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More students than ever before are taking classes in coffee shops, at kitchen tables, or late at night in the blue glow of their monitors once the kids are tucked in bed.

Online learning allows nontraditional students to get their degree and improve skills at their convenience. The amount of students in these programs is expected to continue to grow both in sections that offer online-only degrees and those traditional degree programs that only offer some online classes.

To match the changing models of education, especially with trades and research institutions, colleges are looking to invest more in online programs. These are also aligning with industries that have seen increases in new-hire rates since the U.S. recession. The job market is changing and unemployment is shifting across different career paths, so universities are trying to quickly react and offer courses for those areas where students can find careers.

Career services are becoming a vital part of the college journey and should represent a key determining factor for selecting your degree program. Thankfully, online courses mean that universities and students can be more geographically diverse than in the past. Even if you live in a different city or state from your university’s home, your degree program can connect with industry in your area to establish training and apprenticeship programs.

To understand what the online education statistics for today’s market look like, let’s walk through the “Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States” series of reports from The Online Learning Consortium. Unless specifically stated otherwise, information on the history of online education comes from these reports.

Graph comparing total enrollment with students taking at least one online course.

How Many People Use Online Courses

Online learning for higher education has been on a steady upward trajectory for many years now. In fact, since the early 2000s, it has typically grown by a larger percentage each year than overall higher education.

Last year, an additional 411,000 students enrolled in their first online course increasing the total number of online students in the U.S. to 7.1 million. That’s a 6.1 percent increase from 2012’s numbers. This also means that one out of every three higher education students has at least one online course; an all-time high.

From 2002 to 2012, students enrolled in an online learning course grew by an annual compound rate of 16.1 percent, compared to the overall higher-education enrollment rate of 2.5 percent. In the fall of 2011, there were actually fewer students enrolled than in the year before, but distance education still increased by a growth rate of 9.3 percent to make up 32 percent of all enrollment.

What Types of Online Courses Exist

One reason for the growth in online courses is that universities are diversifying and have created multiple format options for their classes. Some of these have been around for the whole history of online education, while others are fairly new.

Online classes are often defined as those where the majority of content is delivered online and there is often little to no in-person communication beyond teacher’s office hours. However, universities have begun including hybrid classes in their lists of online courses, where a mix of online and in-person learning is used to deliver information.

The Online Learning Consortium has created a set of different course definitions that are slowly becoming a standard for the discussion of distance education. They are listed below.

Traditional – These courses deliver content through in-person lectures, written handouts, and does not use online technology. This model is decreasing significantly as more classes add syllabi, assignment descriptions, and resources online.

Web-Facilitated – These courses are becoming the standard because they make use of the Web by delivering between one and 29 percent of their content via the Web. Content online is typically explanations of assignments and posting the syllabus, but some may also use online systems to collect assignments. The majority of the learning and teaching is done in person.

Blended or Hybrid – A growing course style is the hybrid model, where in-person learning is secondary to online assignments, content, and review. These courses have between 30 and 79 percent of their learning online, with just a few face-to-face meetings required.

Online Only – One of the fastest-growing course types is online only, where all in-person meetings have been replaced with the online delivery of content. Lectures, group work, assignments, and testing are all done online. The only face-to-face meetings these have are office-hours for teachers or emergency meetings.

Course and degree-program development are trending toward more Web-based delivery, especially at research institutions. This is because a teacher can record their lecture once and use it for multiple versions of the same course. They can then directly correspond with a few students as needed and only have large workloads during grading of projects and exams.

The best online degree programs allow teachers with academic research requirements to maintain their course amount while investing more time into their research and study. Many colleges and universities have publishing requirements for their teachers because it improves the prestige of the distance learning university and is used to attract high-caliber students.

What’s an MOOC?

One growing trend in online college courses is the massive open online course, or MOOC. These courses are named after the popular massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs, in order to gain media attention and increase awareness of schools’ online programs.

These classes are offered without any cost and provide access to a very large number of people who may or may not attend the university providing the class. They’re general education items and often relate to specific industries so a university can show off its expertise in a particular area.

How MOOCs differ from normal classes

MOOCs are growing in popularity, and the number of online colleges offering them has nearly doubled from 2.6 percent in 2012 to 5 percent in 2013. Large institutions account for the most MOOC offerings, likely because they also have large marketing budgets and enough staff to test out these experimental offerings.

However, MOOCs may not be around for the long-haul. According to this report, fewer academic department heads view MOOCs as sustainable from 2012 to 2013. Less than half of online institutions view MOOCs as important for the development of their teaching practices and academic development. The majority of academic groups and leaders say making MOOCs a required part of a graduation course list will cause confusion, rising from 52 percent in 2012 to 64 percent in 2013.

Unlike most other online offerings, MOOCs did not start with associates programs. Instead, they are being created for research institutions and doctoral programs. As of the end of 2013, 20 percent of online doctoral or research programs offered MOOCs, and another 15 percent said they planned to introduce such courses.

Currently, the biggest downside to MOOCs is that they have very low attendance throughout the life of the course. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology class in 2012 recorded a completion rate of just 5 percent for the 140,000 students who signed up to take the class.

What Do Online Courses Require of You?

Students typically need more attention and a greater drive to work independently to make online courses successful. This has led some academics to believe they should be used only for higher-level classes or specialized offerings, which may account for the growing use of online courses in doctoral programs.

When asked if “students need more discipline to succeed in an online course than in a face-to-face course,” chief academic officers said yes more in 2013 – 68.9 percent – than in 2005 – 64.7 percent. However, the growth has not been substantial. For specialized, associate programs, the agreement with that statement actually declined slightly from 79.7 percent in 2005 to 77.3 percent in 2013.

