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Online college courses still popular, but rate of growth has slowed, says Babson study

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  January 15, 2014 03:31 PM

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Enrollment in online college courses continues to remain popular, even as yearly growth stagnates and the importance of such courses garners mixed reviews from academic leaders nationwide, according to an independent study released Wednesday.

The Babson-affiliated survey that studies the nature and extent of online education found that about 7.1 million people took at least one online course in 2013, which is 6 percent more than last year.

However, that 6 percent increase is the lowest surge recorded by the survey in about a decade, survey authors said. The largest swell in online enrollment was 36.5 percent in the fall of 2005, according to the study.

Some academic leaders are also growing wary of online learning’s place at their institutions: 74 percent of officials thought the online courses were the same or superior to face-to-face classes, a drop from last year’s 77 percent. And the number of leaders who said they see virtual learning as part of their long-term plan fell from 69 percent to 65 percent.

Study authors, however, argued that online learning was becoming generally more accepted -- and popular -- among the colleges they surveyed.

For example, last year’s 69 percent of institutions considering online learning as key to their long-term strategy was up from less than 50 percent in 2002.

The report, released Wednesday, also said that an all-time high of 33 percent of higher education students take at least one course online – compared to 2002, when about 9 percent took one. The vast majority of academic leaders – 90 percent – also said they think it’s likely that students will take at least one online class in the next five years.

“The 2013 survey findings reinforce the first-hand experience of our members, who continue to demonstrate that online learning has become a fundamental component of today’s higher education environment,” said Joel Hartman, Sloan Consortium board president and vice provost and CIO of the University of Central Florida.

And although the growth in online learning has stagnated, study authors said the surge still beats general college enrollment numbers.

“While the rate of growth in online enrollments has moderated over the past several years, it still greatly exceeds the growth in overall higher education enrollments,” said study co-author I. Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group.

The study also notes that colleges offering free massive open online courses, or MOOCs, increased from 2.6 percent to 5 percent, but noted that still shows a vast minority are embracing the approach. About 10 percent said they are in the planning stages to offer MOOCs.

Currently, the Cambridge-based edX, a renowned MOOC site run by Harvard and MIT, offers courses from 30 different universities around the country and world, including UC Berkeley, Cornell, Georgetown, and Boston University.

But most institutions - 53 percent - report they are still undecided about offering MOOCs, and 33 percent say they have no plans to offer one. Only 23 percent of academic leaders believe that MOOCs are sustainable for offering online courses, down from 28 percent in 2012.

The survey interviewed 2,800 colleges in the US. The Babson Survey Research Group administered the survey, and the College Board helped with data collection.

The report has been able to remain independent through the support of Pearson and the Sloan Consortium.

“Our goal is to equip our partners with the services and solutions they need to help more students graduate and become workforce ready,” said Todd Hitchcock of Pearson Online Learning Services.

For more on the study, visit the survey's website.

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Follow us on Twitter: @ycbabson, @jaclynreiss

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com

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