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ITC 2013 Distance Education Survey Results

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Trends in eLearning: Tracking the Impact of eLearning at Community Colleges April 2013, Instructional Technology Council

2013 Distance Education Survey Results Cover, Published April 2014

In the fall of 2013, ITC invited its member institutions to provide valuable information about their programs to distance education practitioners.  One hundred and forty three community colleges completed the ITC survey.

In Focus: The Year in Review 2013: The Great Recession Continues, but Not for Everyone

In 2013, ITC’s national survey of distance education programs once again 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, a robust, steady increase in the popularity for online learning continues. Students have “voted with their feet” by enrolling in distance education courses when they are available. From fall 2012 to fall 2013, ITC’s survey participants reported a 5.2 percent rate of growth in student enrollment in their online programs.

The national economy began to recover more earnestly in 2013. Some states even increased funding for higher education, although not by much.  Performance-based funding, greater accountability, student completion rates and gainful employment became the often-heard buzz words of 2013. Not to be out done, most distance education programs are pressured to find ways to close the student achievement gap many online programs still experience as compared to face-to-face courses, or risk seeing further budget and staff reductions. As the authors of the ITC survey have suggested for the past several years, the Great Recession has forced many states to undergo a paradigm shift in how they will make funding decisions for colleges and universities in the years to come.

For the first time, in fall 2012 the Department of Education’s 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. IPEDS reported that in fall 2012, 1,898,980 community college students (26.5 percent) enrolled in at least one distance education course. Concurrently, 2,678,995 undergrads at four-year institutions (25.3 percent), and 5,444,701 total undergraduate and graduate students, enrolled in at least one distance education courses at all post-secondary education institutions (26.4 percent).

IPEDS will be able to accurately document the future growth, or decline, of distance education when it tracks these numbers in the years to come. The continued growth in online learning, which ITC survey respondents have reported since 2004, coincides with an overall decline in student enrollment which many colleges and universities have experienced, especially in those programs that cater to working adults. Student enrollment at colleges and universities traditionally increases during an economic downturn, and declines as the economy improves and students return to work.

ITC survey respondents reported that their colleges experienced a 3.27 percent decline in overall student enrollment from fall 2012 to fall 2013. The National Center for Education Statistics Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which receives data from 100 percent of United States colleges, reports community colleges experienced a one percent increase in student enrollment from fall 2011 to fall 2012. Community colleges experienced a two percent decline in student enrollment during the previous academic year, from fall 2010 to fall 2011.

The ITC results confirm two major trends: online enrollment has continued to be the predominant source of enrollment growth in higher education during the past nine years, and the growth in online enrollment continues to slow. During the past four years, ITC survey respondents reported the following growth rates for student enrollment in distance education:

  • 2009 to 2010 as compared to previous academic year: 9 percent increase
  • 2010 to 2011 as compared to previous academic year: 8.2 percent increase
  • 2011 to 2012 as compared to previous academic year: 6.5 percent increase
  • 2012 to 2013 as compared to previous academic year: 5.2 percent increase

The report outlines the following key events in 2013

  • Continued Growth for Online, Despite Overall College Enrollment Decline
  • The Rise and Decline of MOOCs
  • Open Educational Resources (OERs)
  • Federal Interest in Distance Education Heating Up
  • Department of Education Threatens Online Learning to Respond to Financial Aid Fraud Rings
  • State Authentication Update
  • State Authorization for Institutions Offering Distance Education to Out-of-State Students

Observations and Trends

Since the ITC board of directors began surveying ITC members in 2004, continuity in a number of response areas has emerged. Distance education administrators face many of the same challenges—regardless of their college’s geographic location, budget, number of students, level of staff support, or whether the college is independent or part of a district or statewide system.

During the past nine years, a number of similarities have emerged:

  • Student demand for online classes continues to grow at most, if not all, colleges. The percentage increase has declined recently, but only half of the colleges surveyed are able to meet student demand for distance education courses. Consequently, the authors predict student enrollment growth in online learning will continue.
  • The focus for distance education programs has shifted away from simply offering some courses online to a concerted commitment toward enhancing the overall quality and integrity of the college’s online program. The need to raise online course and program quality has increased awareness of the importance of offering quality professional development and training for faculty and staff, addressing the issue of student readiness, and improving student assessment, retention and completion rates.
  • The retention gap between students who learn online versus those who learn in a face-to-face classroom has narrowed dramatically during the past nine years. Many studies have shown that educators are equivalent, if not superior to traditional instruction.
  • Federal rules and regulation—with regard to student financial aid fraud, state authorization, student authentication and ADA compliance—command a greater degree of administrative attention and resources.
  • Many colleges are increasingly aware that they lack compliance with the accessibility requirements for online instruction outlined in sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.
  • Online program administration has shifted so that more academic administrators, such as deans and academic vice presidents, are responsible for distance education, rather than library services or the IT department. This departmental shift helped convince many faculty to pay attention to this new modality of instruction and encouraged academic leaders to oversee online learning with respect to faculty and curricular issues.
  • Distance educators have experienced dramatic, often traumatic, changes in the learning management system (LMS) market which have redefined the virtual learning environment. Colleges have replaced older systems with more sophisticated, user-friendly, cloud-based LMS solutions. Although some predicted colleges would no longer need to purchase an LMS, this core element offers a structural platform for online learning, that most administrators and faculty deem essential.
  • Many distance education administrators are encouraging their colleges to restore funding for online student support services that some colleges cut during The Great Recession. They recognize that online students need to access these services, such as academic advising, library access, tutoring services, and orientation programs, to succeed. Accrediting agencies also require colleges provide equal access to these types of services to all of their students, whether the learners are located remotely or on campus.
  • Although significant barriers hinder their widespread use, many administrators and faculty are increasingly interested in using open educational resources (OERs). Further buy in from educators will lead to further progress in the use of OERs in higher education.
  • Most community college distance education administrators and faculty remain skeptical of massive open online courses (MOOCs) due to their low student retention rates, low teacher-to-student interaction, inability to authenticate students, and lack of financial sustainability. A few community colleges have received grant funding from private foundations to develop MOOCs that offer self-paced online orientations and remedial help, but few community colleges have created a financially-sustainable model for creating MOOCs for their students.
  • Community colleges continue to embrace the full spectrum of online course applications which include fully-online, blended, hybrid, Web-assisted, Web-enhanced, and Web-facilitated courses.

Fred Lokken, associate dean for the Truckee Meadows Community College WebCollege, and Christine Mullins, executive director of the Instructional Technology Council, co-authored the study based on a survey completed by 142 community colleges in the fall of 2013 (out of 269 community colleges that are members of ITC).


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