Online education: Higher ed faculty won't buy in

A survey from Babson and Pearson highlights the conundrum that is online distance learning and how disruption will have to wait. A hybrid approach has a shot though.

Online education enrollment was up 3.7 percent in 2014, but that's the slowest growth rate in 13 years, according to a survey conducted by Babson. Has online education stalled?

The 2014 Survey of Online Learning, conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and Pearson, details how Internet education programs are seeing slowing enrollment rates, but still outpacing face-to-face programs. Indeed, online and distance learning programs accounted for three quarters of higher education's enrollment increases.

Babson's survey, based on 2,800 academic leaders, also highlights a few nuances such as how traditional colleges are starting to catch for-profit institutions in online learning.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that online education will be disruptive to the higher education industry---at some point. Consider that 70.8 percent of academic leaders say online programs are critical to their long term strategies, up from 48.8 percent in 2002.

But only 28 percent of the same academic leaders say their faculty accepts Internet efforts as legitimate. For what it's worth, a record low 8.6 percent of respondents said online education is not critical to their long-term strategies.

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The report noted:

A continuing failure of online education has been its inability to convince its most important audience - higher education faculty members - of its worth. The lack of acceptance of online among faculty has not shown any significant change in over a decade - the results from reports five or ten years ago are virtually the same as current results. For all of this time there has not been a majority of any group of higher education institutions that report that their faculty accept the "value and legitimacy of online education." Current results, if anything, show that the problem is getting worse.

Sound familiar? Brick and mortar retailers used to pooh pooh Amazon and e-commerce. Print journalists used to scoff at online publications. Large enterprise vendors said no customer would ever trust the cloud. Pick an industry and you find Internet disruption and a mass of people telling you why there's no threat to the then-current way of doing business.

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What makes the Babson data so interesting is that everyone knows that there's a higher education bubble fueled by student debt. That debt turns out to be an anchor around many student necks. When the music stops there will be a massive college shakeout. Internet education programs in theory should lower costs, allow universities to scale beyond their traditional territories and be more cost effective. The disruption is a question of when not if.

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Among the moving parts:

  • Public and private non-profit institutions saw distance and online education enrollment growth at the expense of for-profit institutions.
  • 5,257,379 students are taking one or more distance learning course.
  • 74.1 percent of chief academic leaders say online education is the same or superior to face-to-face classes.
  • 25.9 percent of respondents say that online education is inferior to face-to-face instruction.
  • Academic leaders are more positive about hybrid approaches.
  • 8 percent of higher ed institutions are offering massive open online courses with 5.6 percent planning one.
  • However, academic leaders don't see these massive open online courses as a sustainable way to deliver education. Only 18.7 percent saw massive open online courses as a sustainable effort.
  • 57.9 percent of respondents said that online learning outcomes are the same as face to face. Only 16.3 percent saw online learning as superior or somewhat superior.
  • 68.3 percent of chief academic officers say students need more discipline to succeed in an online course.
  • 44.6 percent of chief academic officers say that retaining students for online courses is more difficult than face-to-face.
  • 78 percent of academic leaders say the additional effort to deliver an online course is a barrier for instruction.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Babson survey is that hybrid approaches to education are likely to be the norm.

But even a hybrid approach will have its hurdles. The report noted:

The general opinion is that the quality of blended courses is superior to that for online courses, but this view has not been exempt from whatever factors have been producing a more negative view of online instruction - perceptions of the relative quality of both online and blended instruction have shown the same small decline for each of the past two years.