2015 has seen some interesting developments in online learning. Here is a recap of some key trends, as well as critical components for higher education to consider in innovating online learning to improve student success in online programs and courses.
Some large surveys have revealed important data about student preferences and perceptions, as well as that of faculty and administrators. There is a strange symmetry in these results.
What Students Want Online
An important answer for any institution to know is if students would come to an on-campus class if their program wasn’t available online. Of online learners, 30% said they would probably or definitely would not attend face-to-face. Also important to note is that online learning is growing at a much higher rate than higher education overall – the IPEDS data release recently for Fall 2014 indicated that overall enrollments in colleges and universities were down 2.2% over the previous 2 years. However, online learning enrollments continued to grow, with a 6.6% increase in enrollments over the same time period.
The enrollment growth aligns with the perceptions of Chief Academic Officers, 70.8% of whom agree that “online education is critical to the long-term strategy of their institution.”
Though the demographic of online students has largely been attributed to post-traditional students (a population that continues to grow in higher education,) 34% of undergraduate online students are 18-24, and the next highest percentage was 17% for 25 – 29 year olds. That same survey found that 44% of these undergraduate students were employed full-time, and 24% were employed part-time.
Opportunity: Follow the growth. An important need is being revealed as the demographic of online learners expands and continues to grow: a contemporary, knowledge-based economy requires continual, flexible learning. Cohesive, well-designed and streamlined online programs can provide those to students regardless of their age. Student supports need to be available online as well as face-to-face because an increasingly diverse population of online learners will have varied needs for support.
Who Are These Students Anyway?
Perhaps counterintuitively, most online students are still local. 65% of online students live within 100 miles of their institution, of those 50% live within 50 miles. However, that still means that 35% of online students live outside of that 100 mile radius. What institutions are they going to? Is there a closer institution that they are not attending because the online program that they want is not available?
2014 IPEDS data reveals that one in seven of college students is enrolled exclusively at a distance. The same data reveals that this growth is entirely in the non-profit sector, with 9% of it coming from public institutions, and 22% of the growth coming from private non-profit institutions.
Opportunity: Public institutions could consider innovating faster and creating more agile processes for program development. It could be that the availability of programs offered by more nimble, private institutions are luring away potential students from local, public institutions. The opportunity for private non-profits, of course, is to continue to innovate at this pace and lure away!
Student Perception of Quality and Faculty Buy-In to Online Learning
According to the 2015 Online College Students: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences report by Learninghouse and Aslianian, 21% of students reported “inconsistent/poor contact and communication with instructors” and 17% reported that they had concerns about “inconsistent/poor quality of instruction.” The 2015 Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States by the Babson Survey Research Group, revealed that only 28% of academic leaders indicated that their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online education.”
Though one can’t make definitive conclusions based on this data, it would seem that faculty perceptions of the value of online education could be impacting the quality of the student experience. The same report indicated that 56.7% of academic leaders rated faculty acceptance of the value of online learning as an “important or very important” barrier to the growth of online education.
Opportunity: Investing in faculty professional development and quality improvement processes (like Quality Matters) can improve the quality of online courses and thereby transform the culture of an institution and the perception of the value of online learning.
What Research Says Is Important to Student Success Online
Because I’d like to avoid “duplication of effort,” check out this blog post on what matters for student success in online learning entitled “Does Online Learning Work.” As a brief recap, some important components are:
- Online engagement (which has that strange symmetry with student perception about faculty communication as above), including social engagement
- Instructional design (see Quality Matters, eCampusAlberta and Universal Design for Learning’s Research)
- Student preparation (interestingly, most often an issue of student attributes rather than technology skills)
Opportunity: Institutions should build into faculty professional development an emphasis instructional design of courses including designing for increased social learning, and develop online programs that maximize opportunities to build student resilience, through strategies like gamification.
Regardless of what type of institution you are at, investing in online learning follows the growth of enrollments in higher education. Finding ways to improve quality will both increase faculty perceptions of the value of online learning and then hopefully student perceptions of the quality of online learning leading to increased student success.
There is now quite a bit that we know about what works online. Now it’s time to drive the change that will support students to succeed in individual courses and graduate from online programs.