Trends in Online Learning

Since their first appearance in 2003 (covering 2002 data), the annual Sloan Consortium Survey Reports have represented one of the few consistent, well designed, benchmark assessments of online education/online learning on a national scale. []

Highlighted here are a few areas that have remained consistent, though not static, for over a decade. First I'll paraphrase from the Chronicle's1 and Inside Higher Ed's summaries of the 2004 Sloan Survey "Entering the Mainstream" and then the recently released 2011 survey "Going the Distance."

In 2004, about 1200 institutions responded to the survey [ 580+ public non-profit, 530+ private non-profit, about 50 for-profit]

Among publics and for-profits, more than 60% of administrators think "online learning is essential to their overall strategy" but less than 40% at private institutions

57% of academic administrators estimate that learning outcomes in online courses were equal or superior to those of face-to-face courses. About one-third of academic administrators believe that learning outcomes in online courses were not equal or superior to those in face-to-face courses.

The institutions that consistently have the "most positive view" [of online learning] as well as the "highest number of students enrolled" [in online courses] are large public institutions.

The Chronicle noted that the survey agrees with data from the United States Distance Learning Association which show "distance learning tends to serve students who are 25 to 45."

The survey authors noted that the less enthusiastic, more skeptical stance of private, especially baccalaureate liberal arts, institutions "reflected learning environments" at this type of institution. "They say the essence of their environment isn't just what happens in the classroom, but also what happens on campus, which cannot be replicated online."

In 2011, over 2500 institutions responded to the survey2

67% of "academic leaders rate online education as the same or superior to face-to-face learning"

One-third–"a steady minority…continue to believe that online education is inferior to face-to-face education"

Less than 30% of "chief academic officers feel their faculty 'accept the value and legitimacy of online education. This percent has changed little over the last eight years.'"

Having actually read through four of the reports for the last nine years (including the two summarized above), the amount of data gathered and analyzed is both massive and impressive. A few major ongoing factors I gleaned that I believe have particular relevance to RIC include:

success from the start with somewhat-older-students, 25-45, especially in certificate/professional/graduate programs

overall increases in online course offerings at public institutions over the entire report period, though the success of offerings within particular fields have fluctuated wildly

consistent skepticism among a third of academic administrators and an even higher proportion of faculty about "the value and legitimacy of online education."

persistent low rating and low participation by private baccalaureate institutions in online learning

I think the importance to RIC of the first three factors would be widely acknowledged. So, I'd like to draw some inferences from the last one.

We are, indeed, a comprehensive college: not a public university (which category offers a large percentage of online courses nationally) nor a private baccalaureate institution (which offer the least number of online courses as a category). But we have the best of both these worlds: we offer a solid baccalaureate experience to all our undergraduate students, while also offering a rich array of professional, graduate, and certificate programs. The Sloan Surveys note that the latter programs report student success in the fully online realm – courses which have essentially no face-to-face component.

But what about baccalaureate programs? I believe that here we should be listening carefully to that category of institution. They told the Sloan surveyors: what happens in a single course is important; but equally, if not more, important is what happens developmentally throughout a student's entire undergraduate career. It is the whole, not the parts; it is the authentic, direct, and personal interaction of faculty with students and students with other students in and beyond the classroom that underpins the baccalaureate experience. And they believe that current mechanisms for delivering fully online programs can't effectively provide this essential element of a college career.

In closing, I'd like to make a few remarks about the issues arising in but one aspect of undergraduate education, the one most directly connected to the support provided by the college or university library faculty – the issue of student research and search techniques in our digital age.

Information overload continues to be a chronic problem for the academic researcher [relevance ranking not withstanding].3 4 5

The majority of students, if left to their own devices, choose convenience and accessibility over the quality of content for the information needed for their academic tasks 6 7 8

Faculty have perennially expressed concern about, if not actively bemoaned and decried, the widespread failure of many students to discover and incorporate appropriate, credible evidence to support their writing and other projects

Given the general picture of online education over the last decade, here are a few thoughts about the intertwined problems of information overload, convenience vs. quality, and faculty expectations.

Although information overload is pervasive, in regard to online learning we need to separate the realm of fully online courses and programs from that of hybrid or digitally supplemented courses. The "scaffolding" necessary to provide a foundation for dealing with academic information discovery in a fully online course is significantly more time and labor-intensive to create than in a hybrid or supplemented course. Everything –tools, models, procedural steps, examples, criteria – must all be structured for a completely digital environment. In a fully online course, unlike discussion, commentary on readings, or other threaded, collective activities, student information discovery is nearly always a solitary activity. And comfortable patterns of turning principally or exclusively to Google have every chance of asserting themselves.

But in hybrid courses, classroom faculty can choose to collaborate with library faculty to create effective assignments coupled with a hands-on library instruction experience with both faculty acting as consultants while students explore for assignment-related information. Or faculty can choose to independently provide hands-on experience in information discovery. But in either case it is by design – effective assignment design – that students are presented with both the necessity, as well as the opportunity, to grow beyond the convenience and the "one-way-fits-all" searching of Google. With faculty available for immediate questions and feedback - which can easily turn into a teaching moment for the entire class - students gain experience with conceptually robust search strategies and evaluation of results to improve subsequent searches within an array of library tools designed to provide the quality academic sources that faculty hope to see in student work. And for undergraduates, especially those of traditional age, their lack of experience with and consequent lack of comfort using discovery tools beyond Google is exacerbated in the online learning environment.

Face-to-face courses, both undergraduate and graduate, have benefitted from this type of collaboration from the pre-digital era to the present. But hybrid courses that combine the best of both face-to-face and online learning can benefit equally from a combination of attention to the information-gathering aspects of assignment design and hands-on experience with strategies and tools for academic information discovery.

Patricia B.M. Brennan

  1. Carlson, Scott. "Online-education Survey Finds Unexpectedly High Enrollment Growth" The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov 26, 2004,
  2. Kolowich, Steve "Online Grows, Doubts Persists" Inside Higher Ed, Nov 9, 2011 ; Parry, Marc. "Online-Course Enrollments Grow, but at a Slower Pace. Is a Plateau Approaching?" The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov 9, 2011,
  3. Blair, Ann "Reading Strategies for Coping with Information Overload ca. 1550-1700" Journal of the History of Ideas, v64(1), (Jan 2003): 11-28, p.12; JSTOR, 6 October, 2011
  4. Bacon, Francis "Of Studies" in The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral (annotated by A. Spiers) London: Whittaker & Co, 1851, pp170-172; Google Books, 23 September, 2011
  5. Bawden, David and Lyn Robinson "The Dark Side of Information: Overload, Anxiety and Other Paradoxes and Pathologies" Journal of Information Science, v35(2), (April 2009): 180-191; Sage Journals Online, 30 September, 2011
  6. Fast, Karl V. and D. Grant Campbell "'I Still Like Google': University Student Perceptions of Searching OPACs and the Web" Proceedings of the 67th Annual Meeting of ASIS&T, v41, 2004: 138-146. 15 September, 2011
  7. Tennant, Roy "The Convenience Catastrophe" Library Journal, v126(20) (Dec 1, 2001):39-40
  8. Agosto , Denise E. "Bounded Rationality and Satisficing in Young People's Web-based Decision Making" Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, v53(1) (Jan 2002):16-27, ABI/INFORM, 2 September, 2011,

Page last updated: Friday, December 16, 2011