January 22, 2018

Latest data on USA distance education enrolments

An extract from the Digital Learning Compass infographic available from here

Digital Learning Compass (2017) Distance Education Enrolment Report 2017 Wellesley MA

A new partnership for the analysis of distance education data in the USA

First, a little background. Most of the readers of this blog will be familiar with the reports from the Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG) on the state of online learning in the USA. When the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Survey (IPEDS) began collecting data on distance learning enrolments in the Fall of 2012, BSRG stopped collecting its own data then formed a partnership with e-Literate and WCET to create Digital Learning Compass with the following goal:

To be the definitive source of information on the patterns and trends of U.S. postsecondary distance learning.

The Distance Education Enrolment Report 2017 is Digital Learning Compass’s analysis of the data collected by IPEDS for the fall of 2015.

Main results

In brief, in the USA in 2015:

  • distance education enrolments increased by almost 4% 
  • almost 30% of all post-secondary students in the USA are taking at least one DE course
  • 14% of all students are taking only DE courses
  • 83% of DE enrolments are in undergraduate courses
  • just over two-thirds of DE enrolments are in public universities or colleges
  • although there has been increased growth in DE enrolments for public and for non-profit private universities, DE enrolments in for-profit institutions declined in 2015 for the third year in a row, driven by substantial decreases in just a few of the for-profit institutions
  • almost half of all DE enrolments are concentrated in less than 5% of all institutions, with the top 47 institutions accounting for almost a third of all DE students
  • the following institutions saw the greatest year-on-year growth in DE enrolments:
    • University of Southern New Hampshire (from 11,286 to 56,371 in one year)
    • Western Governors University,
    • Brigham Young University-Idaho,
    • University of Central Florida,
    • Grand Canyon University
  • the number of students studying on a campus has dropped by almost one million (931,317) between 2012 and 2015.

More detailed analysis can be found from:


First a declaration of interest: I am working closely with both Jeff Seaman of Babson and Russ Poulin of WCET on the Canadian national survey of online and distance education in Canada.

Despite a small drop in overall enrolments in the USA in 2015, DE enrolments continued to grow, although in the three years from 2012 to 2015 the pace of growth has slowed. The main change was in the for-profit sector, probably affected by federal pressure on the use of student loans and congressional pressure for greater regulation of for-profit institutions under the Obama administration.

Indeed there has been a considerable shake-up in the for-profit sector in the USA, the purchase of Kaplan by Purdue, a state-funded university, being the latest example. It will be interesting to watch what happens to the for-profit DE enrolments under the more liberal regulatory environment being brought in by the Trump administration. Will they rebound? 

However perhaps the most shocking result is the drop in campus-based enrolments of almost one million, no doubt due to the increased cost of attending college in the USA – or is this in fact due to the impact of six million enrolments in distance education courses?

Once again, here in Canada we are peering over the wall at our much larger and richer neighbours, wondering what’s going on, but at least it is now a well lit property thanks to these reports.


A report on university distance education in Québec

Rue Sainte Angèle, Ville de Québec

Conseil supérieur de l’éducation (2015) La formation à distance dans les universités québécoises: un potential à optimiser Québec: Gouvernement du Québec

This report is now nearly 18 months old, but I did not know about it until I was given a copy when I was in Québec last week. The report is in French and there is no English version, and it contains such a lot of good information that I want to make it more widely available to anglophones.

(There is supposed to be an English version of the summary, but I was unable to locate it on their web site. In any case, the most useful information is available only in the full report in French. Si on peut lire français, on devrait lire le rapport lui-même.)

The report

The Higher Council of Education in Québec is an autonomous body, separate from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education with a mandate to advise the Minister on all matters relating to education. It can choose the topics and the themes of the reports it produces on the state and needs of education. It has 22 members chosen from the field of education and beyond.

This report examines the issues for the Québec university system arising from the growth of new methods of teaching and learning, and provides some guidelines for the medium and long term. The decision to focus on distance education was influenced particularly by the growth of non-traditional methods of study by Québec students, the growth of part-time studying, and the increased application of new technologies for teaching.

