Between 2003 and 2010, online education was exploding across the United States. In each of those years, the number of students attending at least one online class jumped by more than 10%, rocketing the number of students well into the millions.
However, around 2010 things began to slow down and in 2013, the most recent year data is available for, there was “no discernable growth” in online education.
Why this is happening is difficult to say. Jeff Seaman at the Babson Survey Research Group, which compiled the statistics, said that we may be reaching a natural equilibrium between students on campus and online. This is understandable because, according to the same study, some 30% of all college students are taking at least one class online.
But there are other barriers to the continued growth of online education. One of the biggest is the lack of acceptance from faculty, which has hovered around 25% approval since 2002 with little change. This means that, even as online education has dramatically grown in popularity, it hasn’t become more accepted, even with those teaching through it.
The lack of faculty acceptance comes from both the well-cited lower retention rates of online courses and the general perception that such online courses are a poor substitute for in-person classes.
The perception that it’s not as valuable as in-person education comes from a variety of sources, one of which is concerns over ethics and plagiarism. However, a study comparing the rates of plagiarism and online programs is not significantly higher than at bricks and mortar ones. However, the perception of rampant cheating remains strong both in the eyes of the faculty and the public.
That perception isn’t helped by stories like the one from Harvard this month, which saw the school sue some 20 “John Doe” defendants that it accuses of violating their copyright by distributing course material and guides related to their Harvard Business School’s online program, HBX.
While cheating and academic dishonesty are issues in both physical and online classrooms, the perception of it being a much larger issue in online classrooms has remained. This makes an online education seem less valuable to teachers, students and the public at large. That dissuades students from taking such courses unless they are the only viable alternative.
And that unduly limits the future of online education. While there are certainly benefits to physical classroom, there are many times where an online classroom is appropriate and even beneficial.
On that front, HBX and its Credential of Readiness (CORe) program are great examples of effective online education. Not only does the program have a completion rate of 85%, but also student evaluations in it are comparable to in-class ones given to MBA students, prompting an expansion of the program worldwide and a rapid increase in the number of students.
The only limitation is that the CORe program is not for credit and is intended for students not attending Harvard Business School.
Despite that, the program illustrates that there is a great deal of potential for online education but, before it becomes viable, schools are going to have to battle the stigmas, fair and unfair, that surround it.
This will mean taking a hard line on plagiarism and cheating and finding ways to ensure that the ethics of the course are upheld and improving retention in online courses. To that end, a lot of the same methods used in physical classes need to be applied to online courses including anti-plagiarism technology, plagiarism/collusion-resistant assignments and resources to help students who are struggling.
While there will always be some limits to online education, those limits should not prevent it from being a useful tool for universities and their students. However, online education is going to have to fight twice as hard to prove itself, making it even more important to get academic integrity right.