The decline is small and may simply signify an acceptance of the role online courses play in overall learning. The “yes” response rate is expected to flatten out over time as educators and students have more experience with online learning.

Schools offering associate programs typically hold the best views of online programs, so this acknowledgement of the skills required will likely guide their future investment into helping students pass online classes.

Online Education is Helpful and Strategic

Nearly 75 percent of chief academic officers and leaders in higher education say that online education is the same, or better than, traditional face-to-face learning in 2013, according to a survey from The Online Learning Consortium. That’s a significant jump from 57 percent saying the same in 2003. Different programs and university or college types view the success of online courses differently, but the common theme is that these are a significant benefit to the students themselves.

For schools that offer an online degree program, they’re holding steady with a consistent view that online programs are as effective as or more effective than in-person learning.
There is one type of institution where online learning is being discouraged, but they won’t make any difference to you if you’re interested in getting a degree through an online-only or hybrid course offering. Fewer institutions that offer online classes said they are not as effective or necessary in 2013 compared to years before. The Online Learning Consortium study suggests this drop off, from around 30 percent to roughly 15 percent, is most likely a signal that these schools no longer plan to offer any online classes.

It’s also a safe bet that higher education will invest more money into distance education to improve its quality and bring in more students. In the same survey, the number of educational institutions saying that online learning is not “critical” to their long-term strategy dropped to an all-time low of 9.7 percent. This means for the vast majority of schools that offer online degree programs, investment in courses, teachers, and student technology is seen as a vital piece of their overall growth and offering.

Is It Harder to Stick with Online Classes?

Online education statistics may paint a troubling picture universities have to deal with.

Online courses, even for the best online degrees, are tough for students to stick with and may be dropped easier than other classes. As online courses have gained prominence, leadership has found it more difficult to keep students compared to those in face-to-face classes.

Graph of retention rate in distance learning
In 2004, 27 percent of distance learning university leaders said student retention was a greater concern for online courses and distance education, rising slightly to 28 percent in 2009. However, this concern jumped significantly in 2013 when 41 percent of chief academic officers expressed concern over retention rates.

Academic professionals are working to learn why this may be a growing concern.

Part of the trouble may be that online courses are offered for people who cannot attend normal classes. These same reasons may also prevent them from completing online courses. Online-only students are more likely to have work, family, and other obligations than those in traditional classes. The Online Learning Consortium researchers say these outside obligations are a likely cause for some of the retention problems, but cautions against making simple comparisons between traditional and online-only students because the latter is so new.

Interestingly, there’s little variance in the retention rates when looking at schools based on their student size. The biggest discrepancy appears to be between public and private schools. Public schools have the highest level of concern about student retention, about 46 percent saying it’s harder to retain online than in-person, but as many as 10 percent fewer private institutions are expressing these concerns.

“The greater level of concern among public institutions may represent the different nature of the their student mix, drawing a larger proportion of older, working students that might be more likely to suffer the ‘life happens’ events that would force them to withdraw,” writes Elaine Allen, a professor at University of California, San Francisco.

Problems in the History of Online Education

In some colleges, teachers don’t trust or like teaching online courses. This is often the biggest barrier to quality and adoption of online programs for those distance learning universities.

The Babson Survey Research Group noted that the majority of school leaders said it is important for faculty to accept and enjoy the teaching and management of online classes. Without this acceptance, campuses are less likely to offer main courses online.

Faculty acceptance is necessary for developing the best online degree programs. Even if a certain trade is typically viewed as one of the best degrees to get online, it needs strong faculty backing.

The other chief barrier to offering more online courses is that students in many degree programs lack the technical aptitude to perform classes solely online. This is especially true for courses that are marketed as ways for professionals to change careers.

Beyond students, some faculty members lack the digital media literacy to run online classes. This can cause significant issues when a teacher cannot properly respond to questions or may not properly load content for use by students. There are also secondary concerns that teachers may provide poorly recorded lectures.

“Adjunct professors and students feel the brunt of this challenge, as teaching-only contracts are underrated and underpaid, and learners must accept the outdated teaching styles of the university’s primary researchers,” says a 2014 New Media Consortium report on higher education difficulties.

Future Online Education Statistics

The vast majority of today’s universities, colleges, and degree programs see the future of education online.

When asked if they think the majority of higher-education students will take at least one class online:

  • Nearly two-thirds said it is “very likely”
  • 25 percent said it is “likely”
  • Around eight percent said it was “somewhat likely”
  • Just one percent said it was “not at all likely”

Pie Chart of student opinions of if college students will take at least one online course.

One reason so many institutions expect these courses to grow in popularity is that they’re cheaper than in-person classes. Allowing for self-paced learning would reduce the number of hours that staff has to work with students and also reduces the number of classrooms a university would require. Building and maintenance savings could be significant, especially when you consider the amount of extra power used in classrooms as the majority of students plug in phones, laptops, and tablets.

Cost savings may lead to an investment in new technologies and an improvement in practices for distance education. These types of improvements led 33 percent of academic leaders to tell The Online Learning Consortium that they see quality concerns for online classes going away within five years’ time.

The education system in the U.S. may not be moving to an entirely online process, but the number of students taking online courses and the quality of those courses is expected to continue to grow throughout the coming years. This makes it a great time for you to consider moving into the world of higher education, even if you have family, work, or other obligations that may make the pursuit seem difficult.

Like all investments of your time and money, it’s best to start with a self-assessment to make sure you have the time to take on the workload of school. Higher education can lead to significant increases in your earnings over time. Attending classes online will provide the same benefit when you follow the degree through your final classes and tests, but this way you get to stay in your PJs.

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