Distance Education’s Rate of Growth Doubles at Community College

Distance education is growing quickly at community colleges, according to the results of a study published by the Instructional Technology Council. For the 2008-9 academic year, enrollment in distance learning at community colleges grew 22 percent over the 2007-8 academic year,  up from a growth rate of 11 percent in the previous year.

The Instructional Technology Council, which is affiliated with the American Association of Community Colleges, conducted its annual survey by e-mail and received responses from 226 community colleges. The 22 percent growth from 2007-8 to 2008-9 is somewhat higher than the 17-percent growth that the Sloan Consortium noted for all distance education from fall 2007 to fall 2008 in a recent report. Overall enrollment in higher education grew less than 2 percent during that time.

Fred Lokken, associate dean for the Truckee Meadows Community College WebCollege and author of the technology-council report, said he thinks that one reason distance education has grown more quickly at community colleges than it has in general is because community colleges are more enthusiastic about it than universities are.

Most respondents cited the economic downturn as the main reason for growth in online enrollment, and other respondents said that the growth was typical or was a result of new enrollment efforts.  Community-college enrollment has increased in general with the downturn, and Mr. Lokken said that online courses are particularly appealing to people who are job hunting.

“They now see the online classes giving them the greatest flexibility, given the crises they’re facing their lives,” Mr. Lokken said. 

The survey also found that for administrators, the greatest challenge in distance learning was a lack of support staff needed for training and technical assistance. In regard to faculty, the administrators who responded to the survey said, workload issues were the biggest obstacle. For students, the institutions’ greatest challenge was preparing them to take classes online.

When distance education first became common about 10 years ago, completion rates for online courses were about 50 percent, but survey findings indicate  that they are now up to 72 percent. For face-to-face learning, completion rates are only a little higher, at 76 percent.

Mr. Lokken will present the survey findings on April 18 at the American Association of Community Colleges’ annual convention in Seattle.

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