Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006 - Southern Edition is based on data collected for the fourth annual national report on the state of online education in U.S. higher education. Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group in partnership with the College Board, the report, based on responses from over 2,200 colleges and universities, examines the nature and extent of online learning among U.S. higher education institutions.
The 2006 Southern Edition, derived from the national report, Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, provides further evidence of the continuing growth, development and importance of online learning in the South. The report complements the efforts initiated in 2003 by the SREB-State Data Exchange to provide detailed interstate comparisons on credit hours earned through online learning. With the SREB states representing over one-third of the total online enrollments in the U.S., there is clear evidence that the “phenomena” of online learning has yet to peak. We are reaching new students, many of whom are older learners who would otherwise have limited or no access to higher education. The number of online programs continues to grow and, more importantly, academic leaders increasingly report that learning outcomes from online education are similar, or better, than in traditional face-to-face instruction.
At the same time, participation by smaller institutions continues to lag and faculty acceptance of online learning, while increasing slightly, is well below the level that we would like. Several other challenges or “barriers” described in the report, help to create a working agenda for the years ahead. We trust this report will provide not only SREB, our colleges and universities, state leadership and policymakers with a roadmap for action that will ensure the continued growth of online learning in the South.
On behalf of SREB, our member states, and Electronic Campus colleges and universities, I want to thank the Sloan Consortium and Drs. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman for their continuing efforts in undertaking this special study. The ongoing support of this research by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and Dr. A. Frank Mayadas, Program Officer, are also greatly appreciated.
Bruce N. Chaloux, Ph.D.
Southern Regional Education Board
Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States, 2006: Southern Edition represents the second report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education in the sixteen-state southern region. This year’s study, like last year’s, is aimed at answering some of the fundamental questions about the nature and extent of online education. Supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and based on responses from over 700 southern colleges and universities, the study addresses the following key questions:
Has the Growth of Online Enrollments Begun to Plateau?
Background: For the past several years, online enrollments have been growing substantially faster than the overall higher education student body. However, last year’s national study, while reporting the same numeric increase as the previous year, had a lower percentage growth rate. Could this be an early indicator that online enrollment growth has finally begun to plateau?
The evidence: There has been no leveling of the growth rate of online enrollments; institutions of higher education report record online enrollment growth on both a numeric and a percentage basis.
- Nationally, nearly 3.2 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2005 term, a substantial 35 percent increase over the 2.3 million reported the previous year.
- The sixteen southern states represent over one-third of total online enrollments, with over 1.1 million students taking at least one online course in the fall 2005 term.
Who is Learning Online?
Background: There is some evidence that online education appeals to a different type of student from those who participate in face-to-face instruction. Online students tend to be older and often hold additional employment and family responsibilities, as compared to the more traditional student. Do these differences mean that online students are taking different level courses or studying at different types of institutions?
The evidence: The distribution of online students by level of study is similar to that of the general higher education student body, but the mix of schools at which they are enrolled is not.
- Online students, both nationally and in the south, are overwhelmingly undergraduates, matching their proportion among the overall higher education student body.
- Online students, especially undergraduates, are more likely to be studying at Associates institutions than are their face-to-face contemporaries.
What Types of Institutions Have Online Offerings?
Background: Previous reports in this series have shown a very uneven distribution of online course and program offerings by type of institution. Public institutions and the largest institutions of all types have consistently been at the forefront of online offerings. Those that are the least likely to offer online courses, and typically have the most negative opinions about online education in general, have been the small, private, four-year institutions.
The evidence: This year’s results show no major changes from previous patterns. The same types of institutions are at the forefront of online offerings.
- More than 99 percent of the very largest southern institutions (more than 15,000 total enrollments) have some online offerings, which is more than double the rate observed for the smallest institutions.
- The proportion of southern institutions with fully online programs rises steadily as institutional size increases, and about three-quarters of the very largest institutions have fully online programs, compared to only about one-sixth of the smallest institutions.
- Southern Doctoral/Research institutions have the greatest penetration of offering online programs as well as the highest overall rate (more than 88%) of having some form of online offering (either courses or full programs).
Have Perceptions of Quality Changed for Online Offerings?
Background: The first national study in this series found that a majority of Chief Academic Officers rated the learning outcomes for online education “as good as or better” than those for face-to-face instruction. The following year’s report displayed similar results. Do academic leaders hold the same opinion today, given the rapid growth in the numbers of online students?
The evidence: By an increasing margin, most Chief Academic Officers believe that the quality of online instruction is equal to or superior to that of face-to-face learning.
- In 2003, 56 percent of academic leaders in the sixteen southern states rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face. That number is now 65 percent.
- The proportion who believe that online learning outcomes are superior to those for face-to-face is still relatively small but has grown by 25 percent, up from 12.5 percent in 2003 to 15.5 percent.
What are the Barriers to Widespread Adoption of Online Education?
Background: Previous studies, both national and southern editions, have identified a number of areas of concern for the potential growth of online offerings and enrollments. Academic leaders have commented that their faculty often don’t accept the value of online learning and that it takes more time and effort to teach an online course. To what extent do these leaders see these issues and others as critical barriers to the widespread adoption of online learning?
The evidence: Problem areas identified in previous years are still seen as areas of concern among academic leaders.
- Only 3.3 percent of southern Chief Academic Officers agreed that there are no significant barriers to widespread adoption of online learning.
- Two-thirds of southern academic leaders cite the need for more discipline on the part of online students as a critical barrier.
- Faculty issues, both acceptance of online and the need for greater time and effort to teach online, remain important barriers.
- Neither a perceived lack of demand on the part of potential students nor the acceptance of an online degree by potential employers was seen as a critical barrier.
The Southern Regional Education Board, the nation's first interstate compact for education, was created in 1948 by Southern states. SREB helps government and education leaders work cooperatively to advance education and, in doing so, to improve the social and economic life of the region. SREB's 16 member states are Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.