The online environment
This document is part of a larger collection of documents on online instruction from the Center for Teaching, Learning and Mentoring's Instructional Resources KnowledgeBase. See more online instruction documents from that collection.
Distance education enrollment continues to grow while, overall, higher education enrollment is declining. Public institutions claim the largest portion of those distance students, with 72.7% of undergraduate-level and 38.7% of graduate-level distance students. (Keep in mind that the vast majority of U.S. higher education students attend public institutions). Because of this growing interest, many higher education administrators in a majority of colleges and universities consider online learning critical to their long-term enrollment strategy. 
Why Is It Important?
The online environment offers tremendous convenience and flexibility to which learners can tailor their education and learning preferences, scheduling needs, and geographic constraints. In this way, the online environment has the potential to reach a more diverse student population and meet the needs of many more students than traditional in-person courses.
It is important to note that a 2015-2016 study (conducted by Noel-Levitz) of more than 118,000 students from 132 institutions found that 86% of students in four-year programs cited the program's reputation as an enrollment factor. Therefore, “if the quality of online instruction, assignments, and faculty availability are issues, those could undermine the perception of the program and impede student completion” (p. 7).  This all means that it is critical to weigh the popularity and potential for learning in the online environment against the need to provide a quality educational experience.
Information to Consider
The ever-growing body of research finds no significant difference between the effectiveness of face-to-face and online learning.  However, this might be because comparing the two modalities is very difficult due to variables of course design, student populations, and teaching effectiveness. The better questions are: What is perceived as quality online education? Are students satisfied with online learning? What do students say contributes to satisfaction and learning?
What is perceived as quality online education?
A 2009 study of 10,720 faculty from 69 public universities found that instructors who had not taught online assumed that online education was not as good as face-to-face instruction. Interestingly, once they had taught online, they realized that learning outcomes in an online course were “as good as or better than face-to-face instruction” (p. 29). 
One of the most powerful and influential investigations into the effectiveness of online learning was conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and published in 2010. This was a systematic review of research literature that investigated differences in student learning outcomes between online and face-to-face learning from 1996-2008. It yielded these key findings:
- Students in online or blended (i.e., partly online, partly face-to-face) courses performed better, on average, than students in the same face-to-face courses.
- These effects were greater when the online courses involved collaboration and instructor involvement than when the online students were engaged in an independent study. 
In addition, chief academic officers have been asked to report their personal perceptions about the relative quality of online education in a series of surveys conducted by the Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group. In 2015, 71.4% of those academic leaders rated learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face instruction, which is up from 57.2% in 2003. 
Are students satisfied with online learning?
From the student perspective, a 2014 National Online Learners Priorities Report (conducted by Noel-Levitz) investigated the satisfaction and priorities of students in online courses. The report surveyed more than 122,000 students from 117 institutions, from fall 2011 through spring 2014. Nearly 80,000 were undergraduate students (66%) and more than 36,000 (30%) were graduate-level students. The remaining 4% listed their class level as “other.”
Key findings from this report: 
- 73% were satisfied with their online learning experience.
- 74% would re-enroll in their current online program.
- Overall, satisfaction and re-enrollment numbers have held steady over the past three years.
- “However, there are still approximately one-quarter of the students who were not satisfied or would not re-enroll in their current program if they had to do their online learning experience all over again” (p. 2).
Therefore, it is important to find out what contributes to student satisfaction and what areas need to be addressed.
What contributes to satisfaction and learning?
The State University of New York has one of the largest ongoing studies of college-level student attitudes, with over 8,000 students surveyed over a five-year period. Variables that significantly correlated with high levels of satisfaction and perceived learning included: the quantity and quality of interactions with the instructor and classmates, prompt and constructive instructor feedback, and clear course expectations and assignment instructions. 
This is supported by the 2015-2016 Noel-Levitz study cited earlier. In that study, three items are consistently noted as challenges for online learners: quality of instruction, faculty responsiveness to student needs, and timely feedback from faculty. The study noted: “These items have been cited as national challenges for the last several years” (p. 7).
In addition, the Department of Education meta-analysis found that online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control over their interactions and prompting learner reflection. “The meta-analysis findings do not support simply putting an existing course online,” noted the Department of Education report authors, “but they do support redesigning instruction to incorporate additional learning opportunities online” (p. 51). 
These studies found that it is not the medium, but rather the efforts of the instructor, the time and thought invested in the pedagogy, and the intentional instructional design decisions that can make an online course more successful. Well-designed and well-taught online courses offer rich opportunities for interactive, collaborative, and reflective teaching and learning.
What is driving the increase in online education?
This table shows some of the key factors driving the increase in online education. Administrators, instructors, and students all have different perspectives and thus different reasons for pursuing online education.
|Enrollment growth; increased or additional revenue||Improved access to the course(s) for more students, especially for bottleneck courses in a degree program||Greater access to education|
|Enhanced reputation||Staying current with teaching trends and technologies||Cost savings (associated with some programs)|
|Streamlined curricula||Improved and revitalized teaching||Enhanced learning experience|
|Flexibility in teaching scheduling and modalities||Opportunity to balance work/life/studies; convenience|
|Reduced classroom space shortages and increased scheduling options||Greater interaction with students||Reduced time-to-degree|
- Allen, I. E., Seaman, J., Poulin, R., & Straut, T. T. (2016). Online report card: Tracking online education in the United States (Rep.). Babson Survey Research Group. Retrieved from http://onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/onlinereportcard.pdf
- Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2016). 2015-16 national online learners satisfaction and priorities report. Cedar Rapids: Ruffalo Noel Levitz.
- No Significant Difference. Presented by WCET (2016, March 14. Retrieved from https://detaresearch.org/research-support/no-significant-difference/
- Seaman, J. (2009). Online Learning as a Strategic Asset. Volume II: The Paradox of Faculty Voices–Views and Experiences with Online Learning. Results of a National Faculty Survey, Part of the Online Education Benchmarking Study Conducted by the APLU-Sloan National Commission on Online Learning. Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
- Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. US Department of Education
- Noel-Levitz (2014). 2015-2016 national online learners priorities report. Coralville, IA.
- Shea, P., Swan, K., Fredericksen, E., and Pickett, A. (2001). Student satisfaction and reported learning in the SUNY learning network: Interaction and beyond – social presence in asynchronous learning networks. In Bourne, J., and Moore, J. (Eds.), Elements of Quality Online Education. (pp.145-56). Needham, MA: Sloan Center for Online Education. Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1802/2784