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Over 7.1 million students take online college classes, but growth fades

Posting in Technology
The number of higher education students in the United States taking at least one online class grew to more than 7.1 million in the fall term of 2012, according to the latest numbers from Babson Survey Research Group and its 2013 Survey of Online Learning

But even though online higher education is growing at a rate of 6.1 percent from the previous year, it is the lowest annual rate since the survey began tracking online enrollment in 2002. So has online course enrollment plateaued?

"The evidence continues to mount that a plateau for online enrollments may be approaching, but there is no evidence that it has yet arrived," the report said.

Still, online courses are becoming an increasing part of the learning mix for higher education students. Now, 33.5 percent of higher ed students take at least one online class, an increase from less than 10 percent in 2002.

Other statistics from the study:

  • 90 percent of academic leaders believe that it is likely or very likely that a majority of all higher education students will be taking at least one online course in five years.
  • The proportion of chief academic leaders that say online learning is critical to their long-term strategy dropped from 69.1 percent to 65.9 percent.
  • The percent of academic leaders rating the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face grew from 57.2 in 2003 to 77.0 percent last year, but fell back to 74.1 percent this year.

How do MOOCs fit in?

For all the attention massive open online courses (MOOCs) get, only five percent of higher education institutions are taking advantage of the platform (double the number from the previous year) to "increase the visibility of the institution" and to "drive student recruitment" -- the two main reasons institutions said they offer MOOCs.

But even as MOOCs grow, academic leaders are becoming more pessimistic about their long-term sustainability. Of the chief academic officers surveyed in 2012 30 percent said they believe MOOCs are sustainable. Last year that number decreased to 22 percent. 

That's hardly a surprise as only four percent of MOOC participants finish a course, on average, and they are distributed for free -- only now has one tried adding a tuition fee. Even Sebastian Thrun, cofounder of Udacity, has said of MOOCs, "We have a lousy product."

Meanwhile, researchers are going back and forth over the effectiveness of online courses, in general, versus the traditional classroom model. As Doug Lederman puts it on Inside Higher Ed:

The discipline of research on online learning is nascent enough, and the body of long-term studies thin enough at this point, that keeping tabs on the state of thinking is a bit like watching a table tennis match. Every study that provides evidence of the effectiveness of online teaching seems to elicit a critical one. And vice versa.
Americans surveyed by Gallup last year had mixed feelings about online education. Many believe online education provides a better value and curriculum choice than traditional classrooms but still think online learning falls short in academic rigor. 

Photo: Flickr/samsungtomorrow

— By on January 16, 2014, 2:27 PM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure