Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005

Abstract: 

Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005 represents the third annual report on the state of online education in U.S. higher education. Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and based on responses from over 1,000 colleges and universities, this year’s study, like those for previous years’, is aimed at answering some of the fundamental questions about the nature and extent of online education.

Full Article (PDF): 

Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005 represents the third annual report on the state of online education in U.S. Higher Education. This year’s study, like those for the previous two years, is aimed at answering some of the fundamental questions about the nature and extent of online education. Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and based on responses from over 1,000 colleges and universities, the study addresses the following key questions:

Have the course and program offerings in online education entered the mainstream?

Background: Last year’s study, Entering the Mainstream: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2003 and 2004 suggested that online education was penetrating the institutions of higher education in both size and breadth of programs and courses. Is online education now part of the mainstream of higher education?

The evidence: The answer to this question appears to clearly be “Yes:” schools are offering a large number of online courses, and there is great diversity in the courses and programs being offered:

  • Sixty-five percent of schools offering graduate face-to-face courses also offer graduate courses online.
  • Sixty-three percent of schools offering undergraduate face-to-face courses also offer undergraduate courses online.
  • Among all schools offering face-to-face Master’s degree programs, 44% also offer Master’s programs online.
  • Among all schools offering face-to-face Business degree programs, 43% also offer online Business programs.

Who is teaching online?

Background: When institutions move to embrace online education, do they do so at the expense of their current core faculty? If a greater proportion of online courses are being taught by adjunct faculty, hired on a per-course basis, it may mean fewer opportunities for core faculty members, and, some would argue, lower course quality. Some have claimed that the move to online education will cost jobs for core faculty. Does the evidence support this concern?

The evidence: Staffing for online courses does not come at the expense of core faculty. Institutions use about the same mixture of core and adjunct faculty to staff their online courses as they do for their face-to-face courses. Instead of more adjunct faculty teaching online courses, the opposite is found; overall, there is a slightly greater use of core faculty for teaching online than for face-to-face.

  • Sixty-five percent of higher education institutions report that they are using primarily core faculty to teach their online courses compared to 62% that report they are using primarily core faculty to teach their face-to-face courses.
  • Seventy-four percent of Public colleges report that their online courses are taught by core faculty, as opposed to only 61% for their face-to-face courses.
  • Except for the largest schools (15000+ enrollment), all sized schools report an equal or greater rate of online courses being taught primarily by core faculty compared to their face-to-face courses.

Is online education becoming part of long-term strategy for most schools?

Background: Approximately one-half of all institutions rated online education as important for their long-term strategy in our two previous studies. This belief was not consistent across all types of institutions, however. Small schools and private, nonprofit institutions were the least likely to support this view. Have opinions changed over time? Do more institutions now agree that online education is an important long-term strategy, and has this changed for specific subgroups of institutions?

The evidence: The evidence from higher education’s academic leaders suggests that there is a strong trend upwards in considering online education as part of a school’s long-term strategy. While there is some diversity in response to this question, there is growth among all types of schools:

  • The overall percent of schools identifying online education as a critical long-term strategy grew from 49% in 2003 to 56% in 2005.
  • The largest increases were seen in Associates degree institutions where 72% now agree that it is part of their institution's long-term strategy, up from 58% in 2003.
  • The smallest schools, private nonprofit institutions and Baccalaureate colleges remain the least likely to agree that online education is part of their long-term strategy.

Have online enrollments continued their rapid growth?

Background: Last year’s study reported a 22.9% overall increase in the number of students taking one or more online courses, growing from 1.60 to 1.98 million students. Schools were optimistic about future growth as well, with 74.8% reporting that they expected their online enrollments to increase. Has the rapid growth in online enrollments continued for another year?

The evidence: Growth has continued at a healthy rate, but not as rapidly as last year. The increase in the overall number of online learners was the same this year as last (an increase of around 360,000 each year) for an overall enrollment growth rate of 18.2%. This growth rate greatly exceeds the overall growth rate in the higher education student body.

  • Overall online enrollment increased from 1.98 million in 2003 to 2.35 million in 2004.
  • The online enrollment growth rate is over ten times that projected by the National Center for Education Statistics for the general postsecondary student population.
  • In the aggregate, survey respondents do a reasonable job in predicting changes in online enrollments, but individual schools were often inaccurate in their 2003 predictions of their 2004 online enrollments.

What else do Chief Academic Officers and faculty believe about online education?

Background: Our previous studies have shown that Chief Academic Officers believe, in general, that online courses are of equal quality to face-to-face and that students are as satisfied with online as with face-to-face courses. They have also expressed reservations about their faculty’s acceptance of online education. Have Chief Academic Officers changed in their beliefs about faculty acceptance of online education?

The evidence: There is some good news for online education, but the opinions of Chief Academic Officers also raise a number of challenges. On the positive side, they believe it is no harder to evaluate online courses than those delivered face-to-face. More challenging, however, is that Academic leaders believe that online courses require more effort for faculty and more discipline by students, and many of them continue to believe that their faculty have not accepted the value of online education.

  • Chief Academic Officers believe, in general, that it takes more effort to teach online.
  • A large majority of respondents (64%) believe that it takes more discipline for a student to succeed in an online course.
  • Although online education continues to penetrate into all types of institutions, a relatively stable minority of Chief Academic Officers (28% in 2003 compared with 31% in 2005) continue to believe that their faculty fully accept the value and legitimacy of online education.
  • Eighty-two percent of respondents believe that it is no more difficult to evaluate the quality of an online course than one delivered face-to-face.