The Digital Shift of Higher Education

July 26, 2016

Online education is able to connect more students across greater distances, so it is no surprise that the use of online education is rapidly growing. However, recent surveys have shown that this growth is slowing, and in some cases, reversing. Could this indicate a shift back toward face-to-face instruction?

Over the past 14 years, the Babson Survey Research Group has documented the enrollment of college students in online courses. It comes as no surprise that the research group reported an increase of college students enrolled in at least one online course.

In its published findings, the Babson Survey Research group found that enrollment in at least one online course has increased from 9.6% of total student enrollment (1,602,970 total) in 2002, to 32.0% of total student enrollment (6,714,792) in 2011.

That growth came to a sudden halt in 2012, a decade after the Babson Survey Research group began their study. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) stated that student enrollment in at least one online course suddenly decreased to 5,452,100 students in 2012. Additionally, the percentage of total student population enrolled in an online course shrank from 32.0% in 2011 to 25.8% in 2012. Why this sudden decline after a decade of growth?

After this decline in 2012, online education enrollment continued to grow, but at a much slower rate than what was seen in the previous decade. NCES reported in 2013, the percentage of total student enrollment in any online education course was 27.1% (5,522,194). Data for the 2014 school year shows an additional enrollment increase of 3.7% from the previous year. Online enrollment is once again, continuing to grow, but at a substantially slower rate. These findings prompt the question: why in recent years has the growth of enrollment in online education become so stagnant?

In response to this question, the Online Learning Consortium (OLS) prepared an article that outlined several factors to this shift in digital learning in higher education.

While the student enrollment in online education has increased, so has the concerns over student retention.

 In 2014, the belief that it is harder to retain students in online courses has grown to 44.6%. increase from 27.2% in 2004.

Faculty concerns with online education also affect its effectiveness in higher education. Although 70.8% of faculty believe that online education is critical to their institution’s long-term success, their overall acceptance of online education courses has continued to lag. In fact…

Only 28% of academic leaders say that their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online    education.”

While the growth of online education has be slow-going in recent years, it is widely accepted that online education is paramount to an institution’s success. Joel Hartman, Vice Provost and CIO of the University of Central Florida and the OLC Board president, agrees that:

[…] it is safe to say that online learning has become an established and increasingly important component of the American higher education landscape.

So despite the concerns over student retention and slowing of student enrollment, online education has proven to be an essential instructional method in higher educational institutions. A method that will continue to grow, even at a substantially slower rate.


Allen, I. E. & Seaman, J. (2013). Changing course: Ten years of tracking online education in the United

                States. Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC: Pearson.

U.S. Department of Education. (2014). Enrollment in distance education courses, by state: Fall 2012. National

Center for Education Statistics.

Blair, B. S. (2014). Babson study: Distance education enrollment growth continues, but at slowest rate

ever. Online Learning Consortium.         


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