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Examining US Online Higher Education (Alessandra, Azucena and Abigail)

Page history last edited by Azucena Castellanos 7 years, 2 months ago

Examining US Online Higher Education


by Alessandra Brotherton-Ratcliffe (9409632), Azucena Castellanos (9327697) and Abigail Truebig (8867284)




According to The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2013-2014, seven out of the top ten best universities in the world are in the United States. In the 2012-2013 school year, more than 800,000 international students attended American universities. Given the reputation and influence of its educational system, we decided to examine the current U.S. Higher Education landscape, specifically its online education trends.


A significant factor of our analysis was the range of information available in the form of papers, articles and reports. Our objective is to look at past and current trends, challenges and developments, to help us understand US Higher Education.  


For this analysis we will use the terms e-learning and online learning to refer to all forms of electronically supported instruction (Bell et al., 2013, p.167). Although we do not intend to discuss the various terminologies, it is important to note that in the literature there are inconsistent definitions of distance education and distance learning, and the terms are often interchanged (Moore et al., 2010, p.129). The distance learning environment has changed from the early days of distance education through the postal system, when interaction between teacher and students was limited, to the possibilities brought by the Internet. Distance education and distance learning may not be clearly associated with today’s distance learning environment, and terms such as e-learning and online learning seem to be more recognizable (Moore et al., 2010, pp.129-130).


In a recent interview, the University of California president, Janet Napolitano, called the development of online courses "a tool for the toolbox". For higher education, she said, "It's not a silver bullet, the way it was originally portrayed to be. It's a lot harder than it looks, and by the way if you do it right it doesn't save all that much money, because you still have to have an opportunity for students to interact with either a teaching assistant or an assistant professor or a professor at some level.”(Daly, 2014). Do her comments reflect the reality of online learning in the United States?


US Higher Education and Online Learning


College education in the United States has always been part of the “American Dream” but in the post Second War II era, young Americans did not naturally pursue further education after graduating from high school, as most jobs did not require high degrees of specialisation. Factory work was abundant and provided the average family with the means to support themselves. Access to higher education was radically unequal, whether measured by family income or by racial and ethnic background (Baum et al., 2013, p.19). Initiatives such as the G.I. Bill in 1944 provided benefits to war veterans, including access to Higher Education, and the launch of the Sputnik in 1957 sparked a major shift in federal policy toward education. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965 fostered continued growth in college attendance in the 1960s, and by the end of the decade more than half of all high school graduates were accepted into college (Palmer et al., 2004, pp. 13-15, Baum et al., 2013, p.18).


According to the New Times, college enrollment fell 2 percent in 2012-13, affecting mainly colleges that do not rank among the wealthiest or most prestigious, and that are heavily dependent on tuition revenue. Online enrollments also slowed 6.1% in 2012.


Figure 1: The state of online learning in higher education


Allen, I.E. and Seaman, J. (2013b)


Back in 1989, Barker et al. noted that “state sponsored education reforms, reduced state fiscal revenues, impending teacher shortages, and advances in telecommunications technology have spawned great interest in distance education as an alternative delivery methodology in the United States”(p.45). We now observe some similar trends that continue to generate interest, such as declining public funding, changing demographics, changing of perceived value of degrees, advancing technology, and a competitive job market.


Public funding remains an issue and many institutions turn to developing online programs to increase their revenue. As noted by Bell and Federman(2013, p.166), “the primary reasons for the growth of e-learning in the nation’s colleges and universities include the desire of those institutions to generate new revenue streams, improve access, and offer students greater scheduling flexibility”. Indeed, students are looking for courses that meet their schedules and circumstances (Howell et al., 2003, p.2). Bell and Federman (2013, p. 165), cite that “there are a variety of reasons for the growth of e-learning in postsecondary institutions, including a need to generate new revenue streams, expand access, offer students greater scheduling flexibility and the freedom to work at their own pace, and curb increasing costs”.


Today college enrollment is the natural course that students follow after graduating from high school, and earning a degree is still perceived as “a ticket to economic security” (Barrow et al., 2013, p.3). The percentage of adult, female and minority learners is increasing (Census 2012), and if enrollment follows population projections, higher education can expect this trend to continue (Howell et al., 2003, p.4). Competitive jobs markets also mean that even those with established careers are now seeking to further their education through courses that allow them to balance work, personal life and school.


