April 23, 2014

Tracking online learning in the USA – and Ontario

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Babson 2012 enrollment graph Allen, I. and Seaman, J. (2014) Grade Change: Tracking Online Learning in the United States Wellesley MA: Babson College/Sloan Foundation

This is the eleventh annual report in this invaluable series on tracking online education in the United States of America. It is invaluable, because, through the consistent support of the Sloan Foundation, the Babson College annual survey provides a consistent methodology that allows for the tracking of the growth and development of online learning in the USA over more than a decade.

There is nothing comparable in Canada, but nevertheless I will use this post to try and draw some comparisons between the development of online earning in the USA and at least the largest system in Canada, that of Ontario, which does have at least some data. Also, Ontario has just established Ontario Online, a system wide initiative aimed at strengthening Ontario’s online learning activities. The Sloan/Babson surveys have important lessons for Ontario’s new initiative.


The survey is sent to the Chief Academic Officer (CAO) of every higher education institution in the USA (private and public, universities and two year colleges), over 4,600 in all. Over 2,800 responses were received from institutions that accounted for just over 80% of all higher education enrollments in the USA (most non-responses came from small institutions, i.e. institutions with 1,500 students or less, who were far less likely to have online courses, as a sector).

An online course is defined in this report as one in which at least 80 percent of the course content is delivered online as a normal part of an institution’s program. MOOCs are therefore considered a completely different category from the ‘normal’ credit-based online courses in this report.

What is the report about?

The scope of the report can best be described from the questions the report seeks to answer:

  • What is Online Learning, what is a MOOC?
  • Is Online Learning Strategic?
  • Are Learning Outcomes in Online Comparable to Face-to-Face?
  • Schools Without Online Offerings
  • How Many Students are Learning Online?
  • Do Students Require More Discipline to Complete Online Courses?
  • Is Retention of Students Harder in Online Courses?
  • What is the Future of Online Learning?
  • Who offers MOOCs?
  • Objectives for MOOCs
  • Role of MOOCs

Main findings

This relatively short report (40 pages, including tables) is so stuffed with data that it is somewhat invidious to pick and choose results. Because it is short and simply written you are strongly recommended to read it yourself in full. However, here are the main points I take away:

Growth of credit-based online learning continues but is slowing

Sounds a bit like an economic report on China, doesn’t it? Allen and Seaman claim that a total of 7.1 million students are now taking at least one online course, or roughly 34% of all enrollments. (Note: ‘% taking at least one course’ is not the same as ‘% of all course enrollments’ which would be a better measure.) Online learning enrollments were up 6.5% in 2013, a slowing of the rate of growth which had been in the 10-15% range per annum in recent years. Nevertheless, online enrollments are still growing five times faster that enrollments in general in the USA, and most CAOs anticipate that this growth in online learning enrollments will continue into the future.

MOOCs are still a very small component of online learning

The number of institutions offering MOOCs rose from 2.6% in 2012 to 5% in 2103. The majority of institutions offering MOOCs are doctoral/research and there is a high proportion in the private, not-for-profit sector. This sector has been historically less involved in credit-based online learning.

Graph sectors with online learning

Less than a quarter of CAOs believe that MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses, down from 28 percent in 2012, and a majority of academic leaders (64%) have concerns that credentials for MOOC completion will cause confusion about higher education degrees.

Sector differences

The report identifies some clear differences between the different sectors in the USA’s very diverse post-secondary education system. Small institutions (less than 1,500) and doctoral/research institutions are far less likely to offer online courses. CAOs from institutions not offering online learning tend to be more critical of the quality of online learning and far less likely to think it essential to their future.

Of the CAOs from institutions offering online courses, nearly one-quarter believe online outcomes to be superior, slightly under 20 percent think them inferior, with the remainder (57%) reporting that the learning outcomes are the same as for classroom delivery

What about Canada – and Ontario in particular?

I have long lamented that we have no comparable data on online learning in Canada. The government of Ontario did do a census of all its universities and colleges in 2010 and found just under 500,000 online course registrations, or 11% of all university and college enrollments, with online enrollments in universities (13%) higher than in two-year colleges (7%). If we extrapolate from the USA figures (highly dubious, I know) which showed a 16% increase in online enrollments between fall 2010 and fall 2012, this would put Ontario’s online enrollments in 2012 at approximately 563,000.

More significantly, the Ontario government survey provided hard data on course completion rates:

  • the median in the college sector for the 20 colleges that responded to the question was 76.1% with most institutions reporting results between 70% and 79%.
  • the median in the university sector for the 15 universities that responded was 89% with most universities reporting results from 85% to 95%.

