January 8, 2013
By: Doug Lederman
MOOCs may have snared most of the headlines, but traditional, credit-based online learning continued to chug along just fine last year, thank you very much.
More than 6.7 million, or roughly a third, of all students enrolled in postsecondary education took an online course for credit in fall 2011, according to the 2012 iteration of the Babson Survey Research Group's annual Survey of Online Learning. While the upturn in the number of online enrollees (9.3 percent) represented the smallest percentage increase in the 10 years that Babson has conducted this study, overall enrollment in American colleges and universities fell in 2011 for the first time in 15 years, to put the slowing of online growth in some context.
And speaking of said MOOCs -- the massive open online courses that have captured the imagination of the public and turbocharged the discussion about digitally delivered instruction in many quarters -- the Babson survey for the first time queried institutional officials about their views about the courses.
Given their relative newness, the answers are probably unsurprising: lots of uncertainty about whether to embrace them, and significant skepticism about whether the free open courses (at least as of the time when the survey was conducted) present a "sustainable method for offering online courses."
Slowing But No Plateau
With college enrollments flattening over all, driven by the end of the baby boom echo and the incremental improvement of the job market, online enrollments might be expected to flatten. But as the table below shows, while the rate of growth fell to its lowest level in at least a decade, the survey shows that enrollment in distance courses and programs continues to be more than healthy. (This being the survey's 10th year, the report's authors, I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, the Babson group's co-directors, included data on changes over the decade they've been conducting it.)
Perhaps most strikingly, online enrollments continue to make up an increasing proportion of all enrollments in higher education, as seen in the chart below.
And as seen in this chart, more than 7 in 10 public and for-profit colleges are now offering full academic programs (as opposed to merely freestanding courses) online, far more than were doing so a decade ago. Nearly half of private nonprofit colleges are offering fully online programs, about double the number that were doing so in 2002.
The Babson researchers asked a series of questions about institutions' usage of and plans for MOOCs.
A small fraction (2.6 percent) of the roughly 2,500 responding colleges said they currently have massive open courses, and another 9.4 percent said they are planning one.
Chief academic officers queried about the sustainability of MOOCs as a way of offering courses were deeply divided. Nearly half were neutral, with the rest evenly split between yes and no. There was much more widespread support for the idea that MOOCs could help institutions learn about online pedagogy, with nearly three in five respondents agreeing that they would serve that purpose.
Among other highlights of the survey: