Is Online Education at Colleges and Universities Working?

Feb 19, 2019 by

Online education is an ever-evolving practice. Not only do online learning initiatives offer adult learners the chance to undertake a degree program from nearly any corner of the country, but they can be used in concert with traditional learning.

But while online courses may be popular, do they actually work? As the administrator for an online NLP education course as well as a life coaching certification online training, I’m naturally curious about how the industry is shaping up.

A look at data related to online education reveals some surprising conclusions about the trends, efficacy and best practices related to online courses.

How much has online education grown in the last 5 years at universities in the U.S.?

While the number of college students enrolling in post-secondary programs has been declining overall, online education continues to grow. According to the 2015 Survey of Online Learning by Babson Survey Research Group, the last year for which the report is available, there continues to be an increase in online course enrollment of 3.7 percent or more year-over-year. Public universities have the highest number of online enrollment, the growth rate is highest at private non-profit schools.

Are students satisfied with online education vs. in-class education?

An overwhelming number of online learners report satisfaction with their distance learning experience. According to the most recent Ruffalo Noel Levitz report, 75 percent of online learners at four-year universities are satisfied with their education, and 77 percent plan to re-enroll. Conversely, according to a report by the same institution, only 52 percent of all students at a four-year university report overall satisfaction.

Is there any evidence of the efficacy of online education vs. in-class?

While online education is largely touted for its convenience or as a workaround for conditions such as social anxiety, it’s natural to ask about whether the practice yields the intended results. Are students equipped to work in their field of study upon completion of their program? A 2013 study by MIT pitted an online physics class against in-class learners studying the same material. The students who were taking the class online showed slightly better gains in understanding and knowledge than students in the traditional lecture-based class.

larger analysis by the Department of Education synthesized 50 studies, most of them related to adult learners, found similar results. Overall, students who participate in online learning tend to show modestly better test scores and performance over learners in a face-to-face setting.

Which specific elements of online education make or break its efficacy?

The same analysis by the Department of Education identified several factors that seem to improve the efficacy of online education. Learning situations that blend traditional learning with online learning produce better student outcomes than strictly online learning, on average. Students who are prompted into a real-world activity or reflection are more likely to succeed in their online program.

Where are the trends headed?

Online education continues to increase among private non-profits, and the techniques used are expected to change to meet the needs of new learners. By 2019, about 80 percent of all online content is expected to have a video component, and online learning is likely to reflect this trend. Social eLearning is also on the rise, a practice that gives students the chance to interact with fellow online learners using polls, discussions, and other tools.

As far as program development trends go, administrators are increasingly considering the input of local employers and jobs forecasts as they design online programs. Despite an increase in demand for online programs in many areas, however, 60 percent of administrators are not increasing their annual budgets for online programs.

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