The report covers the following aspects of distance education in Québec universities:

  1. The growth of new modes of education
  2. What’s happening in Québec
  3. A quick look at what’s happening outside Québec
  4. The Council’s guiding principles and recommendations
  5. Conclusions

Pay attention to the methodology

For me, Chapter 2 (What’s happening in Québec) was the most interesting chapter, because it provides extensive and relatively reliable data about student enrolments in distance education courses and programs in Québec universities.

It is really important to understand the definitions and terminology in the data about distance education enrolments used in the report. The report itself reports on the difficulty of finding reliable data, partly because distance education comes in many forms and partly because the whole field is very dynamic and fast-changing. The report then focuses on trends over time.

Asynchronous vs synchronous courses

The report makes the distinction between asynchronous courses where students can access the courses at any time and place (e.g. courses using learning management systems), with synchronous courses (primarily using web- or video-conferencing). This distinction is made by the Ministry purely for financial reasons to identify how many teaching spaces are required in an institution.

The data used in the report refers only to enrolments in asynchronous courses. However, the report also acknowledges that the modes of distance education are rapidly evolving. There is an interesting description for instance of how L’Université Laval has moved over time from TV and print-based courses to collaborative learning to ‘virtual synchronous’ classes, the latter being driven as much by instructors in face-to-face teaching as by distance education courses.

Student enrolments vs course enrolments

In most of the tables or graphs provided in the report, the unit of measurement is a student taking at least one asynchronous distance education course. Such students may then be enrolled in just one distance course or several, but they are only counted once. These tables are derived by data collected by the Ministry.

However, there is at least one graph that is derived from data provided by CLIFAD, a liaison committee of some of the major distance education institutions in the province, that refers to all distance education course enrolments, from three specific institutions. In this case it is the course enrolments that are counted, not the students.

However, so long as the unit of measurement is the same, either can be used to track trends over time.

Time period

Most of the data refers to enrolments in the fall term of 2012, so it is already four years out of date, and four years is a long time in this area. However, data is provided  in some of the tables for a period of over 12 years, and in the case of the CLIFAD data, over a period of 18 years, allowing clear trends to be identified.

Measuring distance education in Québec

Despite the issues around measurement, the report presents some clear facts about distance education in Québec:

  • steady growth in distance education students and enrolments at a higher rate than enrolments in general; for instance the overall number of students in universities grew by 27%, whereas the number of distance students grew by 38%
  • the proportion of students enrolled in (asynchronous) distance education courses grew from 6% in 2001 to nearly 12% by 2012
  • Laval has the highest number of students enrolled in distance courses (13,000), or 30% of all its students; TELUQ (a fully distance university) and Concordia (25% of all students) both have just under 10,000 distance education students; Sherbrooke, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), Université du Québec à Rimouski, and University du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT) have around 1,000 distance students but in the case of UQAT this is more than a third of its students;
  • MOOCs (CLOMs in French) are fairly popular in Québec, being offered by HEC Montréal, McGill, TELUQ, Laval and UQTR.

Guiding principles and recommendations

The report identifies three guiding principles and makes 13 recommendations.

Guiding principles

  1. Accessibility to university study. The Council recognizes the importance of distance education in increasing accessibility to higher education in Québec, especially given its size and scattered population. The Council wants to optimise this potential, but to do this Internet services must be improved throughout the province.
  2. The quality of distance learning in Québec universities. The Council recognizes that distance education courses can be of high or low quality: it is the pedagogical approach and the design that matters.
  3. The economic viability of the Québec university system. The Council has a concern about the long-term financial viability of its higher education system, and recognizes that distance education can make a contribution towards the long-term sustainability of the system through:
    • sharing of resources;
    • collaboration between institutions on course design and delivery;
    • widening access to students in Québec through programs offered from beyond the immediate locality of students in Québec;
    • helping with the recruitment of students from outside Québec.


