For 12 years, the Babson Survey Group in partnership with other organizations, including the Online Learning Consortium (formerly the Sloan Consortium), has done critical research into the growth of online learning in American higher education that it publishes in the report Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States. The research has been enormously helpful in understanding the actual numbers of students learning online in accredited institutions and how the institutions themselves—from the administration to faculty—view online learning.
Initially, the research arguably gave a reasonably complete view of the state of online learning in all of higher education, as it showed online learning growing rapidly with growth rates of over 20 percent in 2003, 2005, and 2009. But as of late, the research has suggested that the growth of online learning is flattening. It was 6.1 percent in the fall of 2012 and, according to the most recent report published in January 2015, 3.7 percent in the fall of 2013. Does this mean that online learning is not the disruptive innovation it was heralded to be?
I don’t think it does. As Clayton Christensen is fond of saying, God didn’t create data; humans create data to try to capture the complexity of the world around them. By its nature, data is backward looking, and most data is incapable of telling the truth. In this case, I think the flattening growth rate of online learning for credit within accredited institutions misses the bigger picture—although I do think it suggests that the pending disruption may take somewhat longer than many have forecasted in the past.