New U.S. data show jump in college students’ learning online

An analysis of newly available federal data shows that a far larger proportion of college students are taking at least one full online course than previously thought.

The analysis, performed first by ed-tech consultant and blogger Phil Hill, shows that based on 12-month reports — which the Department of Education’s integrated post-secondary education data system only recently began collecting for distance learning — 51.8 percent of students are taking at least one online course have occupied 2019-20. This number is much higher than the 37 percent reflected in the fall 2019 enrollment data that has been cited historically and on which most estimates of the prevalence of online learning have been based in the past.

While the 2019-20 academic year encompasses some of the early months of the pandemic, Hill and other experts noted that the Department of Education has instructed universities not to count classes that were emergency-shifted online during the pandemic in their survey reports.

The previous practice of counting only students in online courses enrolled at the time of IPEDS’ annual fall census underestimates the true number of distance learning learners, Hill said. He pointed out that distance learners tend to prefer multiple starts in the academic year and are less likely to be counted if there is only one point in a calendar year when they are recorded. The 12-month enrollment counts are non-duplicated, meaning they represent the total number of students enrolled during the year, but a student is only counted once even if they are enrolled in both the fall and spring.

“It just misses anyone who takes an online course in the fall, spring or summer semester,” Hill said of the fall enrollment data collection methodology. “Three of the four most important academic terms you don’t get at all.”

Hill said his new data analysis should not be seen through the lens of how the pandemic skewed previously available figures for 2019-20, but rather provide a broader view of the continued growth in online education that was already well underway before the pandemic was.

Experts lamented that the ministry had only just started including distance learning in its 12-month survey. Historical data to compare to Hill’s 2019-20 results simply doesn’t exist.

Jeff Seaman, the director of Bay View Analytics, a survey company with years of experience in the education sector, said the Department of Education did not collect data on distance learning prior to 2012, prompting Bay View to seek founding support and collect that data itself. Seaman called Hill’s analysis helpful, but said it’s not surprising that the actual number of distance learners is far higher than what was recorded in the annual IPEDS autumn enrollment survey, which is merely a “snapshot”.

Many in higher education have wondered how often students “hop in and out” of online courses, Seaman said, adding he was surprised to learn that the difference between fall enrollment numbers and 12-month enrollments wasn’t be bigger. The number of students enrolled in online-only programs increased from 3.5 million in fall enrollment data to 5.8 million in 12-month enrollment data, or 17.6 percent of all students to 22, 7 percent of them.

“One of the conclusions is that students who were enrolled in correspondence courses tend to be enrolled in those correspondence courses over several semesters, but not all, and that explains the difference between those two percentages,” Seaman said, pointing out that If a very different group of students had enrolled in the spring, the 12-month number would have been significantly higher than the fall number.

Ultimately, Seaman said it’s not surprising that the 12-month number is higher than the fall enrollment number.

“We all knew the number would be higher,” he said. “The really exciting thing here is… it’s about how consistent the students are in their enrollment pattern, [and] to which we had no answer before.”

Jennifer Mathes, CEO of the Online Learning Consortium, a nonprofit association focused on best practices for quality online learning, said the 12-month data is important to accreditors and others trying to ensure that online learning that delivers what students need to graduate successfully. She said her organization had long believed that federal data derived from annual fall enrollment data undercounted online students.

“We have to make sure that we please the students. So knowing what the numbers actually look like helps,” Mathes said. “More and more students want distance learning, so institutions must be willing to adapt.”

The new data will also be important for policymakers, said Russell Poulin, executive director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. He said that knowing how many students are enrolled in online courses will clearly help ensure better professional development for professors and more support services for students. But it’s also important to alert lawmakers and others to the true scope of distance learning, he said.

“It helps them see what the implications are and how institutions are going about providing better care for students taking online courses,” Poulin said. “I think it will be of great interest to the people who are creating these federal, state and institutional guidelines.”

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