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Online-Course Enrollments Grow, but at a Slower Pace. Is a Plateau Approaching?

Enrollment in online courses grew by more than 10 percent between fall 2009 and fall 2010, continuing a steady climb that dates back years, according to the Babson Survey Research Group’s annual survey of more than 2,500 higher-education institutions.

More than 6.1 million students took at least one online class during the fall 2010 semester, says the report, “Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States 2011,” formerly called the Sloan Survey of Online Learning. That’s an increase of 560,000 students over the previous year. An online course is now part of the college experience for 31 percent of all students.

Substantial as the recent growth has been—it far outpaced the 2-percent growth rate in higher education over all—this year’s enrollment rise paled beside the 21-percent surge reported in last year’s Sloan report.

“The slower rate of growth in the number of students taking at least one online course as compared to previous years may be the first sign that the upward rise in online enrollments is approaching a plateau,” the report speculates.

But Jeff Seaman, the report’s co-author, points out that last year’s numbers soared because of the poor economy “pushing up enrollments in general and online, in particular.”

This year’s survey also found:

  • At the program level, growth is uneven. A higher proportion of online programs at for-profit colleges report no growth than programs at public or private nonprofit institutions.
  • The disciplines of psychology and education “had a larger proportion of programs showing an enrollment decline over the 2010 to 2011 period than were reported last year,” according to the report. By contrast, engineering, which previously posted the highest proportion of programs with declining enrollments, “had a bit of a comeback this year, and it no longer leads in this dimension,” the report says.
  • An increasing number of programs in business and the social sciences are not experiencing enrollment rises.
  • Sixty-seven percent of academic leaders rated online education as the same or superior to face-to-face learning. That compares with 57 percent in the first report, published in 2003.
  • A steady minority—one-third of all academic leaders—continue to believe that online education is inferior to face-to-face education.
  • Fewer than one-third of chief academic officers feel their faculty “accept the value and legitimacy of online education. This percent has changed little over the last eight years.”
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