The Council makes 13 recommendations which are difficult to summarize but include the following:

  • universities need to clarify for students the differences between different modes of education, and in particular how MOOCs differ from other forms of distance education;
  • universities need to pay attention to the specific requirements of developing and delivering distance education, and should address issues such as support and training for faculty, recognizing that different categories of staff are needed, and safeguarding the intellectual property rights of faculty;
  • universities need to take into account the requirements of different modes of delivery when evaluating courses;
  • universities should ensure that students have adequate access to the technologies and human support they need for studying at a distance;
  • the Ministry should fund research on the impact of distance education on accessibility, quality and the viability of the system, and take into consideration the technology needs of universities when budgeting;
  • greater sharing of resources between the universities;
  • the Ministry, together with the universities, should reconsider the regulations regarding the admission and financing of students from outside Québec who take courses at a distance from Québec universities.


This is a thoughtful and well-researched report that provides a good picture of the state of distance education in Québec, and has a good discussion of many of the issues, even if the recommendations are a little insipid. (I don’t disagree with any of the recommendations but I don’t see them leading to any major changes). The report will go some way to increasing the legitimacy of distance education, if that is needed in the Québec higher education system.

On a more mundane technical level, the report shows how difficult it is to use existing data collected by government to measure the state of distance education or online learning in Canada. Where data has been collected it is often for another purpose, such as deciding how much to fund physical facilities, or is inaccessible to those wishing to do research. Definitions of distance, online and blended learning also vary. In particular the growth of synchronous online learning seems to be largely ignored or at least under-measured.

These are all challenges we are facing in developing our national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education, but the Québec report if anything has reinforced my belief in the importance of having a systematic survey that is conducted nationally with definitions and measurements that are consistent across the country, even – or especially – if the provision of online learning and distance education varies a great deal.

The Old Town, Québec: it’s lovely in the summer!


Trends in Canadian higher education

AUCC (2011) Trends in Higher Education: Vol. 1, Enrolment Ottawa: AUCC

This publication of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada is packed full with data and information about Canadian higher education. For example:

In 2010, there were almost 1.2 million students in degree programs on Canadian campuses: 755,000 undergraduates, 143,400 graduate students studying full-time, and an additional 275,800 students studying part-time. Fifty-six percent of university students were women, and 10 percent were international students. In 1980, there were 550,000 full-time and 218,000 part-time university students on Canadian campuses…there were about three percent fewer youth in the key 18-to-24 age range in 2010 than in 1980. The demand for a highly skilled and educated labour force has been a principal driver in the growth of university participation rates.

Since the 1970s, a profound change has been taking place in the labour market. Canada has shifted from a resource-based economy to a service-based one, resulting in a different mix of jobs available for Canadians. The fastest growing occupations are now in Canada’s service sector, which grew from 6 million jobs in 1975 to more  than 13 million jobs in 2010. In the last 20 years alone, there were 1.67 million new jobs for professional and management occupations in Canada, of which 1.33 million were filled by university graduates. This shift to a service sector economy has created high-paying, quality jobs. By comparison, jobs have grown at a much slower pace in many other occupations, and jobs for people who have  a high school diploma or less are disappearing.

While there was a general expectation that the trend towards lifelong learning would drive higher enrolment demand from the over 35 age cohort, current trends do not support this hypothesis. Although the number of students in this age group has tripled in the last 30 years from 6,000 in 1980 to more than 18,000 in 2010, their share of all full-time undergraduate students has remained at two percent. Though universities are acutely aware of the presence and needs of their older students, enrolment growth is driven by much more rapid increases in traditional youth cohorts on many university campuses. In 2010, six out of seven, or 86 percent of students studying full-time at the undergraduate level were under the age of 25.

Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey also highlights that since the early 1990s, more students have been combining work and study than was the case in the 1980s. Working longer hours may lead some students to opt for part-time rather than full-time study (at least for part of their program).

AUCC estimates that there are between 20,000 and 25,000 Aboriginal students in Canadian universities, and that the number of Aboriginal students has been growing at the same rate  as overall student numbers over much of the last decade. In 2002, Aboriginal students represented approximately three percent of all undergraduate students, a share they have maintained since 2002.

