March 13, 2016

The growth of post-secondary online learning: implications for K-12 education

Among the reasons that schools, students, and parents are interested in online courses is that they believe that the use of online learning is growing in colleges, and they want high school graduates to be well prepared for post-secondary learning. Therefore, tracking recent developments in online learning at the post-secondary level is valuable for people primarily interested in K-12 education, and fortunately several good sources of information exist, including WCET, the Babson Survey Research Group, Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein at E-Literate, and the federal government.

The WCET Distance Education Enrollment Report 2016 analyzes fall 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). It counts students in two categories: those who are exclusively in distance education, and students who are mixing distance learning and on-campus courses. A third category, “at least one distance education course,” combines the two categories.

Key findings include the following:

  • 28% of all post-secondary students were enrolled in at least one distance education course. Half of these (14%) were enrolled exclusively in distance learning; the other half were mixing distance and on-campus courses.
  • Distance education enrollments grew between 2012 and 2014, by 9% for students taking all of their courses at a distance, and 7% for students mixing course types. This was a period in which total post-secondary enrollments dropped by 2%, making the increase more impressive.
  • Enrollments in for-profit institutions dropped by 9%, while enrollments in non-profit and public institutions increased by 33% and 12%, respectively. Public institutions represent the large majority of total distance enrollments (72%).

A couple of notes about the data: the data set represents both two and four year schools, and excludes programs of less than two years. Also, IPEDS defines “distance education” as including several modalities that are not online (eg., audio conferences, DVDs), but it seems reasonable to assume that most of the enrollments are online. Finally, there are undoubtedly some anomalies in the data, in part due to confusion around definitions and reporting. Still, this is the best data set available.

Two main differences between these post-secondary numbers and K-12 online learning numbers exist. These are:

  • No recent federal survey or data set exists for online, or distance, courses in K-12 education. Keeping Pace numbers are derived from a variety of sources, including state reports, state databases, and data supplied by state virtual schools and other providers.
  • Unlike the post-secondary numbers which show an even split between students taking all of their courses online and students mixing online and f2f, Keeping Pace research suggests that the number of K-12 students taking some but not all of their courses online is about 10x the number enrolled in fully online schools.

Mixing an anecdote with data, one university reports that college students are particularly interested in online summer courses. Although this is just one source, it is notable in that it matches K-12 online course data that we reported in Keeping Pace 2015.

Finally, a survey of high school students who had taken the ACT asked how many online courses the students would be interested in taking in college. It found that:

  • 48 percent of respondents said “none,”
  • 37 percent said “a few,”
  • 4 percent said “most or all of my classes”
  • 2 percent said “half.”

The study authors conclude that “offering courses online will not be a successful strategy to attract traditional undergraduate students.” However, the finding that 43% of traditional college-bound high school students are interested in taking some online courses doesn’t seem to support that conclusion. In addition, “80 percent of respondents agreed that traditional classroom programs offer a higher quality academic experience,” which suggests that if a college can demonstrate that its online courses are as good as traditional classroom courses the number of students interested in online courses would rise, perhaps substantially.




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