Online Grows, Doubts Persist

Despite theories that online enrollments might be approaching a plateau, the number of students taking at least one online course grew substantially for the ninth straight year, according to a new survey from the Babson Survey Research Group.

However, belief among academic deans and faculty that the quality of online education is at least as good as the face-to-face alternative continues to grow in grudgingly small increments, says the survey.

The new survey is the ninth iteration of an annual poll of academic administrators about online learning. Until this year, it was sponsored by the Sloan Consortium and administered by the Babson Survey Research Group, it was commonly known as the "Sloan-C survey." This year Babson is producing the survey itself, with sponsorship from Sloan and several other entities (including Inside Higher Ed). The researchers garnered responses from 2,512 colleges and universities, including both nonprofit and for-profit institutions.

Online enrollments grew 10 percent, as the number of students taking at least one online course (“online” defined here as a course where most or all content exchanges and class meetings occur virtually) crept past six million. It was the smallest bump in enrollments since 2006, and less than half the growth online programs saw last year (21.1 percent).

Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, had predicted a slowdown this year in light of possible capacity issues in the cash-poor public sector and regulatory scrutiny among for-profit institutions. In light of those pressures, which led some to forecast a full stall in online enrollments, Seaman told Inside Higher Ed that even 10 percent growth in the last year came as a surprise.

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