In 1980, the income advantage for male bachelor’s graduates was 37 percent greater than high school graduates. By 2005, the income advantage had grown to 50 percent (much of this increase took place from 1995 to 2005). Researchers also noted an income advantage for college and trade school graduates over the same period, but it was much smaller, approximately seven percent in 1980, up to 15 percent in 2005

To have a real impact on the proportion of low-income students in university programs, aid programs need to focus on more than financial assistance delivered at the time of acceptance and entry to university. They need to address the full range of factors that  begin to affect potential higher education students much earlier on in their education.

In 2010, the average cost for undergraduate programs ranged from $2,400 in Quebec to $6,300 in Ontario. Over the past 30 years tuition fees have grown significantly faster than inflation, rising from about $1,900 in 1980 to an average of about $5,100 in 2010 (after inflation). As a result of major changes in the 2000 federal budget and subsequent changes to federal and provincial taxes, the typical full-time student now  has access to far higher levels of support through the tax systems. In 2009, the value of tax credits varied between $1,400 and  about $2,400, depending on the student’s province of residence….there has been a 10-fold increase in the amount of scholarships and bursaries – rising from $150 million in 1990 to about $1.6 billion in 2010-2011 provided by universities to their undergraduate and graduate students……about 30 percent  of all undergraduate students received scholarships or financial awards from their university with an average value of $3,000


It is not surprising that the AUCC would trumpet the advantages of a university education, but nevertheless the figures are impressive (although there is concern that Canada’s position as a world leader in university attainment is quickly being eroded by growth in other nations.)

Also, although the lifelong learning market has not expanded as rapidly as certainly I expected as a proportion of students, this can still change over the next 10-20 years, because of demographic trends and as the capacity to add even more high school graduates becomes exhausted with more than 60% of a cohort already going on to some form of post-secondary education in some jurisdictions. I also suspect that the categorization of full-time vs part-time is becoming increasingly meaningless as many full-time students are taking jobs to help pay their way through university. Both these trends are likely to lead to continuing demand for flexible access through online learning.

Lastly, there still seem to be gaps in provision, especially for disadvantaged groups in Canada. It is disappointing to see how little growth there has been in aboriginal enrolments in particular, and the report makes it clear that there are still major barriers to university for students from low income families.

This is an extremely useful report (I have summarized only a small part of it) and it provides the broad context in which our online programming will need to operate.

The online higher education market in the USA

Garrett, R. (2009) Online Higher Education Market Update Boston MA: Eduventures Inc.

This post is an expansion of an earlier post ‘For-profits increase market share of online learning‘, now I’ve had a chance to read the original report in full. I am grateful to Eduventures for sharing a copy with me, as the report is not publicly available over the Internet. There is however an excellent short video by the author available from http://www.eduventures.com/resources/video?vid=ohe1.flv

The focus of this report is on the impact of the recession on the online market, but the report also provides some interesting data about competition between for-profit and public institutions for the higher education online market. For instance the for-profit sector has a much higher proportion of the total online market (around 32%) compared with its share of the overall higher education market (about 7%), and seven of the top ten institutions in terms of the number of online enrolments are for-profits. The report goes into the reasons why (mainly better marketing and more ability to respond to demand in the for-profit sector), and the video gives some useful pointers to the public institutions with regard to how they can compete better with the for-profits.

Enrolments in fully online courses are around the 11% mark of all enrolments, and this is expected to increase to 20% by 2014 (about 4 million enrolments). Still more than half (55%) of all US degree-granting institutions offer no fully online courses (down from 69% in 2005). However, Eduventures estimates that of the adult market (25+), 24% are currently in online programs and this is expected to increase to 35-40% by 2014.

Master’s programs are the big growth area in online teaching. The report stated that:

master’s programs offer the best combination of student maturity, short length, career focus and institutional comfort with experimentation-hence often very high online penetration.

