Changing by Degrees

January 9th, 2013

The Sloan Consortium has announced the new Babson survey of online education — the 10th annual. (Tony Picciano posted on this yesterday, sharing the executive summary; this post is more of an attempt to read past the latest gains (and losses) to what the long-term trends seem to be.) The survey report is titled “Changing Course: Ten Years of Tracking Online Education in the United States,” but the kind of “changing” heralded in the title turns out to be more a matter of changing by inches than any changing of direction. In a time when discussions of higher education (and not least of all the role of online ed within it) are marked by calls for radical change –“reinvention” and “revolution” — the report of ten years of change seems an account of (even a rationale for?) incrementalism.

The growth rate in online enrollments (9.3%) is the lowest reported over the ten years of surveying. And the growth is not really due to institutional change. On the contrary, traditional academic culture takes pretty much the same dim view of online instruction it always has: “Only 30.2 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.” This significant lack of progress notwithstanding, growth continues because students seem to be voting with their feet, although strategic work on new ways to walk and new things to walk to seems minimal.

This is most striking when we look at the most publicized change in online instruction, the advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The survey finds that under 3% of institutions have MOOCs while under 10% are planning to do anything along those lines. Most (over 55%) are undecided, while nearly a third (32.7%) say they have no plans for MOOCs.

It is of course no surprise that something so new as MOOCs would seem a far way from gaining acceptance, but the incremental change in perceptions of “traditional” online instruction does not bode well for dramatic changes in acceptance of new modes of teaching and learning, whether they be MOOCs or anything else. Even at institutions where online instruction exists to the tune of fully online programs, faculty acceptance peaks at 38.4% (as compared with that overall figure of 30.2% quoted above). A majority of academic leaders believe lower retention rates are a problem for the growth of online instruction, and those who believe a major reason is a lack of discipline on the part of online students has actually gone up from over 80% half a decade ago to 88.8% today. (This is another finding that does not bode well for MOOCs, by the way.)

What really makes this lack of change striking is that other battles seem almost won. The long-standing debate over comparability, for instance: it turns out that a substantial majority of academic leaders believe online education is “as good as or better than” traditional instruction. But a second glance is that the gains have been gradual and indeed incremental. “In the first report of this series in 2003, 57.2 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 77.0 percent.” Actually, a wider look at claims of gains seems to follow this pattern: “When this report series began in 2002, less than one-half of all higher education institutions reported online education was critical to their longterm strategy. That number is now close to seventy percent.” Over a ten year period, critical gains of that kind amount to about 20% — in other words, gains of about 2% a year.

Whether small, steady gains amount to dramatic changes in the long run is perhaps one of those things determined by the eye (and patience) of the beholder. What is clear is that change the press is fond of hyping with headlines about Campus Tsunamis and Revolutions are to be taken cum grano sails. As Emerson once said, “The years teach much the days never know,” and we should be grateful for the longitudinal view these ten years of surveying represent.



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