Study: Online Learning Sees Slowest Growth in a Decade

Massive open online courses lost favor among some school leaders, a study finds.

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The number of students taking online courses grew at the slowest rate in a decade in 2012, according to a report released today.

About 7.1 million students took at least one online course during fall 2012 – a 6.1 percent increase over the year before, according to "Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States," an annual report by the Babson Survey Research Group. The report, previously called the Sloan Online Survey, also found school leaders had a slightly more negative perception of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in 2013.

Although there is no evidence that enrollment in online courses has plateaued, the report suggests the number of students taking an online course could be beginning to reach a natural equilibrium, says Jeff Seaman, the report's co-author and co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group.

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"When we started this, every institution's program grew every year. That's not true anymore," he says. "We don't have a great untapped market of potential students."

Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at the University of Illinois—Springfield and an expert in the field, had not seen the study but says the slower growth rate comes as no surprise to him.

"In general when we do research in these areas, when your number gets quite large your percentage of growth always goes down," he says.

Now in its 11th year, the study used data collected in partnership with the College Board and relied on responses from officials at more than 2,800 colleges and universities. Authors defined an online class as a course where more than 80 percent of all content is delivered online.

The report shows perceptions of online learning have changed slightly in a negative direction, primarily among campus leaders of schools without online classes.

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The percent of academic leaders rating the effectiveness of online education as the same or superior to that of face-to-face instruction dropped from 77 percent in 2012 to 74 percent in 2013. About 66 percent of those same leaders say online learning is critical to their long-term strategy – down from 69 percent in 2012.

Seaman says the evolving perceptions could be tied to several factors. Administrators from schools that have yet to offer online courses may feel the market is saturated, he says. And they may have been influenced by the negative backlash against MOOCs, which took headlines by storm in 2012 and 2013 as elite universities announced partnerships with MOOC providers such as Coursera, edX and Udacity.

While MOOCs were originally heralded for their ability to democratize education, critics soon began to question their low completion rates and effectiveness as a learning tool.

The negative headlines may have made an impact on school administrators, who were a little more cautious about MOOCs in 2013, according to the study, which was sponsored by educational services company Pearson and the nonprofit Sloan Consortium.

[Explore the controversy behind MOOCs.]

The majority of schools reported they were still undecided about offering MOOCs, while one-third said they had no plans to implement the courses. Only 23 percent of academic leaders said MOOCs represent a sustainable way of offering online courses, down from 28 percent in 2012.

While nearly twice as many schools offered MOOCs in 2012, the schools that do are still a minority, up to 5 percent from 2.6 percent in 2013.

"On virtually every measure the opinions of MOOCs are more negative this year," Seaman says. "People in general see more issues with them and more concerns about them then they did earlier. But the biggest group by far is still saying 'undecided.'"

Schroeder, a defender of MOOCs, says they received unwarranted criticism after their initial hype.

"People don't realize that MOOCs are changing," he says. "If there is an important message to be shared it's that MOOCs are different today than they were two years ago and they are going to be more advanced. They are going to evolve. There will be kinds of MOOCs that will do that very well."