The two most popular online master’s subjects in terms of enrolments were business and education, although there was a ‘long tail’ of subjects at this level.

The main message appears to be that for-profit institutions offering 100% online programs such as University pf Phoenix Online and Kaplan are much better placed to expand over the future than public and private universities, who, partly because of faculty resistance and partly because of a wish to exploit the benefits of a physical campus, have neither the desire nor the capacity to expand rapidly into fully online learning. However the demand for online learning is there and is likely to grow, while at the same time campus-based enrolments from high schools are likely to decline over the next few years, due to demographics. Lastly, online enrolments have benefited from the recession in the USA and therefore could act as a stabilizing factor for student enrolment in both for-profit and public universities.

A personal view of e-learning at the University of British Columbia

The Irving K. Barber Learning Centre (home of OLT)

It’s now seven years since I resigned as Director of Distance Education and Technology at UBC, and my motto has always been ‘Never look back.’ However, two things came together to bring me back to UBC last week with a ‘formal’ invitation for the first time since I left (I have of course been in informal, regular contact with former colleagues still working at UBC).

Teaching business studies

I had been invited to give a lunch-time presentation to about 50 faculty in the Sauder School of Business, entitled ‘Rising to the Top: Why Business Teaching Must Change’. (I was going to call it: ‘If university teaching was a business, it would have gone bankrupt long ago’, but I thought that might be too provocative.)

Instead I concentrated on changes in the demographics of Canadian post-secondary education students, in technology, and in desired learning outcomes (more emphasis on business skills and competencies), how the teaching of these skills needed to be embedded within the teaching of content, and how courses could be designed using web 2.0 technology to teach such skills, encourage learner-generated content, and provide greater flexibility for the changing market of learners. There were excellent questions from and discussion with the faculty. A copy of the presentation can be downloaded as a pdf file from here.

The UBC e-learning Open House 2010

Visitors to the Open House

On the same afternoon, about an hour later, the UBC e-learning Open House 2010 began, to which I had also been invited. This is a ‘fair’ of posters on different e-learning projects that have been started or have been active during 2009. There was a total of 25 different exhibits. I didn’t have time to visit them all, but here are some of those of most interest to me:

Doing research online: Online Master in Rehabilitation Science. This was a project on which I had been working with the department to develop just before I left. I was delighted to learn that the whole master program is now fully online, has 57 students from all over North America, and is self-funded from tuition fees (following a business model I had suggested). I was very pleased to meet again the two ‘champions’ of this program, Sue Stanton and Mary Clark, and to learn that they have developed a fully online way of supporting students conducting a research project online as a requirement of the master’s program, and how students defend their research online.

Using video in online teaching: Master of Social Work. This was another project I had been working on, but it was at a more tentative stage than Rehab Sciences when I left. The Master of Social Work is a mix of face-to-face courses and online courses. Professor Mary Russell and her colleagues, working with UBC’s Office of Learning Technologies, have developed a series of video clips on the dynamics of family violence which are incorporated into the lessons for online student discussions and assignments.

Using audio and video in online courses: Faculty of Education Some of you will be familiar with Natasha Boskic, who provides invaluable material for this web site on educational games and virtual worlds. She and colleagues in the Faculty of Education have developed a variety of ways to incorporate audio and video into their online courses. As Natasha pointed out, recent innovations in telecommunications technologies have lowered equipment and transmission costs, enabling audio and video to be easily integrated into the curriculum.

Open content:Faculty of Land and Wood Systems Dr. Les Lavkulich  and colleagues from the faculty, with Chris Crowley from the Office of Learning Technologies, have developed a really neat online teaching tool on Land Use Impacts, that includes text, graphics and video clips. Although it is used as part of two courses on sustainable soil management, it is also available to the public at: http://soilweb.landfood.ubc.ca/luitool/ This is an excellent example of well-designed open content that was also developed to support courses.

