eLearning in Higher Education


The eLearning education sector employs eLearning for academic and education purposes:


  • K-12 is an education platform for the children from kindergarten to twelfth grade. It is a short form for the publicly-supported school grades prior to college. 

  • Higher education is provided through certain college-level institutions, including vocational schools, trade schools, and other career colleges that award academic degrees or professional certifications.

  • Vocational training consists of training courses that emphasizes skills and knowledge required for a particular job function such as typing or data entry.

Pre-COVID-19, the US eLearning market was projected to continue growing to $35.4 Billion by 2022 [1]. The eLearning market share for the education sector in the US is currently 69%. While K-12 students comprise about 75% of domestic students [2], they represent only a third of the eLearning market. 

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 USA eLearning market by sector [1]

Between 1990 and 2011, US college enrollment spiked by 54 percent [3]. This represented a rise in total student population from 12 million to 18.5 million. It also helped to drive massive hikes in tuition and a proliferation of new entrants in the marketplace.  Between 2011 and 2013, enrollment in America’s colleges declined by nearly one million students. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2019 marked the 8th consecutive year-to-year enrollment decline [4]. The reasons include inflated tuition costs and the necessity for loans to pay the high costs, as well as an economic shift resulting in a high unemployment rate for those who have an undergraduate degree [5].

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Total Enrollment in the U.S. by Segment  [3]

While overall US academic enrollment is declining, eLearning enrollment is increasing [6]. As of Fall 2016, there were 6,359,121 students taking at least one eLearning course, comprising 31.6% of all higher education enrollments. 

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Percentage of students taking eLearning courses 2012-2016 [6]

Considering employment as a goal for students, a significant shift in the perception of eLearning degrees and certificates is also evident [7]. In 2010, a national poll of corporate human resources leaders by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported that only 34% viewed an ‘online degree’ favorably [8]. Today — according to Northeastern University’s most recent national survey of HR leaders, 61% of HR leaders believe that credentials earned online are generally equal in quality to those completed in-person [9]. 71% of HR leaders reported that they have personally hired someone with a degree or credential completed online and many HR leaders have completed their own degrees online further pushing the trend upwards. 

Higher education has been the primary driving force in the development of eLearning practices and technology. While there is a significant presence of eLearning practices in K-12, COVID-19 has revealed a struggle for this segment to shift to eLearning exclusively, resulting in highly variable results [10].


The roots of higher education eLearning are in distant learning, a term still often used to describe eLearning. Using that term, however, implies that the primary reason for a student to enroll in an eLearning academic course is due to physical distance. In fact, by 2016 it became clear that the majority of students taking courses online also took at least one course physically on campus [6]. These students might take their “distance” courses while sitting in their dorm room or in a student center on campus. Data collected by the Babson Survey Research Group for the fall of 2007 showed that institutions reported 63% of their online students came from within 50 miles of their campus, and a full 87% were taking courses in the same state as the campus [11]. A more recent study found that “distant” education is becoming more localized over time: : the proportion of students taking exclusively distance courses who are located in the same state as the institution offering the courses has increased every year, growing from 50.3% in 2012 to 56.1% in 2016 [6].

The conclusion is that distance is in fact not the driving factor to enroll in an eLearning program. According to EducationData.org, the leading factor for choosing an eLearning course in 2018 was students’ existing commitments which did not allow for physical attendance on campus [12].
According to a 2019 national survey of college and university chief academic officers (CAOs), produced by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup, 83% planned to increase their emphasis on growing eLearning programs [13]. In addition, this survey also found that eLearning is a greater priority fo academic investment: 56% of CAOs agreed that they planned to “allocate major funds” to online programs in 2019 - up from 46% four years prior. It is important to remember that this data has been collected prior to COVID-19 which pushed these trends even higher.


And yet, a survey of 4,717 degree granting institutions conducted in the fall of 2016 found that eLearning students were not equally distributed among all institutions. Instead, almost half of distance education students are accounted for in just 5% of institutions [6]. The level of concentration is very different in the different sectors of higher education, being extreme among for-profit institutions and very mild for public institutions.

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Concentration of eLearning enrollment among the 1 and 5 percent of institutions [6]

The conclusion is that even prior to COVID-19, the high-education eLearning sector was destined for fierce competition. No doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has added urgency to this arms race as it exposed the inadequacies and under-preparedness of  many academic institutions in this fast growing front.

The most accurate pre-COVID-19 picture of the higher-Ed eLearning market can be obtained by the National Center for Education Statistics in a report for the fall of 2018 [14]:

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eLearning enrollment by level

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eLearning enrollment by institution type

In total, out of 19,645,918 students, 6,932,074 enrolled in any eLearning courses in the fall of 2018. Considering that by the fall of 2020, 90% of academic institutions report transitioning some or all of their classes online, it is predicted to create an unprecedented shift in the eLearning market, the results of which are still unknown.

