In the eight years that the Sloan Consortium has been tracking the growth in distance learning in the nation’s colleges and universities, its annual survey has documented one constant: rapid, unabated growth in online enrollments at all kinds of institutions of higher education.
When Sloan conducted its first survey, in 2002, it found that 1.6 million students were taking at least one online course, a figure representing 9.6 percent of total college enrollment.
Just eight surveys later, Sloan-C found that in 2009 5.6 million students were enrolled in at least one online course, representing nearly 30 percent of total college enrollment. Between 2008 and 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, online enrollment increased by nearly a million students. The growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the 2 percent growth in the overall higher education student population.
“This represents the largest ever year-to-year increase in the number of students studying online,” said study co-author I. Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group and professor of statistics and entrepreneurship at Babson College.
The 2010 Sloan-C represents a pivotal moment in the study of online education, the end of an era. Grants from the Albert P. Sloan Foundation, which funded the survey from the beginning, have expired, and while there are plans to continue the research into the future, the foundation — among the first to recognize the importance of measuring the growth of online education in the United States — will no longer be central to the effort.
The most recent Sloan Consortium study produced an unexpected result. Despite predictions that the growth of online education would begin to wane, that has yet to happen. Sloan-C instead found sustained interest in online courses across all segments of higher education. It also identified a spike in the number of for-profit institutions — a 20-percent increase over last year — that said online education is critical to their long-term strategies. However, more public colleges than private for-profits — 74.9 percent versus 60.5 percent — say it is part of their long-term plans.
Community colleges represent a large portion of the growth of online offerings. According to a survey conducted by the Instructional Technology Council, community college campuses reported a 22 percent increase for distance learning enrollments between 2008 and 2009. The survey found that student demand remains high, with campuses reporting a significant increase in enrollments as a result of both continued student interest and the impact of the economic recession.
The ITC survey also found:
- Community colleges are continuing to see growth in the use of blended/hybrid and Web-assisted/Web-enhanced/Web-facilitated classes.
- The completion rate gap between distance learning and face-to-face students has significantly narrowed. Course completion rates jumped to a reported 72 percent, just below the 76 percent rate for face-to-face classes.
- Campuses continue to deal with student-related issues of initial preparedness, such as technical skills, completing an orientation, needed maturity and ability to work independently.
- A growing consensus that the quality of online instruction has improved and
now matches the quality of traditional instruction.
But there may be changes on the horizon. Public institutions, especially community colleges, are feeling pressure from shrinking budgets and increased competition from for-profit institutions. Colleges also are struggling to recruit faculty and offer additional sections to meet the ever-increasing student demand. And classrooms themselves are vanishing.
An Uncertain Precipice
The way William J. Flynn sees it, these trends have placed higher education on the same uncertain precipice that has confronted and forever changed newspapers, travel agents and the popular music industry.
Newspapers have contracted and disappeared due to Internet and its immediate access to information. Travelers no longer need a travel agent to book a flight. Music lovers now download their favorite tunes instead of buying an album, so too colleges are being challenged by the unabated rise of technology and distance learning.
Now, the traditional classroom, where students gather around a professor who decides what will be taught and how, is gradually disappearing, being replaced by a new online, place-bound model where the student learner, wherever he or she may be, is preeminent.
For the past year, Flynn, managing director emeritus of the National Council for Continuing Education & Training and a 36-year veteran as a faculty member and administrator in higher education, has been traveling the country, presenting “The Vanishing Classroom,” a paper outlining the challenges and changes facing higher education due to the astounding rise of distance education.
The paper outlines some of the changes that are reshaping higher education at all levels.
Communication between teachers and students no longer is confined to the classroom, but is asynchronous and ongoing, the paper says. Older teachers, accustomed to teaching in the same method that they were taught, struggle to accept the value of online learning. Fewer than half of college students, according to surveys, believe technology is fully integrated into their curriculum. The plethora of easily accessible information means that old fashioned book learning is being replaced by learning-on-demand.
Despite the challenges, Flynn said his observations and admonitions are generally welcomed by his academic audiences.
“People come up to me after a session and thank me. Mostly it’s because what I have said is what they have been thinking,” he wrote in an email. “Also because we talk about trends that are already making an impact and they are beginning to feel at their institution. I think one reason why we get so many people at our sessions is because we are talking big picture, on the horizon issues, whereas a lot of sessions at the League for Innovation or at AACC are nuts and bolts, ‘here’s what my college is doing in this specific area’ presentations.
“The truth is that given all the talk about budget cuts, everybody is nervous right now. The younger ones in the audience are the most complimentary of my presentations. One of the comments I hear a lot is ‘I wish my president was here to hear this.’”
Colleges must adapt to the pervasiveness of distance learning, he said, or their very survival will be threatened.
“I think the issue here is whether an organization can adapt and evolve with technology, in a sense changing its business model, or whether it refuses to accommodate change, and eventually time passes it by,” Flynn said. “In our presentation we cite elevator operators, telephone operators, milkmen, typesetters, and travel agents as professions that have practically disappeared. We have a tremendous inventory of brick and mortar facilities in academia. But the demand for online, non place-specific learning grows at double-digit rates annually. The question higher education faces is how to blend in the demand for online learning while still utilizing and maximizing its facility inventory and its personnel. People still want human contact, but as the paper states, the new breed of student wants something besides lecture.”
Flynn believes colleges are doing the best they can under trying circumstances. Community colleges especially are being compelled to augment their traditional open access and transfer mission with demands for accountability and workforce development.
“I believe colleges are doing the best they can and are doing so under tremendous pressures to provide access and accountability while being squeezed by their funding sources,” he said. “The annual Sloan Foundation report on online learning clearly shows that the demand is there and colleges are responding to the demand. What the annual report doesn’t tell us is how much blood, sweat and tears have been shed to get those students enrolled, processed and taught on each campus.”
Yet community colleges, with limited budgets, are still struggling to keep up with the demand for online education. Tied to the old traditions, they struggle to embrace the new.
“Take a look at the exhibit halls at the major community college conferences,” Flynn said. “Most exhibitors are companies there offering to do something for a college that the college hasn’t got the resources, personnel or expertise to handle. The annual Educause tech survey shows that outsourcing is increasing, mostly in the IT area. Technology is no longer a fad or an amusement, it is increasingly driving our society – there’s no going back.”
“Technology has upset the traditional hierarchies and categories of education, in the process placing the learner as preeminent rather than the teacher. Learners now have access to technology allowing them to determine when, where, and from whom information will be acquired. Many learning options are now offered online for free. Learners will eventually create their own curriculum, choosing learning experiences to match their interests and educational goals, without cost or institutional restrictions. If that prediction pans out, the stakes are very high indeed for traditional institutions not willing to adapt.”
“What we see on the horizon is the continued growth of online education opportunities, this questioning the relevance of brick-and-mortar campuses, the demands of technology on an aging professoriate, the growth of free online education, the decline of the linear physical textbook, and a new breed of student who now resists traditional modes of education in favor of an autodidactic approach. Should these trends grow and gain strength, we may see a perfect storm that engulfs and forever changes higher education itself.”
It’s YOIUR TURN CCW wants to hear from you!
Q: How has the rise in distance learning affected the teaching and learning environmentat your school?