Distance education is almost done with its growing pains. Growth in the sector is slowing and nearing a plateau, having established itself as a regular part of education throughout the nation. Distance education students increased 3.7 percent year-over-year, which is the lowest rate of increase in 13 years, according to a 2014 report titled Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States, released Feb. 5.
The survey report, which was published by the Babson Survey Research Group, the Online Learning Consortium, Pearson and Tyton Partners, is an indication that the sector is finally maturing, said Babson Survey Research Group Co-Director Jeff Seaman. In fact, he said, after next year’s survey, they may stop doing this type of survey, because distance education is entering a new era.
“I think we’re almost there,” Seaman said. “It’s no longer experimental. It’s no longer that people don’t know what it is. The very fact that the federal government is now tracking it as a normal part of what they do is a very big statement about that.”
The survey results indicate that nonprofits saw an increase in distance enrollment, while for-profit institutions enrolled fewer distance learners. But one year of numbers doesn’t matter as much as the overall trend, Seaman said – distance education has become an institution in itself.
“It’s only a reasonably small number of schools that have a very small number of students enrolled where [distance education] is not an option,” he said. “At this point, you have to say it’s pervasive. The leaders in this were the public institutions.”
The report also indicates that distance learning will become more entrenched. More than 70 percent of academic leaders said that distance learning is critical to their institution’s long-term strategy. However, distance education is not expected to replace traditional education, Seaman said, in part for the model’s detractors.
While academic leaders tend to favor distance learning as part of a long-term strategy, only 28 percent of leaders said their faculty “appreciate the value and legitimacy” of distance learning, a figure that has stayed almost unchanged since 2002. Confidence in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) like edX is dropping, too, with only 19 percent of academic leaders saying they believe MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses.
“Now, we’ve had faculty surveys where there’s a sizeable proportion who don’t think it’s worthwhile, and there’s a reasonable proportion who think it’s great,” Seaman explained. “And so, when we poll the academic leaders, even the ones at schools who say their faculty don’t accept distance learning, they’re able to grow their online programs because there’s enough faculty who see the value or are willing to experiment. So there’s going to be vocal resentment at times, but not something that’s going to prevent them from running and growing their programs.”
There are many different reasons faculty don’t approve of distance learning, but there’s a single cure, Seaman said. “The more exposure a faculty member has to online [courses], the more likely they are to approve of it,” he said. “So part of it is that they don’t know the value and there’s a bit of fear about that. But part of it is legitimate concerns about the quality, and retention in online courses has always been an issue and continues to be an issue, though it’s due to the nature of the students, not the nature of the courses.”
Most teachers also have no experience teaching online courses, he said. “They know – and as a faculty member for a number of years in my life, I can tell you as well – that one of the key mechanisms I used to understand if I was doing it well or not was the immediate feedback I got from students when talking to them in class, the ability to read their facial expressions. They don’t have that online.”
Growth rates in distance education will plateau, Seaman said, and resentment won’t disappear, but institutions will evolve mechanisms to work around the resentment. “They don’t need universal faculty approval to run these programs,” he said. Perhaps one of the most telling numbers for the future of distance education is that 74 percent of academic leaders said they think distance education is comparable or superior to face-to-face learning.