Schools Training

Online learning comes of age

12 FEB 2014

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Distance learning, not least the online version, has always been known for plenty of hype, a lot of growth and not much data. Even in the United States, where online higher education has boomed over the past decade, there were no comprehensive enrolment numbers.

In an attempt to address the gap, private outfits such as Sloan-C and Eduventures made do with special surveys and clever estimates.

Confirmation that online higher education has paid its dues and is here to stay, is the recent inclusion of distance learning data in the US federal government’s IPEDS – Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System – database.

The fact that inclusion comes 15 years after the online higher education growth ride began, means such decisions are not made lightly.

In the slow-and-steady business of official data collection, variables must have staying power, definitions must be commonplace and institutions must actually collect the numbers in reasonably reliable fashion.

While the federal data is concerned with multiple ‘distance’ modalities, all the US supply and demand evidence I’ve ever seen suggests all but a small fraction represents online delivery.

What the data reveals

What does the new data reveal?

In autumn 2012, there were just over two million undergraduates in the United States studying exclusively at a distance, plus about 650,000 graduate students. This represents about 11% of all undergraduate and about 22% of all graduate students.

We know from other sources that most of these students are in their late 20s and above, balancing college with job and family.

The ‘some distance’ students range from those taking one to many courses remotely, and it is not possible to distinguish majority from minority distance students. Overall, the ‘some distance’ students numbered about 2.6 million undergraduates and 225,000 graduate students.

Most of the ‘some distance’ undergraduates are just taking one or two courses online as part of an otherwise conventional experience, while many graduate students are enrolled in low residency programmes where the off-campus portion is conducted online.

It is reasonable to conclude that close to one-third of US graduate students are currently studying exclusively or majority online. Such a high ratio is testament to how far online learning has come.


Read full article: University World News