January 28, 2014

Annual Sloan/Babson survey: an (unplanned) part 3

After I had finished and posted some thoughts on the Sloan/Babson post-secondary online learning survey report, I came across a fascinating post. In my first post, I noted that according to the Babson report more than 7 million college students were taking online courses.

The title of the blog post that caught my eye states its thesis quite well:

Clarification: No, there aren’t 7.1 million students in US taking at least one online class

The post was written by Phil Hill, a consultant with whom I’ve co-presented a couple of times on webinars to mixed K-12 and higher education audiences. I have always found Phil to be knowledgeable and thoughtful. In his post he writes about his review of data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) and its Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System which suggests about 5.5 million students are taking online courses. That’s still a larger number than the number of K-12 students taking online courses, but it’s also substantially smaller than the Babson estimate.

His post is well worth reading to explore conflicting estimates, but if nothing else the takeaway is that the Babson survey estimate may no longer be the best source of information for online learning in post-secondary education, and that the number of college students taking online courses is probably about 5.5 million, not 7.1 million.

It’s also a reminder that there’s no substitute for a federal government role in determining the number of students in online courses-whether college students or K-12 students. Some states are tracking online students-as Keeping Pace reports-but not nearly enough states are doing so to paint an accurate national picture.



4 Responses to Annual Sloan/Babson survey: an (unplanned) part 3

  1. As one of the authors of the Babson study I can say: “Babson survey estimate may no longer be the best source of information for online learning” – is true if you are talking about enrollment numbers. Our survey is just that, a “survey”. IPEDS gets data from the universe of schools. There is no way that any survey can match the coverage of IPEDS and its reporting mandate.

    And as for “the number of college students taking online courses is probably about 5.5 million, not 7.1 million” – the answer is probably yes, IPEDS will have a better estimate than any unofficial source. However, this is a bit more complicated, we are not measuring the same thing, using different definitions.

    We still stand behind our data. Our reports remain the best available estimates for the past decade. Also, the non-numbers questions provide considerable insight into the more important questions on how institutions are using online education.

    It still amazes me that it took IPEDS over a decade to add online and distance to their data collection. Leaving such critical tracking to a privately funded non-official source (such as us) means that critical planning data was left to outsiders to collect and distribute.

    There is an “IPEDS effect” – when IPEDS adds a reporting requirement, schools add the tracking and reporting to meet the IPEDS requirement. With no reporting requirement schools only report what they know – their best estimate. An IPEDS reporting requirement means we can now expect much more reliable data.

    From the very beginning we asked IPEDS to do this data collection. Our hope has always been that IPEDS would put us out of the business of collecting and reporting online enrollment numbers, so we could concentrate our attention on the more interesting questions.

  2. Thank you for these continued postings on post-secondary online learning. Right up my alley, and I have passed them along to our University’s leaders.

  3. Jeff, thanks for your comments. I appreciate your point that the Babson study covers more than just the enrollment numbers. I especially enjoyed the findings regarding MOOCs and discussed them in an earlier post. We mention your findings often in our work with K-12 educators and policymakers as one of the arguments for digital learning in high school is the extent to which it is common in post-secondary institutions. Thanks for your work, and for weighing in here.

  4. Pingback: Small liberal arts college supports online courses « Uncategorized « Keeping Pace

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