Formerly known as the Sloan Online Survey, Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States, by the Babson Survey Research Group, included responses from more than 2,800 colleges and universities. The recent data, collected in partnership with the College Board, found that 2013 saw the slowest rate of growth in students taking online courses in the last ten years and illustrated that chief academic leaders are now more skeptical of the quality and importance of online courses, especially MOOCs.
Opinions regarding online education have worsened over the past year, with the proportion of academic leaders who consider online learning critical to their long-term strategy dropping from 69.1 to 65.9 percent (page 30). College leaders have become cynical about MOOCs, believing that credentials for MOOC completion may cause confusion about higher education degrees. Although still small, the number of institutions offering MOOCs almost doubled from 2.6 to 5 percent last year, with an additional 9.3 percent planning to offer a MOOC in the future (page 23). The main reasons colleges give for offering these massive online courses are marketing-related, such as to “increase institution visibility” and to “drive student recruitment.”
The majority of college leaders have two main concerns about online education: that students need more discipline to succeed in online courses, and that student retention is much more difficult than in face-to-face classes. The survey also shows that college leaders increasingly view learning outcomes from online courses as inferior to those of face-to-face courses, but most of this increase is due to responses from institutions that offer no online courses or programs.
“Institutions with online offerings remain as positive as ever about online learning, but there has been a retreat among leaders at institutions that do not have any online offerings,” said Jeff Seaman, study co-author and Co-Director of the Babson Survey Research Group. Most of the colleges and universities without any online course offerings have less than 1,500 total students, so they have only a minor impact on the amount of students who are studying online.
In fall of 2012, there were about 412,000 more students enrolled in an online course than in fall 2011, for a total of 7.1 million students taking at least one online course (page 33). This represents a growth rate of 6.1% over the previous year: the slowest annual increase in the past five years. Ray Schoeder, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois-Springfield doesn’t see the slowing growth as a surprise. “In general, when we do research in these areas, when your number gets quite large, your percentage of growth always goes down,” he said.
Although expansion has slowed, the compounded annual growth rate of online students since 2002 has been 16.1 percent, and the proportion of students taking at least one online course is at an all-time high of 33.5 percent (page 15). “While the rate of growth in online enrollments has moderated over the past several years, it still greatly exceeds the growth in overall higher education enrollments,” said I. Elaine Allen, study co-author and Co-Director of the Babson Survey Research Group.
Regardless of other concerns, the majority of college leaders trust that online courses will become considerably less expensive than face-to-face courses over the next five years. Coupled with accessibility and convenience, the cost benefits will allow online education to persist, and nine out of ten college leaders agree that in five years it’s “very likely” or “likely” that the majority of students will be taking at least one online course (page 36). Joel Hartman, Sloan-C Board President and Vice Provost and COI of the University of Central Florida explains, “The 2013 survey findings reinforce the first-hand experience of our members, who continue to demonstrate that online learning has become a fundamental component of today’s higher education environment.”
The recent publication, Attitudes on Innovation: How College Leaders and Faculty See the Key Issues Facing Higher Education, based on a survey by Maguire Associates, Inc. of roughly 1,200 faculty and 80 presidents from four-year colleges around the country, found that while faculty and administrators continue to differ in opinion toward the current situation and the future possibilities of higher education, there seems to be a good deal of agreement over many key topics.
With increasing tuition prices and a recovering economy, the value of higher education in the United States has been a recent subject of much debate. The public has become wary of the return they are receiving on their investment, and the faculty agrees. Only 31% of faculty members believe that the higher education system is providing a “very good” or “excellent” value, compared to 57% of presidents (page 6, Figure 3). In an effort to cut costs, many recent innovations have involved technology and online tools. Presidents and faculty agree that less emphasis should be placed on these practices; rather, efforts should focus on changing the model of teaching and learning.
While professors and teachers feel mostly positive about many innovative concepts in pedagogy, such as adaptive learning, technology that increases interactions among students, and competency-based education, they continue to disapprove of MOOCs. Faculty members have been increasingly criticizing MOOCs over the last year. Despite this, about one third of faculty and presidents concur that students who complete a MOOC should receive credit from the institution offering the course.
Hybrid courses that combine both face-to-face and online components received overwhelming support from presidents and faculty. Eighty-five percent of faculty and eighty-three percent of presidents believe that hybrid courses provide many more benefits than online classes alone (page 15, Figure 15). Combining different innovative ideas, rather than merely shunning initiatives such as MOOCs, could be the solution to increase student learning. This idea is being tested by a group of liberal arts colleges in the west, led by Dominican University of California. According to Dominican’s president, Mary B. Marcy, "This is about taking what we do well and the things that work well for students and continuing to evolve them for contemporary students.”
External factors such as the economy and technological advances have shaped higher education debates as of late, and will continue to do so. However, one thing is clear: presidents and faculty members believe that change is needed, and that faculty should implement this change.
Throughout higher education in 2013 we heard a great deal about MOOCs, social media, and government shutdowns. Now that we’ve started a bright new year, we’re all wondering what is on the horizon. What developments and technologies will change higher education for good? What programs will improve security, make education more easily accessible, or help with studying? We can never know for sure, but here are a few trends we foresee making headlines in 2014.
- One of the biggest waves of the future has been brought on by the Obama administration asking colleges to shorten our idea of the standard four-year college education. Competency-based learning, a strategy where test scores—as opposed to time in class—determine mastery, and therefore allows students to move through course material at their own pace.
- State-of-the-art collaborative learning spaces recently started appearing, but for the right budget, they’re poised to make it big in 2014. Newer technologies including multiple screens, wireless presentation systems, and live streaming analyses systems are a big draw for schools looking to provide the most up-to-date learning environments.
- The concept of prior learning assessments has been around for decades, but governments and national education planners have only recently recognized how valuable the strategy could prove to be. By giving college students credit for outside learning experiences—using everything from military experience to real-world job training—and testing competency through placement tests, higher education suddenly becomes less repetitive and more focused.
- As computers seemed to take over from humans in the era of MOOCs, professor backlash and extremely low completion rates made the trend falter in 2013. But don’t think the MOOC has died. In 2014, Udacity and other companies are releasing a “MOOC 2.0,” utilizing increased interaction with live mentors and helpers. Along with projects that require more human feedback and grading, providers believe these new elements will lead to better information retainment and a higher course completion rate.
The idea of a one-size-fits-all education will be phased out as more minorities, matriculated students, military veterans, and part-time students choose to get their college education. America’s ever-changing demographic mean professors and administrators alike need to adapt teaching and learning methods. And as always, technology in 2014 will play an increasingly important role in guaranteeing that the next generation of college-educated students are at the top of their game.