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Business Officer Magazine
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Who's There?

Although Millennials are expected to embrace online learning, adult learners also will pursue distance learning as it fits in with their busy schedules and offers solutions for career change and advancement. A recent survey profiles online learners and institutions that serve them.

By Karla Hignite

With a robust selection of courses and programs available online, who is dabbling in distance learning?

According to data from the most recent distance education survey published by the Instructional Technology Council (Trends in eLearning: Tracking the Impact of eLearning at Community Colleges), online learners are evenly split between traditional-age students (18-25) and adult learners (26-plus), at 52 percent and 47 percent, respectively. The report concludes that while many expect tech-savvy Millennials to dominate online classes, older learners are attracted to these options because online options mesh with busy schedules and offer solutions for career change and advancement. One interesting discrepancy the survey revealed is a sizable gender gap, with more women (63 percent) taking courses compared to men (36 percent).

To learn more about distance learning, read "Going the Distance" in the February 2011 issue of Business Officer.

Who's the Leader?

So who's teaching all these online learners? As the Sloan Consortium survey series has revealed, public institutions have consistently led the pack. Publics are also the most likely to consider e-learning as critical to their long-term strategic success—75 percent versus 63 percent overall, according to Sloan's 2010 survey, Class Differences: Online Education in the United States. Two thirds (67 percent) of all online students are enrolled at the very largest institutions (5,000 or more online learners), even though they represent only 11 percent of the colleges and universities enrolling students online. Several years ago, the consortium developed a framework to classify higher education institutions based on their leaders' views and adoption of online education. These categories provide a more nuanced glimpse of who's reaching out to online learners:

Fully engaged. This group represents slightly more than one third of all higher education institutions. Leaders from these institutions believe that online offerings are strategically important and have incorporated e-learning into the institution's formal long-term plan. While these colleges and universities enroll about 43 percent of all higher education students, they educated nearly two thirds (66 percent) of all online students enrolled in fall 2009.

Engaged. This group represents about 23 percent of all higher education enrollments and accounted for 21 percent of online enrollments for fall 2009. While leaders from these institutions believe that online offerings are critical to long-term success, they haven't included online education in their formal strategic plan.

Not yet engaged. This group of mostly smaller institutions represents about 1 percent of all higher education enrollments. Even though these institutions don't yet offer any programs online, their leaders cite distance learning as a critical long-term strategy.

Nonstrategic online. These institutions comprise about one quarter of all higher education enrollments and enrolled approximately 13 percent of online students in 2009 despite the fact that their leaders don't consider online education important to their institution's long-term strategy.

Not interested. These institutions don't offer any online programming, nor do their leaders believe that doing so is important to the institution's long-term strategy. These mostly smaller institutions represent about 18 percent of all U.S. degree-granting postsecondary institutions, but account for less than 5 percent of all higher education enrollments.

KARLA HIGNITE, Universal City, Texas, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.