Study: Online Course Enrollment Growth Takes Hit

Enrollment in online courses for higher education is seeing its slowest growth in a decade.

One in four college students were enrolled in online courses in the fall of 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  The authors of the study consider an online course to have at least 80% of the content taking place over a computer connection.  However, that number is down by 1.7 million students, as reported in the annual Babson Survey Research Group survey.

“This gives us complete data for the first time in over a decade,” says Russell Poulin, interim co-executive director for WCET, an organization that advocates for effective technology use in higher education. “We’ll be able to go back and see what the growth has been.”

According to the study, 48% of distance learners are located in Arizona, West Virginia, and Iowa.  Interestingly, these are also the states that are home to for-profit schools such as University of Phoenix and American Public University System and Kaplan University.

In fall 2012, 925,495 students enrolled exclusively in distance education courses at private, for-profit institutions – or 35% of all students enrolled solely online.

These numbers are expected to rise in western states such as California, as their university systems begin to expand their online learning systems.  Eastern states however, have the lowest percentage of online learners, not even reaching the double digits. Many academic leaders believe this is due to how far students live from campus.  Many eastern learners live closer to campus, whereas the western populations are more dispersed, making distance learning a more attractive option.

Perceptions of these massive open online courses (MOOC) are becoming increasingly negative by school leaders.  Coming into question are the low completion rates and value as a learning device.  The confidence in online learning as more beneficial than face-to-face learning has dropped from 77% to 74% in one year.

What does this say for the future of online learning?  One-third of the schools involved in the study said they have no plans to implement online learning courses.  Only 23% of academic leaders believe the MOOCs are valuable to the field of education, according to Devin Haynie of U.S. News.  Most schools are still undecided on the subject.

Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois—Springfield, had this to say:

“People don’t realize that MOOCs are changing,” he says. “If there is an important message to be shared it’s that MOOCs are different today than they were two years ago and they are going to be more advanced. They are going to evolve. There will be kinds of MOOCs that will do that very well.”

The study has been ongoing for 11 years, collecting data from more than 2,800 colleges and universities.