As noted by Howell et al. (2003, p.10), “technology may continue to increase the options available for distributing distance education to more people in a scalable fashion”. The role of the Internet in the United States “as a principal information conduit and communications medium has grown rapidly” (Cleary et al., 2005, p.355). These trends may indicate why, according to Allen and Seaman (2013a, p.13), institutions with no online offerings represent a small minority of higher education. Some believe that “online education is established, growing, and here to stay” (Mayadas et al., 2009, p.85). However, Lloyd et al. (2012, p.1) argue that the number of faculty developing and teaching online courses does not match the growth in online education. Some question, especially those whose institutions do not offer online programs, how technological innovation may translate into providing educational effectiveness. As cited by Baum et al. (2013, p.34), “more needs to be known about both the educational value of instruction in these non-traditional modes and their costs”. There also seems to be resistance from faculty members and academic leaders in supporting the development of online programs, and some may have negative perceptions regarding the learning outcomes in online education as shown below:


Figure 2:  How do academic leaders rate learning outcomes in online education?


Allen, I.E. and Seaman, J. (2013b)


According to a recent article in the University World News, the fact that distance learning data was officially included in the US Federal Government IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) is evidence that online higher education has “come of age” (Garret, 2014). Nevertheless, the same article states that only 20 institutions control around one third of the online education market in the country and concludes that most institutions are still struggling to survive in this competitive environment (ibid). It is then relevant to look into the main barriers that are preventing this learning mode from becoming more widely accepted by all the stakeholders involved in it.  


Challenges for the implementation of online learning


One of the major challenges in the implementation of online courses or programs is to enhance faculty buy-in. Instructors claim that teaching online demands more time and effort (Aldridge et al., 2013, p. 12), and they are reluctant to taking the additional training that the use of the new technologies requires (Table 1). This attitude seems to be encouraged by the lack of support they perceive from their institutions. For example, Fishman (2013, p. 3) reports “many faculty do not think they are appropriately compensated”, and the NMC Horizon Report (2014, p. 24) presents the “relative lack of rewards for teaching” as one of the challenges that hinder the adoption of higher education technologies.  Furthermore, the report openly declares that “we are far from seeing digital media literacy as a norm”. (ibid, p. 22)


Table 1: Barriers with online courses among faculty


Aldridge et al. (2013)


Lloyd et al. (2012, p.1) had already identified similar barriers to online education among faculty members: (1) interpersonal barriers; (2) institutional barriers; (3) training and technology barriers; and (4) cost/benefit analysis barriers. These barriers can be overcome, but they can also be used to make the case against online education within institutions. A critical assessment can help institutions’ management and faculty identify the advantages and challenges that come with the development of online programs. The three institutions reviewed by Britto et al. (2013) appear to be a good example of this.


Lone Star College System provided funding for some of the most experienced faculty to evaluate and redesign LSC’s online teaching certificate program. The product of that work was welcome by faculty and administrators alike and was approved for full implementation as of last January (Ibid, p. 4). The University of the District of Columbia created the Research Academy of Integrated Learning (RAIL) and the Committee for Online Learning (C4OL) in order to control the quality of their online offerings and facilitate the online teaching and learning process (ibid, pp. 5-6). Finally, Florida State University’s Office of Distance Learning has undertaken similar responsibilities including a focus on “showcasing the benefits of following standards.” (ibid, p. 10)


Another important challenge affects online learners. Low retention rates usually appear as a major concern and a barrier for some institutions to embrace online instruction (Figure 3).  On the one hand, there is a shared belief that it is more difficult for students to succeed in an online environment. Based on survey results, it can be said that the general consensus among Chief Academic Officers is that “Students need more discipline to succeed in online courses” (Allen & Seaman, 2013a, p. 29). However, online education has extended access to a new type of population, people who might not be as well-prepared as the students who are accepted into a brick-and-mortar school (Johnson et al., 2014, p. 30). This trend seems to make student success an almost unattainable goal.


Figure 3: Importance of discipline to succeed in online courses


Allen, E. and Seaman, J. (2013a)


On the other hand, there is a growing feeling that student engagement is crucial for learner success (Roby et al, 2013, pp. 29-30). Studies on student perception of online environments usually show the need for teacher presence and a sense of community during the course. Additional student support services are also deemed important. Accordingly, Sloan Consortium and Quality matters, leading organizations in providing guidance for quality education, have included these elements in their models (Britto et al., 2013; Fishman, 2013). The joint effort of these organizations and individual institutions like Arizona State University and Georgia State University, whose practices in this regard are considered promising (Fishman, 2013, pp. 5-6), is setting the basis for others to endeavor to meet “the needs of next generation students” (ibid, p. 1).


A third significant challenge has to do with the quality of learning outcomes in online modes of education, which can be linked to the perception that potential employers may have of degrees earned online. Figure 4 (Allen and Seaman, 2013a, p. 31), shows very little change in perception in a long period of time. Conversely, the infographic displayed in an article in EdTech Magazine (2013) could lift the spirit of those holding online degrees as long as they fulfill some significant criteria. According to this survey-informed article, the majority of employers and recruiting professionals are looking for a degree with regional accreditation and granted by a well-known brick-and-mortar university.  Clearly, this is another area that demands careful attention considering that a big number of programs are still disregarded.


