The Growth of Online Education

The increase in American Internet use over the past decade has meant that being online has gone from something that was a fun pastime to a major part of our everyday lives. At the turn of the century, less than half of the U.S. population had Internet access. The 40% that was online was there with slow dial-up connects, for the most part, so daily use for vital tasks was out of the question. Ten years later, broadband and hardware technology have progressed and now over 80% of American consumers use the web for fun, shopping, research and even education. The online education sector has seen amazing growth during the increased Internet penetration of the last decade.

Booming Numbers: Students Online

The Sloan Consortium an organization dedicated to furthering online education, releases annual reports on the quality and growth of online education in the United States. Their first report, entitled ""Sizing Opportunity", was released after the 2002 - 2003 academic year. The report touted the then-impressive number of 1.6 million students taking at least one online course in the Fall 2002 semester. This was one in every ten students.

Sloan's latest report, "Class Differences", covers the 2010 school year and the results are amazing. The report states that now 5.6 million students took at least one online course in the Fall. This is a 350% increase from Sloan's first report and a 21% growth rate from the prior year's 4.6 million students. In just one year, one million more students got online. This is a record increase according to Sloan's reports. In 2002, the number of students taking at least one online course was roughly one in ten. Today, it's almost one in three. Just as the Internet has supplemented industries like banking, travel and real estate, it has contributed massively to education.

Teachers' Opinions

The question many ask is, "is online learning effective?" When polled by Sloan, 66% of academic leaders rated online education's learning outcomes at the same as or even better than face-to-face, traditional classes. This number is higher when only public institutions are polled. This can be attributed to the fact that public learning institutions have been quicker to integrate online learning into their curriculums than their private counterparts have been. The opinion of public university leaders' is that, over 75% of the time, online learning is just as good at educating students as traditional courses if not better.

Opinions are changing across the board, as 63% of academic leaders said they believe online education is integral to their institutions' long-term academic strategy. This is the highest positive response to this question in Sloan's eight years of conducting this survey. In contrast, only 12% of academics disagreed with online education as a crucial part of their strategy - the lowest response yet. Online education is growing and it is here to stay.

The Future of Online Education

In their latest report, the Sloan Consortium tempers their optimism about the further growth of online education. Sloan theorizes that the economic downturn led to part of the increased online enrollment. The reasons for this are twofold:

  • Laid-off employees looking to get into better standing to get a job through education
  • Online courses are more affordable than offline counterparts

Should the U.S. pull out of that downturn in the coming years, will online enrollment decrease? Another factor that puts the idea of further growth in question is increased participation by private institutions. As for-profit institutions embrace online education, their offerings will increase and their enrollment should, as well. Will the increased online offerings from the private, prestigious schools take students away from public learning institutions? Or will this simply open a new market? This remains to be seen and should be reflected in Sloan's 2011 - 2012 academic year survey.