Trends in eLearning: Tracking the Impact of eLearning at Community Colleges 10th Anniversary Edition April 2015, Instructional Technology Council
In Focus: What Have Distance Educators Accomplished in the Past Ten Years?
Since the fall of 2004, ITC has invited its member institutions to provide valuable information about their programs to distance education practitioners. Online education represents a significant paradigm shift in the history of higher education. In just ten years, distance education has:
- Greatly improved student access to higher education opportunities.
- Provided a transformational link between learning and technology.
- Opened unprecedented avenues of competition to, and “rethinking” of, the traditional “ivory tower” higher education model.
- Offered students online courses that are equal in quality to face-to-face courses.
- Enrolled more than 5.5 million students in the United States in 2013 in educational programs they would probably have missed otherwise.
- Helped prompt the federal government to declare education can, and should, be free for community college students who study and work hard.
- Helped begin to break down the state-by-state “silo” structure of higher education.
- Prompted educators to explore new methods for teaching, learning and communicating.
- Furthered the evolution—and revolution—of mobile devices as a learning platform.
- For those who work in higher education, this rapid transformation in teaching and learning is unprecedented.
- Educators are used to glacial-speed decision-making, led by a generation of leaders who have never directly experienced the ever-changing distance education environment.
Slowing Growth in Distance Education Student Enrollment
Many educators did not anticipate the dramatic growth of distance education at community colleges. The remarkable expansion coincides with, and results from, a sharp reduction in the costs of technology, that allowed educational institutions and students to purchase the technology hardware and software they needed to learn at a distance.
Educators also capitalized on new and developing support technologies that became prevalent at the right time. Our phones became “smart” and the Internet empowered students to access information anywhere at anytime.
Distance education allowed colleges to make higher education more accessible—especially to working adults, caregivers, students with disabilities, and others who have schedules and responsibilities that are incompatible with their attendance in traditional, face-to-face, classroom instruction. Online instruction offers flexibility and convenience and has opened new doors of opportunities to the students community colleges serve.
Throughout the past ten years, the ITC survey has confirmed that student enrollment in online courses continues to grow at a higher rate than overall student enrollment at colleges and universities. Although, most online programs no longer see the double-digit growth they experienced only five years ago, the survey data continues to confirm the popularity of online learning.
ITC’s survey participants reported a 4.68 percent increase in student enrollment in their online programs from fall 2013 to fall 2014 (down from 5.2 percent in 2013).
Meanwhile, overall student enrollment at community colleges declined by 3.5 percent from fall 2013 to fall 2014 according to the American Association of Community Colleges. ITC survey respondents reported that their colleges experienced an overall 2.73 percent decline in total student enrollment during this period.
The slowdown is likely due to a well-established, historic trend that student enrollment at colleges and
universities increases during an economic downturn, and declines as the economy improves and students return to work.
Percentage Increase in Distance Education Enrollment Reported by ITC Survey Participants
- 2009-10—9 percent
- 2010-11—8.2 percent
- 2011-12—6.5 percent
- 2012-13—5.2 percent
- 2013-14—4.68 percent
IPEDS Distance Educaton Data
For the first time, in fall 2012 the National Center for Education Statistics Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) reported on the number of students who take distance education courses at postsecondary institutions in the United States. IPEDS data offers the most comprehensive data in higher education because every college and university in the United States must complete its annual survey in order to offer their students federally-funded financial aid.
Unfortunately, a group of educators who investigated the 2012 and 2013 data collection found that a number of higher education institutions undercounted and/or over counted the number of distance education students at their college and universities. Those who completed the data sheets were confused as to whether they should include several distance learning student populations in their data submission: those taking credit versus non-credit courses, out-of-state students, and those taking accelerated courses or courses with nontraditional start times and/or completion dates.
There was also a basic misunderstanding over the definition for distance education. The authors hope this confusion will be corrected in 2014 and that the IPEDS survey instrument will include more specific definitions and directions so the data are entered consistently and completely, and distance educators researchers will obtain more accurate information.
Although the authors are not sure how complete the 2013 data are, IPEDS reported that in 2013, 2,659,203 undergraduate and graduate students took distance education courses exclusively at degree-granting institutions (up from 2,638,653 in 2012). In 2013, 2,862,991 graduate and undergraduate students took some distance education courses at degree-granting institutions (up from 2,806,043 in 2012). The grand total is 5,522,194 (up from 5,444,696 in 2012).
Although their report focuses primarily on four-year institutions, the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) has commissioned the Babson Survey Research Group to record the number of distance learning students for the past 12 years. Although they also reported discrepancies in their figures this year, from 2013 to 2014 Babson reported a 3.7 percent increase in the number of distance education students, the lowest recorded during the 12 years of their report series. They stated that public and private nonprofit institutions recorded distance enrollment growth, but these were offset by a decrease among for-profit institutions. Throughout the past ten years, the Babson/OLC results have correlated with the ITC survey results, lending credibility to both figures.
Helping Students Succeed Online
Reviewing the past ten years of ITC survey data can help identify issues that may be widespread, chronic, and need resolution. Three issues stand out:
1. First-time student preparedness. As the online learning environment has matured, administrators have significantly improved faculty training, designed a more engaging online learning environment, expanded the selection of online courses and degree programs available, and developed appropriate best practices and minimum expectations. Nevertheless, finding effective ways to prepare first-time online students for the nuances of online learning continues to be a challenge.
Administrators see the need to orient new students to the operational features of the learning management system (LMS), confirm that students have the requisite computer skills, study habits and personal characteristics to succeed online. Although “mandatory” faculty and staff training sounds logical, the “devil can be in the details.”
