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column | Postsecondary Learning

Will Online Ever Conquer Higher Ed?

By Robert Ubell     Jan 18, 2018

The latest data on the nation’s college and university enrollment shows that online is steadily climbing its way up to more than a third of the student population—as face-to-face continues to plummet. That’s a surprising turn in the long-time arc of academic population growth.

If online weren’t in the picture, on-campus enrollments, as reported in the most recent U.S. Department of Education 2016 results, would have fallen by more than 1.5 million between 2012 and 2016, says Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, who has been tracking the country’s virtual education lifeline for 15 years. “Without digital, higher ed would be in far worse shape than it is now,” he adds. “Distance ed is saving higher ed.”

In Babson’s new report, distance education enrollments increased for the fourteenth straight year, growing more rapidly than they have for the past several years. They rose 5.6 percent from 2015 to 2016 to reach 6.4 million who take at least one distance course. Today, online students represent 31.6 percent of all U.S. higher education students. “Whatever growth is happening in higher ed is driven by online,” Seaman says.

As a longtime official in online-education programs, the puzzling question to me is why, after more than two decades, does online represent merely a third of college enrollment? Why doesn’t it occupy a greater share of the market? By comparison, for example, learning management systems captured more than 90 percent of universities years ago.

One reason is that digital education at U.S. colleges and universities suffers from a legacy of suspicion that has made wider adoption challenging. “Online education has a troubled past,” recalled Phil Hill, edtech consultant at MindWires. “In the early days, schools just dumped things online, thinking they’d get rich quick. To move ahead, online has to get over its sour reputation.”

Much of that poor history comes from for-profit providers, since they were among the first to go online in a big way, attracting wads of Wall Street cash that let them quickly expand to enroll millions of students. Disastrously, as it turned out, with notoriously poor outcomes and piles of student debt. Looking over the campus gates at for-profits, faculty at public and private institutions shuddered at what they saw.

Faculty resistance to digital education has been among the chief barriers to its broader acceptance. In a survey conducted not long ago by John Vivolo, who was my colleague at New York University when I headed the engineering school’s online unit, more than half of the faculty believed that virtual instructors have no personal relationship with their students. They also thought teaching online offers little interaction with students and that there is little student-to-student engagement. On the whole, they concluded that digital quality is not as good as on campus.

A national Inside Higher Ed survey confirms those findings. “Professors, over all, cast a skeptical eye on the learning outcomes for online education,” the report concluded.

As I write in my new book, Going Online, the faculty who are most resistant to online instruction are the ones who are least familiar with it. And the more professors know about online, the less they reject it. That means the professors who rank the highest and have the greatest authority are building steep barriers to institutional acceptance.

Chances are, not one in a hundred university presidents or provosts have taught online, let alone taken a virtual course. For most senior academic officers at the top of the nation’s colleges, online is an alien practice, even though they often report that online is one of their top strategic priorities. In the Inside Higher Ed survey, counter-intuitively, 80 percent of university technology administrators said they view it with “more excitement than fear.” Psychologists tell us that fear can ignite excitement.

How Big Should It Get?

It is highly unlikely that virtual education will ever achieve total saturation in the academic market. Good chunks of it will never go online (and probably shouldn’t). Many small, liberal arts colleges, for example, representing about 10 to 15 percent of higher ed, say they couldn’t be less interested; digital education does not fulfill their mission.

“At small, private institutions, it’s not just what happens in class that matters,” remarked Babson’s Seaman. “What happens on campus—football games, fraternities, partying—often matters most.”

Seaman predicts that even when it achieves its greatest share, online will never reach 100 percent, but will plateau at about 50 percent.

“It’s never going to leave the campus in the dust,” agrees Phil Hill. “Online will end up somewhere in the middle. It’s surely going to level off eventually.” At the current rate of 5.6 percent annual growth—recall that the number of distance education students grew by 5.6 percent from 2015 to 2016—it will take another decade to reach 50 percent.

Eric Fredericksen, newly elected president of the Online Learning Consortium and associate vice president for online learning at the University of Rochester, disagrees, claiming that since digital education is not one thing, but a “continuum” stretching from face-to-face to completely online, it will extend way beyond 50 percent.

“I’m totally impressed by thirty percent,” he says, noting that digital learning and teaching options have invaded nearly every university classroom—on campus, online and blended. Optimistic about the future of virtual education, Fredericksen argues that “online is a catalyst for academic transformation.”

Unlike an LMS, online learning is not a piece of plug-in software or a digital device you can carry in your pocket. Not a gadget that opens your garage door, digital education depends only partly on technology. In fact, virtual education is not a technology at all, but an umbrella term characterizing a wide variety of technology-enabled pedagogies, only some delivered to students off campus.

In his diffusion of innovation theory, the late American sociologist Everett Rogers explored the rate at which new ideas and technologies spread. He found that an innovation must be widely adopted to be sustainable. As a new idea becomes accepted, there is a point at which it reaches critical mass, enlisting a sufficient number of adherents so that it generates continued growth.

It took almost a quarter of a century for digital instruction to be adopted by a third of the higher-education market. While its growth was often hobbled by rough speed bumps along the way, given the current accelerated rate of adoption, digital education may have already achieved critical mass.

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