Contact North did a ‘cross-country check-up’ in 2012. It concluded (p.14):

Using proxy data (estimates provided by a variety of different organizations and a standard measure of full-time equivalent student set at 9.5 course registrations per FTE), we can estimate that there are between 875,000 and 950,000 registered online students in Canada (approximately 92,105 – 100,000 full-time students) at college and universities studying a purely online course at any one time.

The problem though is that these are one-off studies. While the government of Ontario is to be congratulated on doing the 2010 survey, it decided not to continue it in the following years (or more accurately, it did not decide to repeat it.) The Contact North data is at best a rough estimate, again valuable in itself, but needs to done on a more systematic and regular basis across the country (Canada’s higher education system is devolved to each of 12 provinces with no federal responsibility or office for post-secondary education, and Statistics Canada has been cut back in recent years by the current Conservative Government).

However, there is now hope. The government of Ontario has just established Ontario Online, a collaborative Centre of Excellence that will be governed and operated by the province’s colleges and universities. It has a start-up budget of $42 million. One of the first things it should do is to repeat and expand the 2010 survey, to establish a baseline for measuring the province’s progress in online learning. The expansion should include also measurement of hybrid/blended learning (preferably using the same definitions as the Babson survey for comparative purposes.) To do this accurately, institutions will need to categorize the type of courses they are offering in their courses’ database, if they have not already done this to date. Without such a baseline of data, it will be almost impossible to assess not just the success of Ontario Online, but of online learning in general in Ontario.

I would also hope that as the country’s largest province, with probably the greatest number of online courses and enrollments, Ontario will take leadership at the national Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) to get the survey it has developed adopted and administered by all provinces across Canada. Politicians and experts can huff and puff all they like about the importance of online learning, but if they don’t measure it, it’s all just hot air.

In summary, many thanks to Sloan and Babson College for their invaluable work. Ontario has done far more than any other province in Canada to identify the extent of online learning, and is poised to make an even greater breakthrough through its new Ontario Online initiative. However, systematic data collection is essential for measuring the success of any online learning initiatives or strategies.

Does the U.S. accreditation system discriminate against online learning?

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Vedder, R. (2012) The Unholy Alliance Against Online Learning, Bloomberg, October 29

Yes, says Richard Vedder, professor of economics at the University of Ohio. He points to examples such as Minnesota, which briefly banned Coursera courses because they had not been accredited in the state, Ashford University, whose online courses are accredited in one region, but refused accreditation in another, and the Federal government requirement that online programs must be separately approved by every one of the 52 states individually (now under challenge in the courts), which is an onerous, costly and time-consuming requirement.

I certainly don’t claim any expertise in the arcane system (if it can be called that) of accreditation in the USA, but I think there are several separate issues at play here, and they need to be treated somewhat differently:

  • it is difficult to argue that there is a ‘system’ of accrediting institutions or programs in the USA; as Vedder says, it is a patchwork quilt, with varying standards. It is self-regulatory, and each institution picks and chooses whatever agency suits its purpose. There is no direct relationship between accrediting boards and state legislative supervision of institutions. The entire US accrediting system is incredibly confusing and misleading for potential students and should be thoroughly overhauled; but that ain’t going to happen, because of the decentralized nature of higher education in the USA.
  • one reason for the extremely cautious approaches of the federal and state governments in the USA to the accreditation of online courses is the long history of dubious practices by for-profit higher education institutions. Unfortunately, online and distance have become equated in legislators’ minds with for-profit education, which is now reaping what its earlier practitioners sowed: widespread distrust. However, if there had been integrity in the accreditation system, the for-profits would have been prevented from driving a coach and horses through the accreditation process
  • this bizarre system was worked around when education was delivered locally. States could exercise some element of control over what was happening on campuses within the state. This just doesn’t work though for distance or online learning, which can originate anywhere, not just in the USA, but from across the world.

Another barrier: the Carnegie unit of measurement

The Carnegie unit of measurement, based on time in class (e.g. three credit hours a week based on hourly lectures) doesn’t work for online learning. The US Department of Education uses the Carnegie system to determine whether a student is full-time or not, i.e. that the student takes 30 credits a year, in order to get financial aid. However, online learning does not fit the model of 39 hours of lectures over 13 weeks. Modules of learning can be much shorter or much longer, depending on the ability of the students and the needs of the teaching. What is being measured through the Carnegie system of ‘accumulating’ credits is not learning, but time spent studying.

Quite apart from discriminating against all part-time learners, making the Carnegie unit the basis for funding causes all kinds of problems for innovative ways of delivering programs to learners in the 21st century. Most learners are in essence part-time these days (average time to a bachelor’s degree in the USA is between six and seven years). Institutions such as Western Governors University, which provides an accelerated path for those already with defined competencies, has to build its competency-based training into ‘chunks’ that equate to Carnegie units, so that students qualify for financial aid. Innovative online courses have to equate to the amount of time students on campus would spend taking the same course, which is a hazy figure at best. We should be measuring outcomes, what students have learned, not how long they have spent learning it.

