Let’s hope this will be a happy new year, but I have some bad news. So far in 2015, the biggest news for online educators is that after a ten-year rally, nationwide enrollment in online courses may have stopped growing.
According to Phil Hill, the most recent data shows that between fall 2012 and fall 2013, the combined number of undergraduate and graduate students “exclusively taking online courses” rose less than 1 percent from 2,638,653 to 2,659,203, for a year-to-year difference of 20,550, or 0.8 percent. The number of students taking at least one online course grew slightly more, from 5,444,701 to 5,522,194 (an increase of 77,493 students, or 1.4 percent). However, for both measures, this is the lowest increase since the Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG) started measuring online course enrollment in 2003, and neither figure is statistically significant. Indeed, reporting changes for online course enrollments at one institution, Suffolk County Community College, not actual enrollment growth, accounts for over a quarter of the enrollment increase. It might provide some comfort, but not a lot, to those of us who are full-time online adjunct instructors to know that the overall number of students dropped 1.3 percent in this same period, from 20.62 million to 20.36 million. In other words, online courses seem to account for a slightly increasing percentage of a declining number of students.
So how do we make sense of this data? Assuming that the trend is permanent (and the growth of online education is not about to resume the stratospheric rates of 2003-2012) I see two possible implications here, one for higher education in general, and the second for online classes in particular.
The first implication is that college enrollment may have peaked, either because the college-age population is falling, or because the economic recovery has reduced the perceived need for more schooling. Those students many of us tend to get frustrated with — the ones who are too busy with other obligations to put in the required time to study, or who find schoolwork unpleasant to begin with and are doing it only because they need the degree to get hired or promoted in their profession – may be deciding not to enroll in classes any more and to focus instead on finding jobs or working longer hours. They are “done with school” because they can afford to be. We educators have limited options in this situation. Insofar as the pursuit of higher education is perceived by many Americans as a purely practical decision, motivated by the desire to make more money or get more prestigious jobs, we can assume that as the economy picks up and the demand for labor gets less picky and choosy, the pool of potential students will shrink. Some strategies to get more students enrolled in college classes would be either to form partnerships with employers for on-the-job training (as Arizona State University has done with Starbucks) or to promote education as a pleasing and equally cheap alternative to entertainment. (I can see the ad campaign now? “Still sitting on your couch watching football? Stop wasting time and money! Enroll in a college class! )
The second implication of this data is particularly relevant for instructors and educational institutions that specialize in online education. The number of students who take at least one online course has stabilized at what appears to be 25 percent of the overall student population, while the number of exclusively online learners is evening out at 10-12 percent of students. If we want that percentage to increase, we need to make online education a more attractive alternative to brick-and-mortar classes.
Over the long-term, during the next 10-15 years, advocates for online learning may still disrupt traditional college education by following the route I described in my earlier series for this newsletter, on the gamification of online education: restructure online classes to resemble videogames; incorporate virtual reality technology; make classes more intense and interactive multisensory experiences.
In the short-term, however, we can probably expect something more prosaic – an effort by anxious college administrators to wring more ‘teaching effectiveness” out of instructors. I put this term in quotes because I don’t mean necessarily that administrators want to measure student learning more accurately, but that they want students to perceive their online courses as more satisfying experiences.
If online education is to maintain or grow its share of the schooling pot, it will need to be perceived – by students themselves or by their advocates who are purchasing education for them — as a respectable, or even “sexy” alternative to traditional courses. Want lots of interaction with your instructors? Online is the way to go – your course materials, and perhaps even your instructor ,will be on call 24-7! Want exciting content and cutting-edge ideas? They’re to be found in the constantly tended online garden that is your online class! Having trouble paying for school? Online education is cheaper!
During the four years I have taught here, retention was never before raised as an issue to be addressed with curriculum changes. Instead, course revisions have focused more on promoting learning that was intellectually rigorous and faithful to the major principles of the discipline of sociology – for example, we asked ourselves which leading thinkers we should require students to read, and which classic first-year sociology assignments we should include. If the students didn’t like it, so what? That was the price they paid for admission to the community of educated women and men. Now that enrollment rates nationwide are plateauing, or falling, faculty expectations are taking a back seat to the demands of our student consumers. Under consideration as I write this article are discussion questions that put students’ personal lives front and center, and ask them to discuss their own experiences and desires using the language of sociology. That’s the approach taken in courses I have taught at other online programs, which are competing with Excelsior for the same pool of students.
I am a sociologist, trained to think of research and teaching in my discipline as a profession with certain ethical and intellectual standards that deserve to be maintained. I believe my quest is not to sell courses to students, but rather to train them to think in sophisticated new ways. I therefore have very mixed feelings about the market logic that Excelsior College is being compelled to follow in order to stay in business and maintain its relevance in the rapidly maturing world of online education.
I am glad that our economy is improving, and I do hope that the innovators in online education will continue in their quest to improve the experience of virtual learning. At the same time, I wish that the demand for education, online and in person, could forever exceed the supply just enough so that we academics and educators would be able to maintain our professional standards and expect our students to conform, rather than adjusting our expectations to meet the students where they wanted to be. What many of our students appear to want for their brains is not, in my view, the same as what they need – not if they are to think about social science like professionals. It requires a lot less work to talk about oneself and add a bit of sociology on the side than to think like a scholar about the world outside of one’s immediate experience, and the path from the self to the world is not a natural one to follow in the absence of intellectual strong-arming. I realize that I sound elitist and old-fashioned, but that, I guess, is the price I pay for having been educated in an intellectual tradition that predates both online learning and this approaching era of educational glut.
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