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Interview with Dr. Jeff Seaman, Co-Director of the Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group

About Jeff Seaman, Ph.D.

Dr. Jeff Seaman is co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG), which conducts regional, national, and global research in the field of online education. The organization designs and analyzes major surveys evaluating how colleges use online technology like learning management systems and social media in the course of online courses and degree programs. Each year the BSRG collaborates with the Online Learning Consortium and other organizations to publish a report of that year’s findings. As co-author of this report, Dr. Seaman delivers valuable insight into online enrollment trends; college investment in online programs; faculty and administrator perceptions of online learning; and online student demographics.

Dr. Seaman has more than two decades of experience in the field of online educational technology. Before joining the BSRG, Dr. Seaman created and directed information technology efforts at the University of Pennsylvania and Lesley University, and served as a technology consultant to Harvard University, Tufts University, and Boston University, among others. He also taught at Cornell University, the University of Wisconsin, and the Wharton School. His non-academic resume includes consulting and advisory board positions for Apple, IBM, Microsoft, and other major technology vendors.

Interview Questions

[] As co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, you have been involved with major annual surveys that online learning trends. How and why did these get their start?

[Dr. Seaman] Our entire organization (Babson Survey Research Group) grew out of a single, apparently simple, question: “How many students are learning online?” In 2002, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation had been making a number of investments in the then-new field of online learning and wanted to better understand what impact they might be having, so they posed the question. It quickly became clear that no one knew the answer – and that no one was collecting the data to provide an answer. The foundation then generously supported our first survey of all higher education chief academic officers to address the issue. The rest, as they say, is history – we are now in our fourteenth year.

[] The BSRG also examines how online education colleges and universities. How has online learning changed the field?

[Dr. Seaman] From the very first survey it was clear that academic leaders believed that the most important aspect of online education was that it could expand access to education to many more potential students. There was, and still is, wide agreement that many individuals who desire an education are unable to attend traditional on-campus programs. Whether because of job constraints, family responsibilities, limited mobility, remote location, or any of number of other reasons, these potential students found regular class attendance on campus was not possible.

Online education has been tremendously successful in this respect. No one knows exactly how many additional students participated in higher education due to the availability of online offerings, but even the most conservative estimate puts this number in the millions. That is an amazing achievement.

[] Your reports show substantial growth in the number students taking at least one online course. Have you measured any changes in attitudes and practices over this period?

[Dr. Seaman] Back in 2002, online education was still a bit of an unknown for most higher education leaders, and most of them did not think that it had a place at their institution. Now the vast majority of colleges and universities consider online education an integral part of their offerings. For example, the proportion of academic leaders who agreed “online education is critical to the long-term strategy of my institution” increased from 48.8% in 2002 to 70.8% today.

Likewise, the view of the quality of online courses has shown a steady improvement over this time span. The proportion of leaders who thought that online courses were “at least as good as” face-to-face instruction increased from 57.2% in 2003 to 74.1% by 2014. Worries about quality of online offerings have not completely disappeared, but most academic leaders are no longer concerned.

[] What about the other side of the coin? Are there areas in which online education has not achieved its potential?

[Dr. Seaman] When online education first emerged on the national higher education scene there was both a great deal of excitement that it would lead to massive positive changes and considerable worry that it would act as a catalyst leading to the ruin of higher education. Neither of these happened. Some of the early ideas that fell by the wayside were:

Geography would no longer matter: The idea was that when anyone could take courses anywhere, local schools serving a defined geographic area would suffer. This would lead a consolidation in the number of institutions with a few “name” schools commanding the lion’s share of all enrollments. As it turns out, geography still does matter – the majority of all online students come from within 50 miles of the institution’s campus and the number of higher education institutions has not declined, but rather increased.

Online courses will be far cheaper than face-to-face instruction: The theory being that without the need for buildings and physical infrastructure institutions will be able to greatly reduce their overhead per course. Likewise, without the physical constraints of classroom sizes, enrollment in online courses can be far higher than in face-to-face courses, leading to much lower per-student costs. Today’s reality is that online courses, by and large, cost the same as an institution’s other offerings. Faculty and academic leaders discovered that it took more time and effort to develop an online course, and it also took more time and effort to teach one. Driven by such factors as student expectations for faculty interactions, institutions are more likely to keep their online class sizes smaller rather than larger than comparable face-to-face courses.

[] You mention some higher education professionals were wary of online learning. Who was concerned? Have their attitudes changed over time?

[Dr. Seaman] The group on campus with the greatest level of concern about online education has been, and continues to be, the teaching faculty. During a time span that saw explosive growth in both the number of institutions with online offerings and the number of students enrolled in online courses, the level of faculty concern remained unchanged.

In 2002, only 27.6% of chief academic officers agreed that the faculty at their school accepted the “value and legitimacy of online education.” By 2014, this number had shown virtually no change and remained at 28.0%.

[] Do you have a sense for why these instructors view online education negatively? How has the field expanded so quickly without broad faculty support?

[Dr. Seaman] The first thing to understand is that while a majority of faculty still hold a negative view towards online learning, many do not. Academic leaders have been able to recruit faculty from the positive or undecided groups in sufficient numbers to staff their programs (of have provided sufficient incentives to overcome faculty objections).

The reasons why faculty remain suspicious of online are many and varied. Most faculty members do not have any first-hand experience with online education – they have never created or taken any online courses. Our survey suggests that exposure to online education—as part of a development team, as part of a planning committee, developing a course, taking a course, or teaching a course—can act as a catalyst for a change of faculty opinion.

However, there exists an understanding that online education plays a necessary role in higher education, even among faculty with a negative view of it. When faculty are asked if they have ever recommended an online course for one of their students or advisees, a substantial portion of those who believe online to be inferior to face-to-face instruction report that they have. When pressed for why they have done this, faculty tend to cite the same access reasons that have driven the overall growth of the sector: “It was the only way they could fit the course into their schedule,” or, “She had to travel for work and this allowed her to continue her program.”

[] The BSRG has monitored the field of online education for many years. What about its future? Do you have any short- or long-term projections?

[Dr. Seaman] The short term is going to be more of the same. Online is now just one of a variety of ways in which higher education courses and programs are offered. The insane levels of growth we saw in the early years are over – but institutions are more committed to online instruction now than ever.

We will continue to see a spillover effect of online on the rest of the institution. The emergence of the “flipped classroom” as a national higher education trend is directly related to the experiences faculty and leaders have had with online instruction. Likewise, on-campus students will continue to augment their program with online courses, both for the scheduling flexibility it gives them and because many of them want the online experience.

The bigger question about the longer-term future revolves around the pressures that higher education institutions will face rather than technological advances for online instruction. If the current concern with employment outcomes continues, with increasing emphasis on job skills and less on formal degrees, then the potential for shorter courses more responsive to individual students’ needs might really take hold. Likewise, pressure to better control education costs can potentially drive the innovation that online instruction has, up until now, not really achieved.