What should be done

Although we have our own problems north of the border, at least there is a somewhat consistent system of accreditation in Canada. Each provincial government has set up an arms-length degree quality assurance board (the name varies, but the principle is the same). The Ministry of Advanced Education or its equivalent appoints a committee of senior, respected academics from the institutions, and usually has a bureaucrat ‘observer’ on the committee who ensures the rules are followed. All institutions have to submit new degree proposals and show that they meet provincial standards, which include financial and long-term sustainability. In particular institutions are required to show that they have followed a proper quality assurance process in developing the degree proposal. Most proposals have been thoroughly vetted internally before they reach the committee.The more established universities then get much lighter oversight than a new institution.  Canada though has almost no for-profit universities and those that have tried to set up have run into real difficulties, especially regarding the financial sustainability criterion, which are deliberately rigorous. The aim though is to prevent institutions enrolling students then closing down or disappearing before the students qualify.

However, inter-provincial accreditation, especially for online courses, remains a major problem in Canada. Alberta and British Columbia have an effective agreement that enables transfer of credit and hence student mobility between the two provinces (a BC Minister once famously proclaimed Alberta’s Athabasca University ‘BC’s open university,’ much to the chagrin of BC’s Thompson Rivers University, which operates the BC Open University). However, transfer of credits between students with credits from an institution in one province to an institution in another province is still extremely bureaucratic and difficult in most cases.

In practice, students don’t care about provincial or state boundaries. Athabasca University claims that up to 40% of its students come from Ontario, for instance. The futility of trying to stop students in Minnesota from taking ‘free’ MOOCs from Stanford in California was so obvious that the ban was removed in less than 24 hours. What students do care about though is the quality of the online program. However, as long as each province or state has a rigorous process for accrediting programs and institutions, the acceptance across provinces or states of online courses from ‘approved’ institutions should be automatic.

Furthermore, problems remain in both Canada and the USA if students want to start taking online courses from an institution out of state or province then use that for advancement by transferring to a local university. The answer of course is more flexible credit transfer arrangements, more flexible prior learning assessment, and challenge exams, where students can demonstrate their learning without having to work through courses they have already taken elsewhere. Even some of the more prestigious research universities in Canada are realising that they need to be more flexible if they are to attract lifelong learners, for instance. Thus it’s as much up to the institutions as the regulators to ensure there is some flexibility in the system for students taking out of state or out of province online courses.

Yes, there needs to be sensible protections against fraud and fly-by-night online operators, but too often the restrictions, regulations and barriers are steeped in practices that no longer apply in an open, knowledge-based society. Every institution should be examining the structure of its courses, its admission requirements, its arrangements for credit transfer and prior learning assessment, and its strategy for lifelong learning, if it is to be fit for purpose in the 21st century. It is not an issue just of online learning.

Further reading

U.S. Network for Education Information. (2011). Accreditation and quality assurance. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Re.Vica’s ‘Accreditation in the US‘ and ‘Accreditation of Higher Education Institutions in the USA’ (pdf)

Barriers to inter-state accreditation of online courses in the USA

Has the credit hour become a relic?

What’s a Credit Worth?

Zemsky, R. (2009) Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education Chapel Hill NC: Rutgers University Press

A different standard for accrediting online programs?

Lederman, D. (2011) Mend it, Don’t End It, Inside Higher Education, February 4



The money pours in to fund online learning start-ups – while the public system starves

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Banning, Doresa (2102) Online education start-up Udacity Raises $15 million in funding, CityTownInfo.com, October 26

According to the National Venture Capital Association, a staggering $463 million has already been invested this year by venture capitalists into educational technology companies in the USA.

This year some of the online start-ups that have received venture capital funding are:

  • Udacity: $15 million this week; total: $21 million
  • Coursera: $16 million in April
  • 2U (formerly 2tor): $26 million in April
  • Codeacademy: $10 million in June.
  • Desire2Learn: $80 million in September (not a start-up, of course, but still a significant online education company. For more information on the investment click here)

At the same time, the California two year college system has undergone nearly $1 billion of cuts since 2008, resulting in a waiting list of 470,000 students who cannot get into classes.

The California State University system meanwhile is outsourcing most of the services for CalState Online to Pearson.

In the forthcoming November elections in California, in order for the governor to increase some state taxes, proposition 30 attempts to get round the infamous proposition 13 in 1978 that outlawed any property tax increases for ever in California, resulting in the state going into effective bankruptcy last year.


Clearly the USA is in the process of undermining their public state system of education (at all levels) and in effect privatizing education. Frankly, what American’s do in their own bedrooms is none of my business.

