keep students on track, even if they show up to class only to hop on the Wi-Fi and surf the day away.
The study (PDF) was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group in partnership with the College Board.
Ken Fisher contributed to this report.