Some colleges ‘retreat’ from online learning

Higher education’s online learning landscape is increasingly polarized, with colleges and universities choosing divergent paths for how to proceed with the nontraditional medium.

Nine in 10 respondents said every student will take at least one online course by 2018.

Campuses that have long been invested in web-based courses are continuing their focus on online classes while others have chosen to “retreat” from the courses, according to the 2013 Survey of Online Learning conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group, a comprehensive annual look at online education’s proliferation.

The percentage of Babson survey respondents — academic officers of all sorts — who pegged online learning as a key part of their institutions’ long-term strategy fell from 69.1 percent in 2012 to 65.9 percent last year.

That plummeting percentage, according to the report, is in large part thanks to schools that have not launched far-reaching online offerings, and now don’t plan to in the coming years.

“Institutions with online offerings remain as positive as ever about online learning, but there has been a retreat among leaders at institutions that do not have any online offerings,” said Jeff Seaman, co-author of the much-anticipated report that premiered in 2003.

The survey also captured the polarized views of online education’s quality when compared to the traditional classroom model. Officials from colleges with no web-based class offerings have consistently held the most negative views of the online model.

The report’s authors wrote that they weren’t sure if schools with the biggest online offerings held positive views because of their exposure to the nontraditional model, or if the positive views led to greater online class adoption.

Despite the negative views from institutions without online courses — mostly private campuses — the inevitability of massive online course adoption was reflected in the Babson survey numbers:  nine in 10 respondents said it was likely or very likely that every college student would be taking at least one web-based class by 2018.

Overall online college course enrollment now stands at 7.1 million, up more than 400,000 from 2012, according to the report’s authors.

There may have been something of a plateau in online enrollment growth, however. The 6.1 percent enrollment increase is the lowest in the 10-year history of the Babson survey.

That 6.1 percent figure is still 1.2 percent higher than overall higher education enrollment increases in 2013.

Joel Hartman, Sloan-C Board president and vice provost and CIO of the University of Central Florida, said the Babson survey results “reinforce the first-hand experience of our members, who continue to demonstrate that online learning has become a fundamental component of today’s higher education environment.”