A recent analysis of U.S. Department of Education data identified the top subject areas availably exclusively as eLearning programs. The top four alone account for more than 60% of all exclusively online programs offered by U.S. colleges [15]:

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Most common academic eLearning programs [15]

The proliferation of exclusive eLearning programs has brought to the center of the stage a question about the effectiveness of these programs and their quality. Educators have long known that the frontal lecture as an educational tool is the least effective teaching method [17]. Other passive and mainly auditory methods such as reading and listening have also been proven ineffective when compared to active and kinesthetic methods such as discussions and practice. Advanced eLearning methods must keep up to date with educational studies in order to be effective and maintain high quality when compared with traditional in-person education.

Perhaps due to the novelty of eLearning, its quality and effectiveness has not been empirically researched until recently [18]. Instead, a measure of student satisfaction, enrollment and retention has been used to significantly measure the effectiveness of eLearning programs.

One of the more recent authoritative reviews of the empirical literature on the quality of online learning outcomes was published in 2015 by Wu (2015) of research organization Ithaka S&R [19]. The review looked across twelve studies published since 2013, noting that the most rigorous studies found that students taking online or hybrid courses generally performed about as well as students in identical traditional, face-to-face courses. 

As to students engagement, satisfaction and motivation it was found that high levels of interaction between people typically need to be present for learners to have a positive attitude and greater satisfaction [20]. Aside from a sense of community, the existence of various types of multimedia and a motivated instructor’s guidance and interaction also contributed to the satisfaction of students from eLearning programs. According to a National Student Satisfaction and Priorities Report [21], which drew on a unique and significant sample of more than 125,000 online learners across 175 participating institutions, online learners report the highest rates of satisfaction with their educational experience (73%) — a pattern that has been consistent over a number of years of this national survey. 

  1. E-Learning Market in US by Product and End-user - Forecast and Analysis 2020-2024, technavio. https://www.technavio.com/report/e-learning-market-in-us-industry-analysis

  2. United States Census Bureau, National Center for Education Statistics.

  3. National Center for Educational Statistics. Available online: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cha.asp

  4. National Student Clingouse Research Center: Current Term Enrollment Estimates. Available online: https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/CurrentTermEnrollmentReport-Spring-2019.pdf

  5. Why are fewer people going to college? By Simone Pathe. PBS New Hour, Available online: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/why-are-fewer-people-going-to-college

  6. Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United States. Julia E. Seaman, I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman. Available online: http://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/highered.html

  7. Online Education in 2019, by Sean Gallagher, Ed.D. Available online: https://www.northeastern.edu/cfhets/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Online_Ed_in_2019.pdf

  8. Hiring Practices and Attitudes: Traditional vs. Online Degree Credentials SHRM Poll. Available online: https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/research-and-surveys/pages/hiringpracticesandattitudes.aspx

  9. Educational Credentials come of Age: A survey on the use and value of educational credentials in hiring. By Sean R. Gallagher, Ed.D.. Available online: https://www.northeastern.edu/cfhets/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Educational_Credentials_Come_of_Age_2018.pdf

  10. Education and Training Market Analysis: Immediate and Systemic Impact of COVID-19, May 2020 by William Blair & Company (Page 4)

  11. Allen, I. Elaine and Seaman, Jeff, Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, Babson Survey Research Group, 2008. Available online: https://onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/staying-the-course.pdf

  12. https://educationdata.org/online-education-statistics/

  13. Gallup, 2019 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Chief Academic Officers. Available online: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/survey/2019-inside-higher-ed-survey-chief-academic-officers

  14. Fast Cats: How many students take distance learning courses at the postsecondary level? Available online: https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=80

  15. Xu, D. & Xu, Y. (2019) The promises and limits of online higher education. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute. Available online: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/ea00/481b50b4db19939c634a8186f4dd34da6ddb.pdf?_ga=2.111469313.420176267.1596828934-1169435288.1596828934

  16. Pew Research Center: As schools close due to the coronavirus, some U.S. students face a digital ‘homework gap’: Available online: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/16/as-schools-close-due-to-the-coronavirus-some-u-s-students-face-a-digital-homework-gap/

  17. Education Corner: The Learning Pyramid. Available online: https://www.educationcorner.com/the-learning-pyramid.html

  18. Bailey, A., Vaduganathan, N., Henry, T., Laverdiere, R., & Pugliese, L. (2018). Making digital learning work: success strategies from six leading universities and community colleges. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University. 

  19. Wu, D.D. (2015). Online learning in postsecondary education: a review of the empirical literature (2013-2014). New York, NY: Ithaka S&R. Available online: https://sr.ithaka.org/wp-content/ uploads/2015/08/SR_Report_Online_ Learning_Postsecondary_Education_ Review_Wu_031115.pdf. 

  20. Desai, M., Hart, J., & Richards, T. (2009). E-learning: Paradigm shift in education. Educa- tion, 129(2), 327–334. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/E-Learning%3A-Paradigm-Shift-in-Education-Desai-Hart/72054fcc6e1f613b66a71d54f60b91fcd7777d56

  21. Ruffalo Noel Levitz’s (2018) National Student Satisfaction and Priorities Report. Available Online: http://learn.ruffalonl.com/rs/395-EOG-977/images/2018_National_Student_Satisfaction_Report_EM-031.pdf