My concern though is that in the urge to get  a return on their investment, these privatized, American online companies will start to gnaw away at the funding behind public education systems in countries outside the United States. And as an aside, where the hell are the Canadian venture capitalists? (Still waiting for the Northern Gateway Pipeline, no doubt – so last century).

It is clearly the goal of the xMOOC companies such as Coursera and Udacity to go global with their offerings. This will be necessary to get a return on the capital invested. But where will these revenues come from? In the USA, it is clearly being diverted from the public education system. Will the same begin to happen in Canada or Europe or Africa as U.S. MOOCs spread?

The least we should know are the business models for getting their money back. Whose money will it be?

The global attack on public higher education

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Revolution in the streets

Two days of my holiday were spent in the lovely city of Madrid. We witnessed there, just outside our hotel, the now daily mass demonstrations against the austerity cuts in Spain. Spain is no Greece, but it has been hit particularly hard because their banks over-extended themselves in silly, unsecured loans that drove mainly the construction industry. Now public servants such as teachers, civil servants, and health workers are being told their salaries and pensions will be cut, and there will be reduced funding for post-secondary education,  in order to pay off the massive debt the government has occurred in bailing out their banks. As Gordon Gekko, the character played by Michael Douglas says in ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’: ‘This is the perfect solution: privatize the profits and nationalize the losses.’

Change the rules

Meanwhile, the British government, having increased undergraduate tuition fees to £9,000 ($14,000) a year resulting in a 30% drop in enrolment applications in England and Wales, is also planning to make it harder for children to pass the school exams, thus reducing the ‘demand’ for higher education even further (under 40% of a cohort in Britain currently go on to post-secondary education – Ontario is currently at 63% and aiming for 70%). I care about this because I have four British grandchildren, and a son and daughter-in-law who are professors in a British public university.

Don’t pay taxes

Then I read the following:

National Science Board (2012) Diminishing funding and rising expectations: trends and challenges for public research universities Washington DC: National Science Board.

The NSB ‘supervises the collection of a very broad set of policy-neutral, quantitative information about U.S. science, engineering, and technology.’ It found:

  • State support for public research universities fell 20 percent between 2002 and 2010, after accounting for inflation and increased enrollment
  • Ten states saw support fall 30 percent or more
  • State funding has fallen from 38 percent of university budgets two decades ago to 23 percent now
  • Many are losing their best faculty to private institutions
  • Tuition increases in response to the budget cuts threaten the affordable access students have enjoyed
  • Private universities increased spending on teaching 25 percent over the same period, and now spend more than twice as much per student on teaching as their public counterparts
  • Revitalizing public research universities requires action from a range of players — more funding from Washington, more autonomy from states if they won’t maintain funding levels, and more productivity from universities themselves.

Of course, if you refuse to pay for or vote for state taxes, then the state can’t support public universities.


Roundup of news on online developments in US higher education

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Having been on the road for the last two weeks, I’ve accumulated a backlog of material for the blog. Here I’m providing a very brief roundup of news on some interesting (and sometimes scary) developments from the USA.

Haurwitz, R. (2012) Texas branch of Western Governors University making mark in cyberspace Statesman.com, April 22: This provides an interesting update on the WGU, which is clearly still going strong.

BW (2012) 120,000 enroll in MITx online Circuits and Electronics course, NextBigFuture, April 21. This provides a brief update on MIT’s Open Learning Enterprise and a video interview with Professor Anant Agarwal, its director and a main instructor on MITx 6002.x course. It is clear that the aim at MITx is to automate online teaching as much as possible. It could result in some interesting online lab designs and automated assessments. See also: MIT to develop new Open Learning Enterprise unit for online learning 

Des Garennes, C. (2012) Lessons from $18 million Global Campus failure The News-Gazette, April 22. This is an up-dated post-mortem on the prestigious University of Illinois’ attempt to create a for-profit online virtual campus that ended in financial disaster. Some good lessons there – but I covered the reasons for such failures in my 2005 book Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education. Pity they didn’t read it: but does ANYONE in the USA do their homework on what is already known about online learning before launching the next best thing since sliced bread? Which is a nice segue into the next article.

Guttenplan, D. (2012) Building schools out of clicks, not bricks New York Times, April 22. Although it is not immediately apparent, this is a report of the OCW Consortium’s conference on open educational resources in Cambridge, England. The whole article reads as if the USA invented both online learning (“A decade ago there were only a handful of courses available online — all of them from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology“) and open learning. Actually, if you can get through the American hubris, it looks as if it was an interesting conference. But shame on the New York Times for such awful journalism. Aren’t journalists supposed to check their facts any more? I do worry that with such friends as this, online learning is in big trouble. Such coverage does a disservice to the many sound and innovative programs in the USA – and elsewhere.