Study Shows Online Learning, Use of Digital Tools Increasing

A study released last weekend by the Pew Research Center evaluated different facets of online education in the present and future. For The Digital Revolution and Higher Education, researchers conducted two studies in early 2011. A phone survey was employed of a nationally representative sample of 2,142 adults 18 years and older, and an online survey conducted in conjunction with the Chronicle of Higher Education interviewed the presidents of 1,055 two-year and four-year private, public and for-profit colleges and universities.

According to the study, enrollment in online courses over the past 10 years has increased at a higher rate than higher education in general. Approximately 77% of colleges are now offering online classes, with public four-year universities offering more online options than private schools. Of respondents who graduated from college in the past 10 years, 46% said they have taken an online course. Of students who have taken an online course, 15% earned a degree entirely online.

It is notable that not every student is equally likely to take online courses, according to the survey. While 35% of black and Hispanic college graduates took courses online, only 21% of white students did the same. Students who attended college later in life, likely after gaining experience in the job market, are more likely to have taken an online course than those who enrolled in college directly after high school. In addition, some fields of study are also more likely than others to engage students in online learning. For example, students who majored in business are more likely to have taken online courses than those majoring in engineering, science, or liberal arts.

According to the survey, 91% of two-year colleges, 89% of four-year public colleges and universities, nearly 60% of private colleges and universities, and 71% of for-profit colleges offer online courses. Of those schools, 58% offer degree programs with coursework that can be completed entirely online. Nearly half of the schools that offer online courses as part of distance education also offer at least some online courses for students who attend college through traditional campus classroom learning. Half of the college presidents predicted that in 10 years, most students will take at least some courses online.

The digital age is also expanding its reach in the textbook market. More than 60% of college presidents predict that in the next decade, more than half of their undergraduate textbooks will be digital and offered either online, through a library’s digital reserves, or for purchase with an e-reader such as a Nook or Kindle.

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, William J. Pepicello, president of the for-profit University of Phoenix (which offers a variety of online courses and degrees), said it’s about time higher education catches up with the rest of the technologically-advanced world.

"Higher education lags behind the rest of society," Pepicello said. "While lots of things have changed in the rest of society in the past century, higher education has remained substantially the same … I don’t see how higher education can’t go in that direction."

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