Designing effective learning in distance education: Office of Learning Technology. This year will be the 60th anniversary of distance education at UBC (more on this in a later blog). Several former colleagues, under the leadership of Jeff Miller, have worked with the faculties to develop over 125 fully online undergraduate and graduate courses. There are now almost 1,000 FTEs (about 10,000 course enrolments) in distance education courses, and this year enrolments grew by 20% compared with last year. OLT uses a variety of designs resulting in high quality, effective interactive online learning environments.

Open content: Preserving student scholarship: UBC Library This is another really interesting project led by Hilde Colenbrander and Julia Thompson. Using a Teaching and Learning Enhancement grant, they have employed a graduate student to track down non-thesis student online content and to educate students about copyright, scholarly publishing and open access. Students can showcase their work via UBC-authenticated e-portfolios, blogs, social networking sites and resumes and the content will be preserved by the Library in perpetuity.

Hilde Colenbrander (left) and colleagueHilde Colenbrander (left) and colleague

I did not have time (and there isn’t space) to go into the other 19 projects. However, there is likely to be a more comprehensive and official report later in the next UBC e-Strategy Newsletter.

Gossip and speculation

Now we come to the interesting bit. Here is some of the gossip I picked up.

1. UBC is likely to look at the re-design of large first year lecture classes, to improve the first year learning experience. (This is not really gossip, as it as highlighted in the last e-Strategy Newsletter). This project will be led by Ted Dodds, the Vice-Provost, Information Technology. As Ted Dodds himself put it:

How do we use technology more effectively to take over and perform some of the more mundane aspects of the teaching and learning process by using technology in creative ways, to free up people’s time for both the student and the instructor for more direct engagement? We don’t do that well right now….We’re saying that our first year experience in teaching and learning is broken at UBC, and we need to think creatively as to how we can make it better — and make it the best there is.

Brave words but also right on the money, from my perspective.

2. UBC is the home of WebCT. However, UBC is also a key partner in Kuali, an open source consortium developing administrative software. UBC’s licence renewal for WebCT Vista comes up shortly, and I would not be surprised if the university decides to move to an open source learning management system, such as Sakai, although I understand no decision has yet been made.

3. A new strategy for e-learning? UBC went through a comprehensive set of plans and reports around 2000 to encourage and strengthen the use of technology for teaching. Since then, it has created the central Office of Learning Technologies, which supports the LMS, provides instructional design and educational technology support for the faculties, and manages much of the distance education programs developed with faculties. Also the Faculty of Medicine has in partnership with the Universities of Victoria and Northern British Columbia developed a unique distributed learning undergraduate medical program that is doubling the number of doctors trained in BC. Several of the faculties have also set up their own learning technology support units. As we have seen, fully online distance education programs are expanding rapidly, and the university uses clickers, lecture capture and other classroom technologies. Being on the outside, there are many more e-learning developments within UBC that I don’t know about.

However, as with most universities, it has not moved away from either the traditional technology-enhanced classroom or fully online courses. There are problems at UBC with large lecture classes, overcrowding, students not being able to complete on time because courses are full, and often lack of interaction between undergraduate students and research professors. There is very little hybrid learning, where courses are designed with less face-to-face time and careful choice of what to do online and what to do face-to-face.

The move to re-design first year courses, and the growing confidence and expertise of the central and faculty learning technology groups, are signs that perhaps the university is ready for another way of innovation. However, this will still require leadership and a willingness from mainstream faculty to change.


I’ve never regretted my decision to leave UBC (I was coming up to mandatory retirement anyway) and to start a new career as a consultant. However, I left behind some very good colleagues and some interesting projects. It was good to re-connect with both, and I was a bit overwhelmed at the kind welcome I received.

UBC has been a leader in the use of technology in research universities. Faculty and staff created the .ca domain, WebCT, BCNet, and the distributed medical program. It has several fully online masters programs, a large number of online undergraduate courses, and has developed new business models for online programs aimed at lifelong learners.

It has over the last 10 years solidified its use of technology, though, rather than looking at institution-wide change in teaching and learning. With the right management, growing student numbers, a tight financial context, and experience and skill in using technology, we may see some really interesting developments at UBC over the next few years.