Nearly two-thirds of all colleges and universities that deliver face-to-face instruction now also offer online courses, and last year’s enrollment in these online courses was up nearly 20 percent over 2003 figures, according to the latest survey representing the state of online instruction at the nation’s higher-education institutions.

“Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005” is the third in a series of annual surveys sponsored by the nonprofit Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and conducted by the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C), a group dedicated to pursuing the benefits of online education. If the survey’s findings are any indication, its authors say, the breadth of online college courses soon could rival traditional brick-and-mortar offerings.

“Colleges and universities are starting to understand that online courses help increase enrollment and improve diversity without the need for additional classrooms,” said Frank Mayadas, president of Sloan-C and program director for the Sloan Foundation. “It also helps address professors’ needs for workplace flexibility, among other issues challenging academia.”

The group’s research, which is based on responses from 1,025 colleges and universities, found that online enrollment increased from 1.98 million students in 2003 to 2.35 million students in 2004. While this growth rate of 18.2 percent was actually down 4.7 percentage points from last year’s survey, three out of four schools said they expected their online enrollments to continue to increase. According to Sloan-C, the rapid growth in online enrollment is ten times greater than the projected rate of expansion by the National Center for Education Statistics for the general postsecondary student population.

For the first time this year, Sloan-C carried out its survey in conjunction with the College Board, a nonprofit membership association of more than 5,000 educational institutions whose mission is to connect students to college success and opportunity.

“The third year of the Sloan survey was a landmark year for us, because we have now formed a partnership with the College Board,” said Elaine Allen, the report’s co-author. “It gave us a sense that, since the College Board approached us to do this, there is legitimacy to the numbers we produce.”

Hal Higginbotham, president of collegeboard.com, said online learning is rapidly becoming a mainstream college experience.

“Starting this year, we will include Sloan-C questions in our ‘Annual Survey of Colleges’ to better understand online learning in higher education,” Higginbotham said.

“We are hoping to achieve some kind of benchmarking of the trends,” explained Shauna Morrison, vice president of content for collegeboard.com. “Online [learning] is a recent phenomenon. We’re interested in whether it’s going to pan out for the kids. Is it going to continue to grow?”

This year’s Sloan-C survey seems to indicate that it will.

“The statistics that stick this year are the penetration rates,” said Sloan-C’s Allen. “If you offer an online program, or a course in a certain discipline, you are getting to be a majority. You’re likely to offer the same things online that you do in a face-to-face setting.”

About 63 percent of all institutions that offer face-to-face undergraduate courses also offer undergraduate courses online, the study found–and 65 percent of institutions that offer face-to-face master’s-level courses offer master’s-level courses online. The analysis does not address the number of courses that institutions offer in face-to-face versus online modes, but only whether they offer courses in both modes.

Far fewer schools that offer undergraduate-level courses offer entire bachelor’s degree programs online; only 19 percent of these institutions offer both face-to-face and online undergraduate degree programs. But doctoral and master’s programs have online penetration rates of 38 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

Business education programs have the highest online penetration, according to the survey, with 43 percent of colleges offering face-to-face business courses also offering at least one online course. Liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities offer 40.2-percent online penetration, and computer and information science programs have an online penetration of 35 percent.

A majority of chief academic officers agree that online education is critical to their long-term strategy. That number has increased from 49 percent in 2003, the first year of the study, to 56 percent in 2005. Small schools and private, nonprofit institutions were least likely to support this view.

The survey also showed that core faculty members teach the majority of online courses at 65 percent of schools offering these courses. This finding dispels the notion that the move toward online education will cost jobs for core faculty, researchers said.

Most academic leaders were neutral on the statement that it takes more faculty time and effort to teach online, but one-third of respondents do believe this to be the case. In schools that offer online courses, a higher percentage of respondents believe it takes more effort and faculty time than those who believe there is no extra effort involved to teach virtually.

“We haven’t seen a lot of maturity yet in online education,” said Allen. “We will be able to see by next year if there are economies of scale,” by which she meant the ease with which teachers approach a course once they’ve previously taught it. “Certainly there is [greater ease] with face-to-face [instruction]. Once I’ve taught [a course] face-to-face, it’s definitely easier the second time around.”

In addition, the survey found that 70 percent of academic leaders in schools that offer online courses believe students need more discipline in an online course than in a face-to-face offering.

“Next year will be the first time we actually reach out to students to see what they think about [this issue],” said Allen.

Links:

“Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005”
http://www.sloan-c.org/resources/growing_by_degrees.pdf

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
http://www.sloan.org

The College Board
http://www.collegeboard.com

Far fewer schools that offer undergraduate-level courses offer entire bachelor’s degree programs online; only 19 percent of these institutions offer both face-to-face and online undergraduate degree programs. But doctoral and master’s programs have online penetration rates of 38 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

Business education programs have the highest online penetration, according to the survey, with 43 percent of colleges offering face-to-face business courses also offering at least one online course. Liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities offer 40.2-percent online penetration, and computer and information science programs have an online penetration of 35 percent.

A majority of chief academic officers agree that online education is critical to their long-term strategy. That number has increased from 49 percent in 2003, the first year of the study, to 56 percent in 2005. Small schools and private, nonprofit institutions were least likely to support this view.

The survey also showed that core faculty members teach the majority of online courses at 65 percent of schools offering these courses. This finding dispels the notion that the move toward online education will cost jobs for core faculty, researchers said.

Most academic leaders were neutral on the statement that it takes more faculty time and effort to teach online, but one-third of respondents do believe this to be the case. In schools that offer online courses, a higher percentage of respondents believe it takes more effort and faculty time than those who believe there is no extra effort involved to teach virtually.

“We haven’t seen a lot of maturity yet in online education,” said Allen. “We will be able to see by next year if there are economies of scale,” by which she meant the ease with which teachers approach a course once they’ve previously taught it. “Certainly there is [greater ease] with face-to-face [instruction]. Once I’ve taught [a course] face-to-face, it’s definitely easier the second time around.”

In addition, the survey found that 70 percent of academic leaders in schools that offer online courses believe students need more discipline in an online course than in a face-to-face offering.

“Next year will be the first time we actually reach out to students to see what they think about [this issue],” said Allen.

Links:

“Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the United States, 2005”
http://www.sloan-c.org/resources/growing_by_degrees.pdf

Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
http://www.sloan.org

The College Board
http://www.collegeboard.com