July 29, 2014

Measuring the growth of online learning: the Babson College 2012 survey

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©2013 by Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC

Allen, I.E. and Seaman, J. (2013) Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States  Wellesley MA: Babson College/Quahog Research Group

Based on responses from more than 2,800 colleges and universities, this year’s study, like those for the previous nine years, tracks the opinions of chief academic officers. The figures refer to fully online courses, i.e. courses where over 80% of the content is delivered online. Most of you will have seen at least the headlines about this report, but it is so significant that I am providing a detailed analysis.

Main findings:

Online course enrollments

  • The number of students taking at least one online course increased by over 570,000 to a new total of 6.7 million.
  • The online enrollment growth rate of 9.3 percent is the lowest recorded in this report series (but higher than enrollment growth overall, which dropped to below zero in 2011-2012.)
  • The proportion of all students taking at least one online course is at an all time high of 32.0 percent
  • The continued growth in online enrollments has come from the transition of institutions with only a few online courses moving to offer fully online programs, and from institutions with online programs expanding their offerings and building their enrollments.

©2013 by Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC

Learning outcomes

  • In the first report of this series in 2003, 57 percent of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face.  That number is now 77 percent.
  • A minority (23%) of academic leaders continue to believe the learning outcomes for online education are inferior to those of face-to-face instruction.
  • Academic leaders at institutions with online offerings have a much more favorable opinion of the relative learning outcomes for online courses than do those at institutions with no online offerings.

Faculty acceptance 

  • Only 30 percent of chief academic officers believe their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education.  This rate is lower than the rate recorded in 2004.
  • Chief academic officers at institutions with fully online programs have the most positive view of their faculty acceptance, but even for them the proportion agreeing is less than a majority (38 percent).

Time to teach online

  • The percent of academic leaders that believe it takes more faculty time and effort to teach online has increased from 41 percent in 2006 to 45 percent this year.
  • Private for-profit institutions are the lone group whose level of agreement has dropped (from 32 percent in 2006 to 24 percent in 2012).

Who offers online programs?

  • Virtually all publicly funded institutions (90%+) had online courses even in 2002.  One big change for these schools is the big gain in the proportion whose online offerings now include complete online programs (49% in 2002 and 71% in 2012).
  • The number of private nonprofit institutions with online offerings increased from 22% in 2002 to 48% in 2012.


  • Only 2.6 percent of higher education institutions currently have a MOOC, another 9.4 percent report MOOCs are in the planning stages.
  • The majority of institutions (55%) report they are still undecided about MOOCs, while one-third (33%) say they have no plans for a MOOC.
  • Academic leaders remain unconvinced that MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses, but do believe they provide an important means for institutions to learn about online pedagogy.
  • Academic leaders are not concerned about MOOC instruction being accepted in the workplace, but do have concerns that credentials for MOOC completion will cause confusion about higher education degrees.
Online learning as strategic to institution’s plans
  • The proportion of chief academic leaders that say online learning is critical to their long-term strategy is now at 69 percent – the highest it has been for this ten-year period.
  • Likewise, the proportion of institutions reporting online education is not critical to their long-term strategy has dropped to a new low of 11 percent.
  • A total of 2,820 responses were included in the analysis, representing 62 percent of the sample universe (all active degree-granting institutions in the USA).  Because non-responding institutions are predominately those with the smallest enrollments, the institutions included in the analysis represents 83 percent of  higher education enrollments.

1. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman have provided a unique and invaluable service for the last ten years. Initially supported by the Sloan-C foundation for the first nine years and now supported by Pearson, this survey has provided the only comprehensive analysis of the growth of online learning in the USA. Its particular value is the consistency of methodology which allows for valid comparisons from year to year.

2. The results themselves this year are somewhat surprising. Almost one third of students in the USA are now taking at least one online course. Although growth is slowing somewhat, online enrollments are still outpacing the overall college enrollments in the USA. Nearly 70% of chief academic officers see online learning as strategic to their future plans.

3. I was surprised to note that even as early as 2002, over 90% of state-funded universities claimed to have at least some online courses. The private nonprofit (i.e. most of the elite universities) have been much slower moving in this direction with still less than half offering for credit programs.

4. The data clearly shows the over-reporting in the main media of MOOCs. Only 12% of institutions are offering or considering to offer MOOCs and as we have seen elsewhere, these are mainly the elite institutions who to date have been slow to recognize or accept the value of for-credit online programming. It is a pity less media attention has been focused on the 6.7 million online enrollments that have built slowly but steadily over the last 10 years. But then these weren’t at  Stanford, MIT or Harvard.

5. The report has some interesting observations on the time factor in teaching online. The report states:

Before the advent of MOOCs, the prototypical online course in U.S.higher education over the past decade has not been structured to provide large increases in efficiency.  Most online courses are very similar in design to existing face-to-face courses.  These courses typically run on the same semester schedule, cover the same corpus of material, represent the same number of credit hours, and are led by a single faculty member who is directly interacting with his or her students…..One result of building online courses that mirror the existing face-to-face framework has been they place additional demands on the faculty that teach them….. The most recent results show 44.6 percent of chief academic officers now report this to be the case, with only 9.7 percent disagreeing. However, the percent of academic leaders at for-profit institutions agreeing it takes more time and effort to teach online courses had dropped from 31.6 percent in 2006 to only 24.2 percent for 2012.

This suggests that the for-profits such as Phoenix and Kaplan have been more successful in scaling up online programs. There are several ways online learning could be done more cost-effectively in public institutions, from greater use of open educational resources, especially open textbooks, flexible instructional design, more planning, teamwork and design at a programming rather than a course level, greater sharing of materials and more inter-institutional collaboration and partnerships, especially for core undergraduate programs and specialized masters programs. Now that institutions are seeing online learning as of strategic importance, I hope we will see more concerted efforts at improving the cost-effectiveness of online learning.

6. I have just one caveat with all the surveys in this series. I have a concern that they may be unintentionally over-indicating the volume of online learning. Just two straws in the wind: in 2010, the government of Ontario in Canada did a comprehensive census (i.e. all institutions) and found that 13% of all course enrollments were in online courses, which is less than half the Babson figure. At the time, I thought this might be an indication that Canada was slower than the US in developing online learning. However, earlier this week, Dr. Andreea Serban, interim vice chancellor of education services at Coast Community College District, reported that in the California community college network, the number of online enrollments equalled 11% of full time equivalents – FTEs (identical to the figure for the Ontario two-year college system). One reason for the differences may be due to the way data are reported. The Babson survey reports on the number of students taking at least one online course (32% of all students). The Ontario survey required institutions to provide a detailed breakdown of their course enrollments from their registration data, and calculated this as a proportion of FTE enrollments, and I’m guessing that is how the California figures were also arrived at. The reason for the discrepancy is that students are probably taking fewer online than face-to-face courses, thus the FTE proportion is lower. However, I would argue that the proportion of students taking online courses in terms of FTEs  is the better ‘true’ measurement of the impact of online learning.

Despite the caveat, what is more important than the actual numbers is the trend, and on this the Babson survey is extremely consistent. We are seeing some indication that the rate of growth of for-credit online learning is beginning to slow (at one time there were annual increases of over 20%), and I suspect that the move to hybrid learning is likely to slow down further the growth of enrollments in fully online courses (although increasing the total number of students studying at least partly online). Allen and Seaman in fact also collected data on blended/hybrid learning in this year’s survey and I hope they will publish this data as well.

Lastly, despite (or perhaps because of) this detailed analysis of the results, I strongly recommend you go to the original report, which contains a great deal more than I’ve reported here, is clearly written and is well worth reading in full.


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