This month, I attended the 17th Annual Sloan-C Conference for Online Learning in Orlando, Florida (U.S.), and, as I reflect on my experience, I am both excited and energized about the future landscape of higher education — but I’m also concerned about whether colleges and universities are prepared for the major shifts upon us.
While there’s no way to predict the future, trends and data from the past are our most reliable guides. Each year, Sloan-C shares an exceptional report, produced by the Babson Research Group, that provides a snapshot of online learning enrollments and leadership perspectives in the United States. This is an invaluable resource to any college leader, faculty, staff, or student anywhere in the world — as we are all in this paradigm shift together. The report can be used as an opportunity to take the pulse of online trends, engage in dialogue at your local campus about how to best plan for the future, or as a model for developing a similar survey within your region or system.
Planning for the College of the Future
If the data from the past five years is a reliable indicator of the future, we can say with confidence that the future of higher education will include fewer traditional (face-to-face) classes and more online classes (in this instance, online is defined by a course in which at least 80% of the content is delivered online). This is validated in this year’s Babson report, Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States. The report reveals a 10% growth in higher-ed online enrollments from 2009 to 2010.
While that number pales in comparison to the previous years’ growth rate of 21% and has some pointing to a “plateau,” I believe we should not be focusing on a slowdown, as doing so prevents us to see some of the deep-rooted shifts that have occurred in recent years that desperately demand our attention.
So, let’s reframe this “plateau” for a moment. While it’s true that the growth in online class slowed this past year, online enrollments comprised a staggering 30% of total higher ed enrollments (Allen and Seamen, 2011). That’s amazing — just under one third of college education in the US is virtual. Ten years ago that would have been an unfathomable concept.
Not Educating More Students — Educating Students Differently
Now let’s peel this data back another layer. When you hear generalized reports of the staggering growth in online classes, you may feel compelled to interpret them to mean that the number of students in college is steadily increasing — that we’re educating more students than before, that online learning is building new bridges to college, and the U.S. is educating more students. But that’s not true. The data shows that the overall growth of higher education has remained relatively stagnant for the past seven years — an average of 2.1% (Allen and Seamen, 2011). As online enrollments have soared, our traditional, face-to-face enrollments have declined.
As a result, planning efforts for the college of the future should have already been shifted towards supporting the unique needs of online courses. Colleges and universities are less likely to need additional buildings and more likely to need online student support services, faculty training, robust technological infrastructure, new models for course evaluations, and an institutional priority on innovation to invent a culture of experimentation and exploration around the most effective use of mobile technologies in support of online and blended learning.
Obstacles and Challenges for Our Blended Future
So, how is this data impacting strategic planning efforts? How are institutions planning for a blended future? In the past year, 65% of chief academic officers for the 2,500 colleges and universities surveyed by Babson agreed that “online education is critical to the long-term strategy” of their institution. This is the highest level yet and appears to be a promising sign that the unique needs online classes and programs bring to an institution are being addressed and supported. But shouldn’t it be higher than 65%? Why would online not be critical to the long-term strategy of an institution when it is where the growth has been for the past seven years?
Perhaps more perplexing is the fact that less than half of the leaders who responded include online programs in the institutional strategic plan. And what institutions are the most likely to include online programs in their strategic plans? The for-profit universities. Moving forward, we will see more and more for-profits targeting the students that public colleges and universities are unable to accommodate due to budget cuts. The sands are shifting.
Finally, faculty acceptance of online remains a significant problem. Despite the fact that many faculty teach online today, only about a third of the leaders surveyed agree that faculty at their institution “accept the value and legitimacy of online learning” (Allen and Seamen, 2011). To me, this is, perhaps, the most disheartening part of the survey. To me this means that faculty are teaching online but many of them do not believe their own classes are a legitimate learning experience. That’s a major problem. When are we going to stop and ask why? This is a discussion that needs to be had. We need to reflect on and examine our own perceptions of education and understand what these road blocks are made up of, rather than just accept them. Our students deserve that.
Innovation and 21st-Century Instruction
In college, students are taught to critically examine problems from different perspectives, to do research and apply it as they form their own arguments. Today, students need us to step outside our traditions and become informed about online learning and to look at it in new ways. Online learning is here to stay, and, despite the generalized reluctance to fully embrace it, it holds many stunning opportunities for us to meet our students’ needs in ways that were unavailable just a few short years ago. But we won’t see these hidden jewels if we are unwilling to shift our frame of reference.
Right now, the impact of online learning is being felt in our “traditional” classrooms too. More and more faculty who teach online are reconceptualizing the way they teach their “traditional” classes. Web 2.0 tools and the rise of smartphones and tablets are carving out new pedagogies anchored in social, multisensory learning. This is an unparalleled opportunity to support learners with cognitive challenges whose unique differences have previously been marginalized through lecture-based delivery. By the time these students reach college, they’re deflated and, sadly, believe they have nothing to contribute. Twelve years of being labeled a “failure” will do that to a person.
Join me, as we rub our eyes and examine the opportunities technology holds to empower all of our students to be successful learners. And imagine how this new perspective can and will change the lives of generations to come. f you’re shaking your head because you’re suffering catastrophic budget cuts — that’s not acceptable, because foundations like Hewlett, Bill and Melinda Gates, and MacArthur are generously funding innovative learning projects — so don’t use a dwindling budget as a reason to prevent innovation.
Motivate, inspire, and support new ideas on your campus — they are the future.
Allen, E. and Seaman, J. (2011). Babson Survey Research Group.
Going the Distance: Online Education in the U.S., 2011