The current state of online learning: the Babson report

"Grade Level" report coverWhat’s the current state of online learning?  A new report from Babson, Pearson, the Online Learning Consortium et al, Grade Level (pdf), offers some intriguing observations about campus strategy and leadership.

One is that a huge gap yawns open between chief academic officers (academic deans, provosts, vice presidents) and their faculty on digital learning.  A clear majority of the former,  70.8%, see online learning as “critical to their institution’s long term strategy.” Three quarters of those CAOs, 74.1%, deem “the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face instruction”.  Meanwhile, “28.0% of academic leaders say that their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online education.”  The deans are pushing hard for online learning, generally, while professors are not.

Similarly, while most deans etc. think open education resources are a good thing,  faculty don’t know enough to judge, as “a bit more than one-third [of instructors] claimed to have some level of awareness” of OER (emphasis added).

faculty and CAOs awareness of OER

Academic leaders are far more aware of Open Educational Resources than are their faculty members. Four times as many leaders report that they are very aware than do faculty (26.0% compared to 5.1% for faculty). Far fewer leaders say that they are unaware of OER, with only one in five so reporting (20.1%) — a rate far lower than that reported by teaching faculty (65.9%)

Which brings up an interesting problem.  If these results are correct, how did CAOs get so well informed, while faculty have not?  Put differently: is this a success for campus CIOs and instructional technologists?

A second point relates to this.  When asked “What Will Drive the Future of Higher Education?” the deans etc. saw dollars before anything else.  Cost and student debt was the single most important driver:

What will drive higher education?
Note that workforce development/gainful employment is second, and very closely related.

Overall, digital learning continues to grow, according to the report.  Some interesting twists:

  • Growth may be slowing down.  “The observed growth rate from IPEDS of the number of students taking at least one distance course was 3.7%, lower than previous online growth rates”.  Some recent years saw far higher growth rates, like 2009 (over 20%) and 2005 (over 35%!).  If this is a real reduction, we might be approaching a full, stable complement of online learners.  And yet:
  • That increase rate was “still higher than the increase in overall higher education enrollments.”  By this measure online learning is healthier than face-to-face.
  • What dragged down that growth rate?  Purely for-profits.  They saw a decrease of 7.9%.  In contrast, “Public institutions grew by over 160,000 students, at a rate of 4.6%. Private not-for-profit institutions grew far faster, at 12.6%…”

So this report leaves us with some interesting tensions in academia.  Faculty and deans seem to have very different attitudes towards the digital world.  Meanwhile for-profits and the rest have diametrically opposed experiences in attracting students.  How will these tensions play out in 2015?

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9 Responses to The current state of online learning: the Babson report

  1. geekymom says:

    Left you a nice comment–lost to the internets. 🙂


  2. I wonder if they could break out results by t-track vs adjunct. The latter are generally more innovative, from what I’ve seen and read.


  3. totallyvidya says:

    Doesn’t surprise me either. Faculty adoption of online learning definitely appears to be driven top-down from the leaders. It may also depend on the learning context. Non-traditional learners lean toward this modality for continuing professional development. This does tie in to the gainful employment aspects of the study.

    What is really interesting however, is that while online education is plateauing in this country, it is taking off in Asia (India, China, Australia) and in Eastern Europe where it is driven by Russia. Check out this report from Docebo:


    • That’s a really useful report, Vidya. Thank you. (Let’s see what happens with Russian .edu in their suddenly challenged economy)

      Re: gainful employment, this is what president Obama is urging. Some parts of higher ed are resisting.


  4. Thomas Evans says:

    There are a couple of really interesting issues here. But first, I should admit my biases. I have taught college classes for nearly 14 years at four institutions, and am dedicated to improving my teaching. So I have gone out of my way to look up and try new digital technologies. So I am biased by my own experiences.

    The first issues is that administrators seem to push for on line offerings because they can cram more people in a class. While this seems laudable this is crippling to an instructor. The problem is, each student needs individualized feedback to help guide them through developing their critical thinking skills. With 100 or 300 students in a class this is just not possible. While there have been some great strides in providing customizable responses from computers based on students responses, the technology is not there (yet), and it required a huge input of resources to get to that point. So what this trend toward larger on line classes does is create a class in which it is virtually impossible for me to provide the useful feedback students need, even with the amazing technology we have available. In short, on line learning is fantastic, if we limit class sizes to something reasonable, or we invest a ton in developing customized software to provide students with needed feedback!

    There is a second issue here too, which is that some content really should not be taught on line. For example, I teach anatomy, and there is no substitute for cutting. Yes, there are amazing study aids, and fantastic learning modules for students (I show these to students), but they are no substitute for dissection. The reason why is that on line anatomy is static, as in the pictures do not change. In real anatomy, things change shape, location, have variation, etc. And you can only see this through hands on. Another excellent example of this is training EMT’s. Would you really want an EMT trained on line without hands on training? In short, what I am saying is that some things can be taught on line effectively, other just can’t be. Yes, there are on line learning tools, pictures, study aids, even on line interactive lectures (one of my favorite techniques) that work well. But there is also a component of physically meeting with students to perform tasks.

    Ultimately what I am saying is that on line technologies are like any other tool. They perform admirably for some tasks, and we should use them for those tasks. However, like all tools, they have weaknesses, so we should not use them when they are not appropriate. I will continue to use on line tools in my courses (in fact I am an early adopter), but I also realize that these tools do not solve all the problems of education. Sometimes you just need good old fashioned one on one instruction and hands on practice with frequent feedback.


    • Thank you for your reflections, Thomas. I appreciate how they’re based on long experience.

      To your first point, that drive to cram in more students is a *huge* issue, given the national anxiety about tuition and fees. Enormous pressure on campuses right now to do this.

      #2: definitely. My wife teaches an EMT class, as a flipped class, and agrees.


  5. Pingback: Trends to watch in 2015: education and technology | Bryan Alexander

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