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The results of a key barometer of online learning in the United States were recently published based on the responses of over 2,500 academic leaders. The 2011 Survey of Online Learning reveals that the number of students taking at least one online course has now surpassed 6 million. Now nearly one-third of all students in higher education in the US are taking at least one online course. Key findings include:
• 31% of higher education students now take at least one course online
• The 10% growth rate for online enrollments far exceeds the 2% growth in the overall higher education student population
• Academic leaders believe that the level of student satisfaction is equivalent for online and face-to-face courses.
• 65% of higher education institutions now say that online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy.
While the authors report growth rates have declined somewhat from previous years, they "see no evidence that a dramatic slowdown in online enrollments is on the horizon." That said, it is noteworthy that the year-to-year change for the question about long-term strategy was greatest among the for-profit institutions, which increased from 51% agreeing in 2009 to 69% in 2011.
What the survey doesn't discuss is the move by the Federal Government to force online and distance providers to comply with local accreditation requirements for each State in which courses are offered. This change is widely reported as an attempt to address concerns about retention and quality amongst the for-profits and student abuse of the federal loans scheme.
Of particular interest in the report is that less than one-third of chief academic officers believe that their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education. This percent has changed little over the last eight years. It begs the question:
• How much progress has really been made in linking online learning to contemporary forms of pedagogy?
In this respect the survey avoids the tough and deeper question of whether the growth in online learning is actually reinforcing rather than challenging the traditional 'dump, dump, pump' model of higher education. Should we be concerned that while student uptake is increasing faculty have yet to be convinced of the benefits, especially in traditional institutions? In this respect the survey notes that "the proportion of chief academic officers that report their faculty accept online education varies widely by type of school."
This last observation raises a serious question of whether online learning can really go the full distance. Arguably, the real test of online learning going the distance is when it becomes central to the mission of ivory league institutions; and by this comment I don't mean simply putting lecture notes online. After all the case of the MIT Open Courseware initiative can be read as a statement in other providers that online learning has no value. A real education still occurs on-campus! Of course not everyone has this luxury and it would be good to see future surveys explore who is studying online and why.
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