Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2002 and 2003

Abstract: 

The 2003 Sloan Survey of Online Learning polled academic leaders and was weighted to allow for inferences about all degree-granting institutions open to the public. When asked to compare the online learning outcomes with those of face-to-face instruction a majority said they are equal. Two out of every three also responded that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy. Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2002 and 2003 also looks at characteristics of online learners, student and faculty perceptions as well as how private and public institutions approach online learning.

Full Article (PDF): 

Overview

While there is now some statistical information available on distance education at higher education institutions in the United States, very few if any research surveys have focused on online education. The 2003 Sloan Survey of Online Learning was designed to find answers to some key questions related specifically to online education delivered by higher education institutions in the United States.

When schools first began experimenting with online education over a decade ago, they were faced with a number of fundamental questions. The current study of degree-granting institutions of higher education in the United States allows us to answer a number of these questions, and pose some additional ones that merit further research.

Will students embrace online education as a delivery method?

Background: While it holds the promise of expanding the time and location boundaries of traditional higher education offerings, online education also dispenses with the familiar classroom setting that everyone (teacher and student alike) is familiar with. Will the time and location advantages, as well as other possible improvements brought about by moving instruction online, be enough to compensate for the traditional in-class experience for students? Will they be willing to sign up for online courses?

The evidence: The answer to this question is clearly "Yes, students are willing to sign up for online courses". Evidence to support this conclusion from this study includes:

  • Over 1.6 million students took at least one online course during Fall 2002.
  • Over one-third of these students (578,000) took all of their courses online.
  • Among all U.S. higher education students in Fall 2002, 11 percent took at least one online course.
  • Among those students at institutions where online courses were offered, 13 percent took at least one online course.
  • The number of students taking at least one online course is projected to increase by 19.8 percent over the one-year period from Fall 2002 to Fall 2003, to include a total of 1.9 million students.

Will institutions embrace online education as a delivery method?

Background: Many institutions of higher education have evolved their programs, course offerings, and delivery methods over decades. It will take a significant perceived advantage of a new delivery method to convince a large number of institutions to adopt it.

The evidence: The answer to this question is also yes; institutions are willing to embrace online education. Evidence to support this conclusion includes:

  • Eighty-one percent of all institutions of higher education offer at least one fully online or blended course.
  • Complete online degree programs are offered by 34 percent of the institutions.
  • Among public institutions, the numbers are even more compelling, with 97 percent offering at least one online or blended course and 49 percent offering an online degree program.
  • Perhaps most telling, when asked about the role of online education for the future of their institution, 67 percent answered that it is a critical long-term strategy for their institution.

Will faculty embrace online education as a delivery method?

Background: It is the faculty that do the actual teaching, and convincing them of the value of a new and unproven delivery method is a formidable challenge.

The evidence: The findings for faculty are less clear than for either students or institutions. Some, but by no means all, faculty have embraced online education:

  • Academic leaders at a majority of institutions (59.6 percent) agree that their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education, however, this leaves over 40 percent of institutions that are neutral or disagree with this statement.

Will the quality of online education match that of face-to-face instruction?

Background: One of the most frustrating factors facing the early advocates of online learning was the perception that the quality of these offerings would always be inferior to that of face-to-face instruction. Whether this was based on experience with earlier generation "correspondence courses," or a belief that the essence of teaching is the irreplaceable quality of face-to-face interaction was unclear. What was clear, however, was that the belief that online learning was of lower quality was widely held.

The evidence: The evidence from higher education's academic leaders suggests that the previous question of "can it be as good as" will soon be replaced by "how is it better?" When asked to compare learning outcomes in online courses with those for face-to-face instruction, academic leaders put the two on very close terms today, and expect the online offerings to continue to get better relative to the face-to-face option. Specific evidence from the study includes:

  • A majority of academic leaders (57 percent) already believe that the learning outcomes for online education are equal to or superior to those of face-to-face instruction.
  • Even more compelling, nearly one-third of these same academic leaders expect that learning outcomes for online education will be superior to face-to-face instruction in three years, and nearly three-quarters of them expect learning outcomes for online education to be equal to or better than face-to-face instruction.
  • Every grouping of institutions expects the same relative improvement in the learning outcomes of online compared to face-to-face instruction over the next three years. This holds true both for institutions that offer online education and those that do not.

What's next?

With some clear indicators that both students and institutions have embraced online learning, and evidence that academic leaders believe that the quality of online offerings has either already arrived or soon will, it is now time to turn our attention to other issues surrounding online education:

  • Every class of institution expects an improvement in the learning outcomes for online courses relative to those for face-to-face instruction. What aspects of the delivery of online education do they think will bring about this perceived improvement in quality?
  • Faculty at some institutions are seen as lagging behind relative to the student and institutional views of the value and legitimacy of online learning? What strategies will institutions use to convince their faculty? Will they be successful?
  • While a large number of institutions are engaged in the delivery of online courses, the vast majority of online students are being taught in public institutions. What will be the evolution of the role on online education among private institutions? Will online remain only a niche for them?

Press Release

Online Learning is as Good as Being There

(Washington, D.C.) From the Ivy League to tiny community colleges, a majority of institutes of higher education say online learning is just as good as traditional, face-to-face classroom instruction. Nearly three out of four academic leaders say learning online may be better within three years. A comprehensive survey released today by Babson College and the Sloan Consortium concludes that online learning is at historically high levels and will continue to grow at a rate of nearly 20%. (Read the 2003 Survey Overview)

"Ten years ago online learning was nearly unheard of. Today, 11% of all students are taking classes online and what they are learning is just as good as if they were sitting in classrooms and lecture halls."
Dr. I. Elaine Allen, Babson College
Associate Professor Statistics and Entrepreneurship

The 2003 Sloan Survey of Online Learning polled academic leaders and was weighted to allow for inferences about all degree-granting institutions open to the public. When asked to compare the online learning outcomes with those of face-to-face instruction a majority said they are equal. Two out of every three also responded that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy.

Sizing the Opportunity: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2002 and 2003 also looks at characteristics of online learners, student and faculty perceptions as well as how private and public institutions approach online learning. It can be read online at http://www.sloanconsortium.org/resources/survey_reports.

The study was supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and conducted by the Sloan Center for On Line Education at Olin and Babson Colleges and The Sloan Consortium (see www.sloanconsortium.org). Sloan-C membership is growing rapidly and includes over 380 institutions and organizations that share knowledge about effective online learning.

Babson College (see www.babson.edu) in Wellesley, Massachusetts, is internationally recognized for its entrepreneurial leadership in a global environment. Babson offers undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as distinct executive education programs.

Olin College is a new undergraduate engineering institution in Needham, Massachusetts offering an innovative, hands-on curriculum incorporating the arts and entrepreneurial thinking. (See www.olin.edu).

Contact: Babson College, Director of Public Relations Michael Chmura (781) 239-4549, mchmura@babson.edu or Patti Giglio, PSG Communications, LLC (202) 903-7869, psgcom@starpower.net.