Figure 4: CAOs’ Perception of the lack of acceptance of online education by potential employers


Allen, E. and Seaman, J. (2013a)


Bowen (2013) links the “lack of hard evidence of learning outcomes” partly to a lack of “rigorous evaluation”. He criticizes the “missionary spirit” of those who focus on delivering their programs without paying much attention to the assessment of outcomes and costs, and he states that “there is no excuse for not working now on plans for rigorous third-party evaluations.” (ibid)


The US Department of Education provided a list of the resources available for the creators and evaluators of online courses and programs according to the main area of concern: distance learning, evaluation methods and tools, and higher education (2008, pp. 59-61). Competency-based and assessment-based models have also proven effective strategies to overcome the deficiencies of the credit-based models that contribute to the low-level of quality sometimes associated with online learning (Johnson et al., 2014, pp. 32-33).


A last challenge that has to be considered as well is related to costs. There are opposite positions in this regard. On the one hand, Napolitano (Daly, 2014) claims that online learning is “no silver bullet”. On the other hand, Bowen (2013), another prestigious education administrator, believes “‘in the potential for online learning to help reduce costs without adversely affecting educational outcomes.”


Despite the differences in opinions,  it is important to highlight that there are institutions like Virginia Technology University, Arizona State University, and University of Texas at Arlington that have found the way to manage their costs more effectively (Fishman, 2013, pp. 2-3). The expanding accessibility to open source software and open educational resources facilitates the design of online courses at lower costs and widens the array of educational options available not only to institutions but to individual learners, too.


Educational developments, strategic planning and future trends


With the Ivy League universities dominating the educational experience within the USA, on-campus learning is still desirable for students undertaking a Higher Education degree. Developments within blended and distance learning are slowly pushing through the sector to varying success through the likes of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) changing educational taste buds. Unlike other western countries, US Higher Education is led by private, for profit institutions, with state operated institutions often considered lower quality and less prestigious. This provides a political dimension to the expectations of university degrees, but it has not been helped by negative press received for the likes of distance learning providers such as University of Phoenix who have over extended and under delivered.


The world has eagerly watched MOOCs, and in some countries emulated, to see what they would achieve. The Ivy League developed edX, led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard; while Stanford developed Coursera (arguably the most popular of the MOOCs) and Udacity.


For many HE professionals, MOOCs looked like another recruitment drive to give potential students a flavour of degrees from an institution. Many of these providers tout themselves as free, openly accessible courses for students across the world. In reality, a quick search on Google will reveal that they are for-profit. In a bold move, Georgia Tech recently announced it will provide an MSc in Computer Science that will cost $7000 for a 3 year course taken on Udacity (Lucas, 2013). Clearly, the outcome of MOOCs is a try-before-you-buy scenario for many institutions moving into  online learning; not what many may have hoped as an opportunity for free education across the world.


The particular issue is the backlash from faculty in the move towards online degree courses. Unlike the United Kingdom, which accepted distance learning quite early as an alternative education route (correspondence degrees via the Open University), America has been very slow to meet the changing demands from students. Institutions have an uphill battle in trying to persuade staff that the changes are good or necessary.


The most defining development is to look at the US school system and their adoption of services such as the Khan Academy (Armstrong, 2014). Unlike the proposed developments within MOOCs, the Khan Academy is non-profit and free of charge to use. Teachers are using this tool in an environment that is described as a flipped classroom. The teacher gets the student to do their work online and then come into class to work through any problems and probe the subject area. From a perceptive point of view, it seems that these Millennials will be met by an outdated Higher Education system when they graduate High School.


It is clear that this is on the agenda for many HE Institutions, therefore the push to the online world is never more greater than it is now. Millennials and Digital Immigrants both agree that the traditional lecture is losing its lustre, particularly when education is becoming more readily available and flexible for today’s students. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, has expressed his own distaste of the traditional lecture. He had to train himself through video tapes just to understand the course content to pass the course as he struggled to focus in class:


I was taking an advanced calculus class and my instructor was reputed to be a fabulous researcher, but he barely spoke English… I went to the campus tutoring centre and they had Betamax tapes of a professor who had won teaching awards. Basically I sat with those tapes and took class there… We're still not quite there. In university you're still likely to be in a large lecture hall with a very boring professor, and everyone knows it's not working very well.

(Coughlan, 2013)


Wikipedia is seeing its own renaissance with collectives of academics and students in America and globally taking initiative to authenticate data and references (Simonite, 2013; Garrison, 2014), which is a significant shift in the academic influence of Wikipedia since Wales and his partner Larry Sanger’s inception of an encyclopedia developed by experts.