2. Lack of computer and Internet access. The digital divide continues to be a real problem for most, if not all, community colleges, which are traditionally open access institutions and serve under-represented student populations, and the impoverished. Although the lack of adequate Internet access is an obvious challenge in rural communities, broadband inadequacies also exist in urban settings. For many community college and K-12 students, access to a computer and/or mobile device is a serious barrier for learning in a world where technology prowess can be the key to obtaining a better job and economic success.
3. Persistent lower student retention rates for online courses. Distance education administrators must pay attention to this issue as colleges increasingly hold them accountable for students who do not attend and/or complete their online courses. Online administrators are frustrated when they have little, and sometimes no, control over the elements that can help them improve online student retention rates.
Many lack the authority to recruit, hire or evaluate faculty, have little say over online courses and degree program offerings, and have inadequate staffing and budget authority. Faculty and online student support services can resist implementing best practice models and ignore minimum expectations.
Nationally, student retention in online courses tends to be eight percentage points lower than that of face-to-face instruction. Online students need to be self-disciplined to succeed. Many underestimate how much time online coursework requires. Others fall behind or drop out for the same reasons they enrolled in online courses in the first place—they have other responsibilities and life challenges, such as work and/or family, and are too busy to prepare for, or complete, their online coursework. Distance education administrators have found that providing students with a clear, detailed orientation can clarify what is expected so students do not rush in and set themselves up for failure. Third party solutions abound and have evolved with online learning as it has grown. Student tracking data and learning analytics programs can warn administrators when students falter, so they can intervene appropriately to help a student continue in his or her course of study.
State Authorization for Institutions Offering Distance Education to Out-of-State Students
A national effort is underway to encourage every state legislature to approve a State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), whereby states will agree to recognize the distance education efforts from institutions located in other SARA-member states, without imposing additional fees or quality controls, as long as they are in good standing with their regional accreditation agency guidelines.
The four regional compacts—the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, WICHE, Midwestern Higher Education Compact, MHEC, the New England Board of Higher Education, NEBHE, and the Southern Regional Education Board, SREB—will ensure state regulators in their region have the proper processes in place to monitor compliance. Since the regional compacts will play this deciding role, SARA will give some regional compacts a new regulatory authority, which could be problematic for some state legislators. With 20 states on board as of April 2015, the SARA organizers are well on their way toward meeting their goal of recruiting 25 states as members by July 2015. In addition to having their state on board, institutions must pay an annual fee of $2,000 to $6,000 to be part of SARA.
ITC recommends colleges continue to obtain authorization from each state in which they teach students, have virtual faculty, and/or any trigger for establishing “physical presence” under the current state authorization regulations pending SARA achieving a critical mass of state membership. Here is a process which members of the ITC board of directors recommends colleges follow:
1. Create a process to identify out-of-state students enrolled at the institution. One might limit the search to students who:
- Have a permanent out-of-state address
- Pay out-of-state tuition
- Are only enrolled in fully online courses, and
- Have been allocated financial aid
2. Create an application process to obtain state authorization from those states in which students reside
3. Contact the states in which those out-of-state students reside to obtain state authorization.
4. As it gets closer to the start of a term: monitor student enrollments; identity students that have registered for classes from state(s) that you do not have an agreement with, and contact the student with the advice drop the class and to seek out an institution that does have an agreement.
To help institutions comply with state regulations, the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) has created several invaluable directories, which they update regularly.
These directories include state-by-state agency and contact information. They also include data on the types of educational providers they authorize, exemptions, physical presence policy triggers, application processes, associated fees, interstate reciprocity agreements, contact information for consumer/student protection and student complaints, legislative or regulatory changes, and enforcement measures.
Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965
In 2015 Congress will likely reauthorize the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), as it does every six to eight years. Congress last reauthorized the HEA in 2008. Since he became chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee in 2014, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) is charged with working with his committee to craft the legislation, steer it through the Senate, and obtain President Obama’s signature.
Alexander has said that “his top priority is to weed out burdensome regulations and requirements in the law, which govern federal financial aid.”
He has expressed general support for for-profit institutions and the online programs they offer, reducing federal oversight of higher education in favor of state control, and has lent support for competency-based learning models.
Although, distance educators always need to remain vigilant, they should have little to fear from the Act’s revision if Senator Alexander has his way. Educators need to be mindful that Senator Alexander proposes overhauling work the Department of Education has championed for the past six years to rein in rogue institutions and champion proposed gainful employment regulations, an action that will likely be distasteful to President Obama.
A telling sign of Senator Alexander’s penchant for removing higher education regulations and oversight was a report he unveiled in February 2015 that proposes to “1. Repeal accreditation-related regulations and statute that are unrelated to direct institutional quality and improvement. 2. Permit flexibility and nuance in accreditation reviews. 3. Encourage gradation, distinction and clarity in accreditation status and reviews. And 4. Delink accreditation from institutional eligibility for federal student aid.”
The next year should be interesting for higher education proponents.
 “Fall 2013 IPEDS Data: New Profile of US Higher Ed Online Education” by Phill Hill. Jan. 5, 2015, eLiterate.
 “Babson Study: Distance Education Enrollment Growth Continues, but at Slowest Rate Ever” Feb. 5, 2015, Babson Survey Research Group and Online Learning Consortium.
 The National Council for State Authorization Reciprocity Agreements (NC-SARA) is leading this effort.
 “Higher Education Accreditation Concepts and Proposals” March 2015, Senate Committee on Heath Education, Labor and Pensions.