Online learning has been part of higher education for almost 30 years now. Students studying either fully or partially online make up 31% of U.S. undergraduate enrollment (as of fall 2016), and 37% of graduate enrollment.

But what does “online learning” really mean? The term masks a range of styles and features.

We are pleased to announce the publication of CHLOE 2: A Deeper Dive, an annual survey of online learning leaders. Short for Changing Landscape of Online Education, CHLOE is produced by Eduventures and Quality Matters and is supported by iDesign and ExtensionEngine.

CHLOE 2: A Deeper Dive

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CHLOE 2: A Deeper Dive

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From enrollment and competition, to organization and leadership, to tuition and outcomes, CHLOE seeks to understand online learning policies, practices, and plans, and, ultimately, institutional impact.

Read on for a preview of CHLOE 2, and a discussion of some interesting differences among online programs.

Allow us to introduce you to CHLOE

One objective of CHLOE 2 is to break online learning into different pedagogic dimensions. It is not an easy task.

A basic distinction is synchronous versus asynchronous online learning (see Figure 1). As a reminder, synchronous learning means that students and faculty engage in class activities at the same time (e.g., a video conference), but do so at different times for asynchronous learning (e.g., threaded discussions).

In our CHLOE 2 sample, 82% of respondents said their online programs are wholly or mainly asynchronous. While it was exceptional for a school to say synchronous is the dominant model, 16% of the sample indicated a balance between the two.

Our Online Programs Tend To Be… (% of CHLOE respondents)

Figure 1.

The fact that 56% of schools describe their online programming as mainly rather than wholly asynchronous suggests that synchronous delivery plays a limited role in many programs. When asked why asynchronous or synchronous was dominant, online leaders on all sides cited student and faculty preference and perceived learning effectiveness.

CHLOE 2 then looked for associations between type of online learning and perceived student interaction and personalization—two commonly noted facets of effective learning. Interaction helps connect and engage distance students, exposes an individual student’s ideas to wider scrutiny, and encourages breadth of communication. Greater personalization is said to better tailor learning to the needs and preferences of individuals, boosting engagement and potentially reducing time and cost. Revived interest in competency-based learning and the emergence of adaptive learning software are cases in point.

Things like interaction and personalization are hard to measure directly at scale and are somewhat subjective. The CHLOE survey asked online leaders to offer their take on the relative interaction and personalization of their institution’s online programs. Subjective or not, the results are interesting.

CHLOE 2 respondents can be divided into four groups:

  1. Extensive interaction and personalization (13% of the sample)
  2. More interaction than personalization (45%)
  3. More personalization than interaction (4%)
  4. Limited interaction and personalization (37%)

(Schools reporting that fewer than half of online programs are characterized by lots of student interaction and personalization were placed in group four. Schools reporting more than 50% on one or both dimensions made up the other three groups.)

It is rare—just 13% of the sample—for an online learning leader to see extensive interaction and personalization in a majority of their online programs. Most often they reported more interaction and less personalization, or not much of either. More personalization than interaction is rarest of all (4%).

This spread suggests that there are significant differences, both real and perceived, of pedagogic intent and practice among fully online programs that appear similar on the surface. It would be a mistake to assume that more interaction alone is essential to student success, but it is notable that CHLOE respondent schools think about half of their fully online programs do not generate lots of student interaction.

In some cases, individualized learning pathways, maximizing assessment of prior learning, self-paced study, and customized activities and assessments may result in more limited student interaction. Lack of interaction may be viewed as pedagogically preferable, at least for certain students under certain circumstances. Individual faculty and teaching styles may influence relative interaction, for good or ill.

In general, asynchronous online programs tended to be associated with greater student interaction but limited personalization. It is impossible to separate perception and reality here, but it may be that fully asynchronous online programs work harder to stimulate student interaction to compensate for the absence of classroom contact. The fact that institutions with larger online student headcount also emerged with an above-average ratio of fully online programs with lots of student interaction may highlight the benefits of scale and experience in improving the quality of online learning.

Considerable personalization—less common among larger and more asynchronous institutions online—may be seen as in tension with operational efficiency. All students in an online class following the same curriculum and doing the same courses in order may place fewer demands on faculty and support staff than a personalized model.

I feel dizzy… I want to get off

Trying to see behind the mask of online learning is both illuminating and disorienting. Seemingly stable categories become blurred, and pedagogic detail, not delivery mode, is the dominant variable. CHLOE 2 includes further discussion on this and many other topics.

Of course, surveys have their limitations. Qualitative studies would add to our understanding of the “learning” part of online learning but Eduventures argues that it is in the interest of online leaders to find new ways to articulate or even quantify pedagogic particulars.

The third CHLOE survey—to launch this Spring—seeks to capture further dimensions and nuances of online learning at the institutional and sub-institutional level. We greatly appreciate those leaders who responded to the first and second CHLOE surveys, and encourage even greater participation in the third. To participate in the third CHLOE survey, contact Eduventures Research Senior Quantitative Analyst Mughees Khan.

The history of education is littered with examples of technology conflated with value. The technology—radio, television, video, internet—too often “becomes” the value rather than being seen as part of a more complicated equation of people, ideas, and tools. How a technology is used is the pertinent question, not whether it is used.

Articulating the how is the next frontier for online higher education.

Download CHLOE 2: A Deeper Dive Today!

The second edition of a joint initiative between Eduventures Research and Quality Matters,CHLOE 2: A Deeper Dive continues the ongoing effort to survey chief online officers at U.S. colleges and universities about online learning policies, practices, and plans. The 2018 edition covers many of the same topics as the inaugural report but employs follow-up questions to delve into more detail.

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