Monday, April 27, 2015

The Status of Online of Learning in Higher Education

Everyone knows that online technologies have the potential to disrupt existing arrangements in higher education, perhaps in extreme ways. But how far has the disruption proceeded? And what are the main barriers ahead?

 I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman have been doing annual surveys on these issues for 12 years. Their latest is "Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States," published by the Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC. (Accessing the report may require free registration.) As Allen and Seaman point out, the "National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) added “distance” education to the wealth of other data that they collect and report on US higher education institutions." Allen and Seaman were collecting data from a sample of over 600 colleges and universities, but the IPEDS data is mandatory for all institutions of higher education. I recommend the full report, but here are a few results that caught my eye.

Allen and Seaman provide evidence that over 70% of degree-granting institutions, and over 95% of those with the largest enrollments, now have distance-learning online options. Many of these institutions say that distance learning is crucial to the future of their institutions. Over 5 million students are currently taking at least one distance-learning class, although the rate of growth of students taking such classes seems to have slowed in recent years. On the other hand, faculty seem increasingly leery of online education, and many of them do not seem especially willing to embrace it. Many students are finding that completing online courses on their own is difficult. Skepticism about MOOCs, or "massively open online courses," is on the rise.

In the BSRG survey, chief academic officers are asked for their own perceptions of how learning outcomes differ for online learning and face-to-face classes. The share that think online learning has inferior outcomes is falling. Most answer "same," and a growing share--approaching 20%--says that online learning outcomes are superior.

These same chief academic officers say that "blended" courses, with elements of online learning but some face-to-face component, are more likely to favor blended courses over pure online courses. In the graph below, the light blue bar on the bottom is equal for both bars, because it's the share of those who say that learning outcomes are the same in on-line and blended courses. Those who think one or the other are superior are then shown in the gray and orange bars on top.

However, it's worth noting that "perceptions of the relative quality of both online and blended instruction have shown the same small decline for each of the past two years." Some of the issue seems to be that faculty members are often not supportive of online learning.

Another problem is concern that that students taking such courses often don't finish, and need additional support or self-discipline to make it through.

What about the most extreme version of online education, the MOOCs or massively open online courses? Here, the bloom seems to be off the rose. "The portion of academic leaders saying that they do not believe MOOCs are sustainable increased from 26.2% in 2012 to 28.5% in 2013, to 50.8% in 2014. A majority of all academic leaders now state that they do not think the MOOCs are a sustainable method for offering courses."
From the viewpoint of chief academic officers, about 8% of their institutions offer a MOOC, and an additional 5% are  planning to offer one. But the main reasons given for offering a MOOC are things like increasing institution visibility, driving student enrollment, and experimenting with new pedagogy. In a way, MOOCs are being treated as loss-leaders.

Perhaps there is a chicken-and-egg problem here: if more faculty embraced on-line learning and MOOCs, then they would work for more students. But maybe the problems of online education and MOOCs are in some ways embedded, and the issue is how to create a hybrid structure that builds on what online education can do well, without pretending that (at least in the current state of artificial intelligence) higher education can be automated.

After all, there's been a primitive version of a massively open course available for quite some time now. It's called a textbook, or a public library. Students could in theory learn everything they need in this way, but few have the energy and directedness and stamina to do so on their own. Perhaps the online version of courses in higher education will be so pedagogically wonderful that lots of students who couldn't learn the material on their own from a textbook or a library will be able to do so, but I'm dubious. The challenge for higher education will be how to combine what online learning can do well (presenting examples in livelier and different ways, repetition, limited but immediate feedback) with the strengths of the human touch, which includes support from other students, along with a mixture of teaching assistants and faculty members. I'm sure there's no one all-purpose formula. But some formulas will work better than others.