Sloan-C 2010 Report on Online Education – A Quick Review

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Class Differences: Online Education in the United States, 2010* (Babson Survey Research Group, November 2010) is the eighth report on online education by Babson Survey Research Group for the Sloan Foundation. The authors are I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman from Babson Survey Research Group, Babson College. In this review, I present excerpts from the report followed by a brief comment.

The following questions and excerpts are direct quotes from the report:

How Many Students are Learning Online?

For the seventh consecutive year the number of students taking at least one online course continued to expand at a rate far in excess of the growth of overall higher education enrollments. The most recent estimate, for fall 2009, shows an increase of twenty-one percent over fall 2008 to a total of 5.6 million online students. The growth from 1.6 million students taking at least one online course in fall 2002 to the 5.6 million for fall 2009 translates into a compound annual growth rate of nineteen percent for this time period. For comparison, the overall higher education student body has grown at an annual rate of less than two percent during this same period – from 16.6 million in fall 2002 to 19.0 million for fall 2009. (8)

Is Online Learning Strategic?

Comparing the results from 2010 to those from 2009 demonstrates that it is the private for-profit institutions that are driving this change. Both the public and the private nonprofit institutions show only a small increase in the percentage reporting that online is critical to their long-term strategy. The percentage change for the private for-profit institutions (from 50.7% in 2009 to 60.5% in 2010, an almost 20% increase) is substantially greater. (6)

Are Learning Outcomes in Online Comparable to Face-to-Face?

The number that say online is “at least as good” – the total of those who rate online as either the same or superior to face-to-face – continues to increase over time as well, and now represents just under two-thirds of all respondents. (10)

The more extensive the online offerings are at an institution, the more positive they rate the relative quality of online learning outcomes. (11)

What is the Impact of the Economy on Online Education?

Evidence from last year’s study gave credence to the belief that poor economic times are good for higher education. Institutions across the board reported increased demand for courses and programs, with the level of increase in demand for online courses and programs exceeding that for face-to-face. (13)

What is the Future for Online Enrollment Growth?

As noted above, the trend in online enrollments among US higher education institutions has been steadily upward; with growth rates for all years easily exceeding the growth in the overall higher education student body size. The evidence for past years has shown little, if any, indication that this growth is slowing. Even with the very rosy enrollment numbers presented above, this year marks the first time that there is any evidence, albeit slight, that the time of unbridled growth may be ending. (18)

My Comments

As in the past, I continue to find fault with the way the Babson Group defines “online courses.” Here’s their definition, with a chart that clarifies the breakdown:

Online courses, the primary focus of this report, are defined as those in which at least 80 percent of the course content is delivered online. Face-to-face instruction includes courses in which zero to 29 percent of the content is delivered online; this category includes both traditional and web facilitated courses. The remaining alternative, blended (sometimes called hybrid) instruction is defined as having between 30 percent and 80 percent of the course content delivered online. While the survey asked respondents for information on all types of courses, the current report is devoted to online learning only. (5)

This classification system seems, to me, to be arbitrary. If this were my only complaint, I wouldn’t bother raising this issue. However, it concerns me enough to continue to raise an eyebrow. The problem is that the failure to differentiate between completely online (100% online; 0% face to face) and mostly online (80% or more online; 20% or less face-to-face) classes ignores critical variables and implications that might have a significant impact on our perception of online education.

* Webcite alternative URL.

3 Responses

  1. I have to agree. There’s a substantial difference to students, at the least, in a course with no F2F meetings and a course with at least one such meeting — especially to a student in, say, Saudi Arabia, with an instructor in, say, Vermont. I’m citing an actual case here, although it’s an AP Biology course in an online high school.

    However, such cheap shots don’t really complete the picture. It’s not just about the difficulty of having one F2F meeting. It’s about the tone and tenor of the course. You can sit in a hot-air balloon all day, but until you cut the last cord to the Earth, you’re still earthbound. The difference, you must acknowledge, is profound.

    With the above metaphor, I’m thinking more of the instructor than the student. Cut your last cord, and you allow yourself to soar. And you get to bring your students along for the ride.

  2. Precisely, Harry. The teacher is the key. Snip that last cord, and the balloon soars.

    Where to?

    To a completely different dimension where time and place are no longer barriers to learning. The sheepherder in the Mongolian steppes, the native ranger in Namibia, the crewperson on an oil tanker in the Atlantic, the soldier stationed in a remote outpost on Tierra del Fuego, the bus driver in Tijuana, the factory worker in Detroit — all are potential students in that teacher’s online class. Enrollment is no longer limited to those who can afford to travel to the campus for one or more classes.

    How does this impact learning and instruction?

    This question ought to, perhaps, wait for another discussion. -Jim S

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