Chief academic officers count online learning as an important strategic tool in their arsenal more than they have in the last nine years.
A survey report released on Tuesday, Jan. 8 showed that nearly 70 percent of 2,820 chief academic officers agreed that online learning is critical to their long-term strategy. That's a nearly 4 percent increase from fall 2011 and a 20 percent increase since 2002, according to the survey, conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board.
With the increasing popularity of massively open online courses (MOOCs), more university boards and cabinets are telling chief academic officers that online learning is strategic and asking what they're going to do about it, said Phil Hill, an educational technology consultant and analyst.
"There's tremendous pressure from the top down on chief academic officers about online learning in a way that I've never seen before," Hill said.
Along with that pressure, decreased higher education funding and increased student debt has prompted a call for change within the system, Hill said. And online learning is one major solution that governors and others have promoted.
One of the more surprising results of the survey involves learning outcomes. The executive summary says 77 percent of academic officers agree that learning outcomes in online education are the same as or superior to face-to-face education.
While the potential exists that online courses could show better results, higher education is not there yet, Hill said.
"The pervasive use of teaching and course design methods to make it [online education] high quality is not really as widespread as it needs to be, so I'm a little bit surprised by the number," Hill said.
But here's the catch. That 77 percent number includes 56.4 percent who say that the learning outcomes in online education versus face-to-face education are the same. Semantics aside, the survey does indicate that chief academic officers perceive less of a difference in quality between the two.
Two top barriers stand in the way of online learning success: lower student retention rates in online courses and lack of online education acceptance from potential employers. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said lower retention rates was an important or very important barrier.
Both of these barriers can be breached by providing more support to faculty as they design their online courses, Hill said. Better quality courses will improve retention and increase recognition from the business world.
Despite the fact that 2012 was dubbed the year of the MOOC, the survey found that only 2.6 percent of colleges and universities currently offer one of these large open classes. And more than half of institutions aren't sure whether they'll offer them.
But over the last two months especially, MOOCs are driving people into the online medium, Hill said.
"MOOCs are becoming a gateway drug for online education."
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