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Online Learning Report Takes Snapshot of Student Enrollments

In its final year, the Online Report Card reflects the changing landscape of distance education.

by Tanya Roscorla / February 9, 2016
Accessible courses are nice to have, but not all higher education leaders do what it takes to provide them.

Despite overall declines in higher education enrollment, online learning programs experienced incremental growth as more students take classes in the digital realm.

In fall 2014, distance education enrollments increased by nearly 4 percent to 5.8 million students, while higher education enrollments dropped by just over 1 percent to 19.6 million, according to the Online Report Card from the Online Learning Consortium, released Tuesday, Feb. 9. Much of this growth comes from the private nonprofit sector, which saw an 11.3 percent jump in enrollment.

"Seeing this large increase in the private nonprofit institutions signals to me that institutions still understand that it's important in their strategic planning to offer online, it's important to figure out how to do it well and do it right," said Jill Buban, senior director for research and innovation at the Online Learning Consortium.

Meanwhile, for-profit institutions watched their enrollment drop by 2.8 percent. This sector weathered a rough storm last year as policymakers cracked down on Corinthian Colleges for dubious marketing and predatory lending schemes. This increased attention challenges for-profit colleges to step up their quality and stay relevant as the competition heats up, Buban said. 

In an interesting twist, Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) prove that they play a role in educating students — even though many people called for their death. Over the past three years, the percentage of institutions offering MOOCs grew from 2.6 to 11.3 percent. This growth shows that institutions can serve a variety of students through different types of online learning platforms, including MOOCs. And they fill a need in online learning, particularly for lifelong learners and students who need to build up their employability skills, Buban said.

When chief academic officers consider their long-term strategy, the majority of those who have distance learning programs agree that online learning is a critical component. But of the chief academic officers who do not have online learning programs, just 19.5 percent say it's critical — down from 33.8 percent last year. Most of these academic leaders come from small schools where it's not easy to find the resources or staff to get online programs going. 

"They thought in the future they would have aspirations for it, but they've never been able to move,"  said Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group.

This survey is in its 13th and final year now that the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) has been collecting detailed distance education enrollment for the last three years. IPEDS will help reveal how individual institutions stack up against each other, and researchers used data from this system along with survey results for this report.

The close of this report represents the final chapter of the first series in online learning data analysis. In the years to come, the research team could dive deeper into specific aspects of online learning, including MOOCs, workforce learning and innovative tools. 

"As online learning continues to grow, so is this need for consistent data analytics, and we're hearing this everywhere in the field," Buban said. "So having the availability of the IPEDS data really gives us that reliable data set to really look at globally throughout the United States what's happening in higher ed." 

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