Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States

For the last ten years The Sloan Consortium has been publishing the results of their annual survey about online learning in the United States.  This year’s edition, “Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States,” contains some noteworthy information.  Published in partnership with Pearson and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, this year’s survey focuses a significant amount of attention on MOOCs.

I’ve written about MOOCs several times on this blog and the topic is receiving increased attention from a variety of sources.  It seems that the jury is still out on MOOCs but some schools are exploring their possibilities.  “Changing Course” notes that more than half (55.4%) of the colleges and universities responding to the survey are “undecided” about MOOCs while about a third (32.7%) have no plans to attempt a MOOC.  A very small percentage (2.6%) of respondents have a MOOC currently and another 9.4% are actively planning a MOOC.  The majority of respondents indicated a concern about credentialing and others question how sustainable the MOOC model is.  Interestingly, a large number of academic officers see MOOCs as an opportunity to enhance the pedagogy of online learning.  This corroborates the increasing popularity of online learning in higher education.

Though many may continue to express concern about MOOCs, the number of academic leaders who see online education as a critical part of their education strategy continues to increase.  In the survey’s first edition, published in 2003, less than half of academic leaders reported that online learning was a critical part of their strategy.  Today, “Changing Course” notes that 69.1% of respondents indicated that “online learning is critical to their long-term strategy.”  Not only is the percentage of academic leaders who find online learning “critical” increasing, the percentage of those who report that online learning is “not critical” is declining.  Only 11.2% of respondents stated that online learning was not a critical component in their long-term strategy, an all-time low as noted in the survey report.

The annual survey also provides statistics on the number of students who are learning online.  There is an obvious correlation between the number of students who are taking at least one online class and the percentage of academic leaders who reported in the Sloan survey that online learning is “critical” to their long-term strategy.  The report notes that increases in online enrollments have always outpaced increases in enrollments at traditional brick-and-mortar institutions.  The trend continues with this iteration of the Sloan survey.  The report notes that “The number of additional students taking at least one online course grew as much this year as it did last year” even as overall enrollments in higher education “dipped” for the first time in years.  The survey indicates that the number of students taking at least one online course increased by about 570,000 bringing the new total to 6.7 million students.  This represents about 32% of all students currently enrolled in colleges and universities in the U.S.

In considering the functionality and learning outcomes of online learning, the report notes that more academic leaders (44.6%) than in 2006 (41.4%) perceive that online learning requires more effort for instructors than face-to-face instruction.  At the same time, the percentage of academic officers who feel that the learning outcomes for online learning are at least as effective as face-to-face instruction is continuing to increase.  In 2003, about 57% of respondents indicated that learning outcomes in online learning were the same or superior to those of face-to-face instruction.  Today 77% hold this perception of the learning outcomes in online learning.  Perhaps a reflection of academic leaders’ perception that more is required of the online faculty member than the face-to-face one, the faculty acceptance of online learning decreased over the previous year’s results.  Respondents continue to note faculty acceptance (or the perceived lack thereof) and low retention rates in online classes are barriers to the widespread adoption of online learning.

I have eagerly awaited the Sloan annual reports and am not surprised by the results of the most recent survey.  Online learning continues to be a more affordable and more practical educational option for many students, particularly those who are returning to school as adults and juggling careers, families, and even military service.  It is positive that more schools are beginning to adopt online learning as a “critical” part of their long-term strategy.  Finally, it’s not surprising that there is still some uncertainty surrounding MOOCs.  The buzz is substantial around the MOOC model and schools seem interested at least from a pedagogical perspective. It will be interesting to see if there are additional questions about MOOCs in next year’s survey report as well as if some of the answers to this year’s questions have changed.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence