Higher Education

Distance Education Continues to Increase Nationwide

By Cait Etherington
October 02, 2018

In an age of online education, eLearning, mLearning, and virtual education, most people no longer used the term “distance education.” After all, when most people think about term, what comes to mind is a bulky stack of photocopied articles arriving in the mail. Nevertheless, the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), in collaboration with Pearson and Tyton Partners, continue to measure the prevalence of distance education nationwide, and their 2018 study reveals that, whatever you call it, distance education continues to grow.

Defining Distance Education

The OLC study, Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States, defines the term as education that “uses one or more technologies to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor synchronously or asynchronously.” The study notes that many different technologies can be used for distance instruction, including the Internet; one-way and two-way transmissions through open broadcasts, closed circuit, cable, microwave, broadband lines, fiber optics, satellite or wireless communication devices; audio conferencing; and video cassette. According to the study, a distance course is any “in which the instructional content is delivered exclusively via distance education. Requirements for coming to campus for orientation, testing, or academic support services do not exclude a course from being classified as distance education.”

Highlights from the Grade Increase Report

Not surprisingly, Julia E. Seaman and the co-authors of Grade Increase–I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman–found that over the past year, education offered at a distance has increased nationwide.

To begin, as stated in their executive summary, enrollments in distance courses and programs increased for the fourteenth straight year. However, as Seaman and her colleagues note, over the past year, distance education enrollments have grown even faster than they have in recent years. As Seaman and her co-authors note, “Since 2012 distance growth has continued its steady increase in an environment that saw overall enrollments decline for four straight years.”

Despite over all growth, the authors of the report acknowledge, “Year-to-year changes in distance enrollments continue to be very uneven with different higher education sectors, with continued steady growth for public institutions, similar levels of growth (albeit on a much smaller base) for the private non-profit sector, and the continuation of the decline in total enrollments for the private for-profit sector for the fourth year in a row.” They also note that distance education enrollments tend to be concentrated at just a few institutions. “Almost half of distance education students are concentrated in just five percent of institutions, while the top 47 institutions (just 1.0% of the total) enroll 22.4% (1,421,703) of all distance students. This level of concentration is most extreme among the for-profit sector, where 85.6% of the distance students are enrolled at the top 5% of institutions.”

Other Key Findings and Surprises

As Seaman and her colleagues report in Grade Increase, “Higher education in the United States is often described as ‘the envy of the world,'” but this apparently doesn’t translate into higher numbers of international students pursuing online courses or degrees at U.S. institutions.

As reported in Grade Increase, “In Fall 2016, there were only 45,475 students located outside of the United States taking exclusively distance courses. This represents only 1.5% of students taking exclusively distance courses, and only 0.7% of all distance education students.” This is apparently an improvement over previous years when international enrollments held steady.  The study further reported that there are only seven higher education institutions in the United States that enroll one thousand or more foreign-based distance education students. Moreover, only one U.S. institution, Brigham Young University-Idaho, has more than 5,000 foreign students enrolled in distance education courses.