One of the methods for online learning is being led by blended learning courses. Porter et al. (2014) highlight:


In 2002, the editor of The Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks predicted that approximately 80–90% of higher education courses would become blended in the future (Young, 2002). By 2004, scholars reported that 45.9% of U.S. undergraduate institutions already offered blended courses (Allen, Seaman,& Garrett, 2007). In 2011, scholars noted the “explosive growth of blended learning” and acknowledged BL’s potential to become the “new normal” in higher education (Norberg, Dziuban, & Moskal, 2011, pp. 207–208).


The courses are designed by campus lecturers and distance learning experts; which serve as a viable solution for both on-campus and distance students. Muirhead notes:


Cook et al. found that blended learning involved significant development of online instructional materials and improved the participation by instructors and students in online discussion forums. In this study, blended learning was defined in terms of reduced face-to- face time and classroom activities, which were substituted with online learning.

(Muirhead, 2005, p. 248)


There is a disparity between faculty academic staff and take up of online learning (Muirhead, 2005; Kolowich, 2013) versus the rapid rise of ICT literate school children across North America (Armstrong, 2014). There is fear amongst faculty staff as they envisage MOOCs enhancing prospects of their own redundancy packages (Kolowich, 2013). In contrast, some institutions are looking to incentivise staff to create blended learning courses, “Five universities offered formal incentives to first-time adopters. MSU, UMSL, and IUK provided course development stipends in amounts ranging from $1950 to $3000” (Porter et al., 2014). There is a clear issue with perceptions of distance learning and fear of advancements within the education sector.


Educause have highlighted the flipped classroom and gaming homework in the 2014 NMC Horizon Report, while MITs Technology Review is highlighting the movements in the field of mobile technology through Mobile Collaboration via the power of the cloud and virtual reality products, such as Oculus Rift (2014). Clearly the world is moving closer to technological integration; the need for Higher Education institutions to follow suit is the key to their own survival.




Today technology is evolving at a much faster pace; it has quickly become widespread and its impact may cause resistance and uncertainty. It is expected that the academic community will be inclined to question the changes brought by technology, as it rightly should. Concerns remain about the legitimacy and value of e-learning in postsecondary education  as online enrolment continues to grow. The debate about the effectiveness of e-learning has historically been cast in terms of how electronic delivery of instruction compares with other forms of delivery, particularly that of the traditional classroom, which remains the most common form of instruction in higher education.


The case against online education tends to dismiss the impact of technology, and the changes that can be observed in online learning today: a fundamental change is the level of interaction which has been made possible through human-machine, or even virtual interactions. Another important change is that instructional approaches are becoming “more learner-centered, non-linear, and self-directed” (Howell et al., 2003, p.7), and students work in more collaborative learning environments. Online education also plays an important role in the democratisation of education in terms of widening access, and empowering students to decide on the content of their own studies. There are still many changes that will gradually unfold, and with changes come additional challenges.


Online education is not necessarily suitable to all learners as the need for individual motivation can be overpowering for inexperienced learners who are not accustomed to self-governing their time. The shifting nature of instructor and student roles requires that instructors develop additional skills in order to moderate, direct and interact with online students.  Faculty may struggle to develop the knowledge, skills and techniques to engage their learners in an online environment; however some institutions and models have shown this could be overcome through teacher presence and a rigorous quality control of online qualifications.


Bell and Federman (2013, p.181) call for collaboration between academics and institutions “to address the challenges surrounding academic integrity in online environments, devise effective support systems for underprepared learners, evaluate the economic models that underlie e-learning, and understand how to deliver e-learning across geographic and cultural boundaries”. Distance learning research should then focus on delivery strategies that help solve the capacity constraints, economic concerns, and higher-education consumer needs outlined here.


Janet Napolitano’s remarks illustrate the perceptions and resistance to online education that remain in several institutions. Many may not agree with her views, but questioning how technology can serve educational aims is a valid concern. Technology per se is not a silver bullet, and online education should not only be driven by technology, but by educational aims. Laurillard (2012, p.4) stresses that “we cannot challenge the technology to serve the needs of education until we know what we want from it”. Given the current landscape of the US Higher Education, we have reasons to be optimistic. Laurillard (2012, p.12) reminds us that “the academy and the economy will always be sources of influence in the formal curriculum”, but we hope to see more balanced and realistic discussions that will have a positive impact in the future of online education.


In closing, we consider:


Does the death of distance mean the demise of education at a distance? Or, does our comfort with technologies and their pervasive abilities require a “rebranding” of distance education with the many new terms used to describe the new context of technology-enhanced, hybrid, distributed, just-in- time, Web-centric flexible learning where learner and learning resources/supports do not share a contiguous physical space?

(Muirhead, 2005, p. 240)







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