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Technical Brief: Demographics of Online Courses

Demographics of Online Courses

Technical Brief # 05

Please cite as:

UDI Online Project. (2010). Demographics of online courses (Technical Brief # 05). Storrs: University of Connecticut, Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability. http://www.udi.uconn.edu



The availability of online courses is drastically altering the landscape of higher education. Understanding the magnitude of this change is possible by analyzing the demographics concerning online courses in higher education. The Babson Survey Research Group and the Sloan Consortium annually survey chief academic officers at higher education institutions on a variety of issues and prepare reports detailing the results of these surveys. The latest online education report based on data from fall 2008 describes the role that online courses are playing in changing higher education (Allen & Seaman, 2010). This brief highlights some of the demographic information regarding online/blended courses from the 2010 report.


Facts and Figures

The increasing importance that online courses play in higher education is reflected in their growth. In the fall of 2002, 1.6 million students were taking at least one online course. By the fall of 2008, that number had grown to 4.6 million (Allen & Seaman, 2010). In just six years, three million more higher education students were enrolled in online classes, a figure underlying the fact that more higher education institutions are including online courses in their future plans. Most public institutions (74%) and large institutions (81%) stated that online courses are a part of their institution’s long-term strategic plans.

The explosive growth of student enrollment in online courses is also outpacing overall higher education enrollment. For example, from the fall of 2007 to the fall of 2008, the student population at postsecondary institutions grew 1.2%. The growth in student enrollment in online courses for the same year was 17%. In the fall of 2008, more than one in four students was taking at least one online course. It is important to note that most of this growth has occurred at the undergraduate level, as 82% of students taking online courses are undergraduates.

With so many more students taking online courses, the validity of these course experiences must be examined. Most chief academic officers report little difference in course outcomes when comparing online courses to traditional face-to-face courses. However, less than one-third of these officers believe that their faculty accepts the value and legitimacy of online education. This contradiction in the perception of the validity of online courses illustrates that care must be taken when developing plans to increase the availability of online courses. Chief academic officers do not perceive student retention in online courses as a major issue. According to the Allen and Seaman report, online students may not share the same characteristics as traditional higher education students, thus, instructors need to understand the challenges of distance learning when designing online learning experiences. The shift towards offering more online courses will continue to affect higher education institutions in ways that are not yet understood. The benefits (e.g., convenience for institutions, instructors, and students) and the challenges (e.g., student retention) need to be balanced to ensure that students’ outcomes of online courses are comparable with those in traditional face-to-face courses.


Works Cited

Allen, I. E. & Seaman, J. (2010). Learning on demand: Online education in the United States, 2009. Retrieved from Sloan Consortium, Babson Survey Research Group website: http://sloanconsortium.org/publications/survey/pdf/learningondemand.pdf