Significant Trends in the Development of Online Education: A Review of the Literature




*Gail D. Caruth

Department of Educational Leadership

Texas A&M University-Commerce

Commerce, Texas USA




Donald L. Caruth, Ph.D.

Independent Management Consultant




*Corresponding Author

1876 Oak Bend Drive

Rockwall, Texas 75087



Online education is becoming an integral part of the American educational system. Currently there are institutions that offer strictly online courses and brick and mortar or traditional institutions also offer online courses. Online education appears to be well established in the higher educational scene. There are mixed views concerning the future developments of online education. Not all research points to a definitive understanding of how online education will unfold in the future. A review of the literature suggests that: (a) as indicated by enrollment figures, the number of students taking online courses is growing and continued growth can be expected in the future; (b) online education provides a student-centered approach to instruction that undoubtedly increases the popularity of online learning; (c) online learning, in general, is becoming more accepted by students and faculty; (d) currently blended learning—a hybrid form of online and face-to-face instruction—is viewed by some researchers as the best approach to online learning; and (e) online education is compelling traditional universities to adopt a business model strategy in order to compete effectively in the online arena. However it is measured, online education is here to stay.


            Online learning, a phenomenon that began in the mid 1990s, has spawned a number of educational institutions devoted solely to online degree programs. Traditional brick and mortar institutions have also expanded their offerings to include online education. The convenience of online learning has made it possible to reach a student population that was previously un-served. With this rapid growth in online education it seems prudent to examine how online education arrived at its current juncture so that preparations may be made for what is to come.

The purpose of this literature review is to identify significant trends in the development of online education. In order to accomplish this successfully the literature needs to be researched to identify the current trends to project where online education might be headed to more accurately anticipate the needs of the student body. This review of the literature is based on selected articles addressing the issues and trends in online instruction in higher education as found in academic journals and publications. According to Kim & Bonk (2006) studies have demonstrated mixed reviews of academic achievement between online education and traditional brick and mortar instruction. Other researchers have demonstrated how online instruction can be just as effective as face-to-face instruction. In some cases, online instruction has been demonstrated to be even more effective than face-to-face instruction. Students, moreover, have communicated both satisfaction and dissatisfaction with online course delivery. These mixed results become even more confused with the plethora of e-learning options available from which to choose.

            Before proceeding further some definitions of online and internet courses, face-to-face and traditional courses, and blended and hybrid courses are in order. Online and internet courses are defined as courses that deliver material entirely online and students interact with instructors entirely online. Face-to-face and traditional courses are courses that deliver material face-to-face and students interact with instructors face-to-face. Blended and hybrid courses are defined as courses that deliver material both face-to-face and online and students interact with instructors both online and face-to-face.


            Online education is a descendent of and has a shared history with correspondence learning. In 1873 Anna Eliot Ticknor, the daughter of a Harvard professor and recognized scholar, founded the Society to Encourage Studies at Home. Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, the co-founder and first president of Radcliffe College, referred to the society as the "silent university" (Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006, p. 573). Ticknor's society established one of America’s first correspondence schools, a distance learning option, for education and enrolled more than seven thousand women (Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006).

            Both forms of distance learning share similar concerns and issues. Some of these shared concerns include: (a) the lack of an overall quality education in comparison to the education provided onsite from a first-rate university, (b) the view that distance learning was dispensable in comparison to a university education, (c) the unrealistic expectations of distance learning resulted in a deficiency of incentives for faculty who felt the time-consuming realities and a shortage of sound financial support requiring the program to support itself, and (d) the quality of instruction that lacked "social interaction, prompt feedback, engaging activities, instructional flexibility, the dynamism of a knowledgeable scholar, and adaptation to the individual needs" (Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006, p. 580).

            The past provides an opportunity to move forward based on the lessons learned from the history of distance education. Some of those lessons include the following: (a) distance learning has not realized the upward path some might have suggested but some requirements for success have been such as adaptability, visionary leadership, commitment to service, internal and external political savvy, etc.; (b) a new and previously un-served student population can be reached; (c) quality of instruction can overcome other obstacles; (d) conflicts may arise between face-to-face faculty and distance learning faculty; and (e) quality of the program is in question when the business model becomes the overriding factor (Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006).


            Distance learning, since its early days, has changed the playing field for formal education according to Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt (2006). As evidence of what is happening, the federal government has considered revising requirements that students can take no more than 50% of their course load online in order to qualify for federal financial assistance. Harvard University has been considering reducing requirements for residency. Some universities, moreover, are requiring students to enroll in some online courses in pursuit of the "global scholar" (Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt, 2006, p. 570).

            Further changes in online education are evidenced by the following: (a) first-rate institutions are now providing online education, (b) rapid growth of public learning over the internet, (c) increase in scholarly writing concerning education and teaching via the internet, and (d) increase in marketing efforts that merchandise the benefits of online education. It can be observed that online education is becoming an integral part of everyday practice in higher education. Furthermore, there is continual growth and stability in online education observed in higher education today as viewed by Larreamendy-Joerns & Leinhardt (2006).

In a review of the research by Tallent-Runnels, Thomas, Lan, Cooper, Ahern, Shaw, and Liu in 2006, the researchers presented numbers to demonstrate that enrollment in online education is increasing 33% in the United States each year. In the 2000-2001 academic year there was an estimated 2,876,000 students in a variety of college level distant learning (online) courses. By 2002 the enrollment of only online classes was estimated at 2.3 million students from 200 institutions offering graduate degrees.

            According to the Sloan Consortium the growth rate in online education exceeds the overall growth rate in higher education. The results of their study indicated: (a) in the Fall of 2008 more than 4.6 million students enrolled in at least one online course which amounted to a 17% increase from the previous year, (b) the overall growth in higher education experienced a 1.2% increase during the same time period, and (c) more than 25% of students enrolled in higher education were taking at least one course online. Over 82% of the 4.6 million students were studying at the undergraduate level. Fourteen percent of those were taking graduate level courses however. These figures reflected the total student population in higher education (Allen & Seaman, 2010).

            Beqiri, Chase, & Bishka (2010) found that students who were graduates, married, residing off campus and male were more satisfied with online education. Therefore, the researchers suggested that online courses might be received better by graduate students than undergraduate students. Courses that attracted males rather than females might also be better received. They recommended that core courses or course prerequisites not be offered online because course familiarity seemed to play a role in student satisfaction with online courses. The researchers, however, suggested that elective courses can be offered effectively online. Finally, the researchers recommended universities and colleges use some blended delivery in the online approach. “I have found that by combining the two educational formats into a hybrid model, students are able to receive the best of both worlds” (Poirier, 2010).

            Higher education is moving from its traditional focus on the delivery of instruction. The new emphasis in learning is student-centered learning (Tallent-Runnels, et al., 2006). In a causal-comparative study completed by Alfred P. Rovai and Hope M. Jordan in 2004 at Regent University, the researchers attempted to show that blended learning is the natural outcome for a new emphasis in learning. This emphasis encourages critical thinking skills and is a combination format of distance education beyond the traditional online education that may not be suitable for all learning styles. This emphasis in learning also considers the role that a sense of community plays in the learning process. “By leveraging technology tools with the more traditional classroom structure, you are able to create a dynamic learning environment with faculty-student interaction as well as student-student interaction” (Piorier, 2010).

            According to Rovai and Jordan (2004) universities are focusing on student-centered learning rather than the previous faculty-centered, lecture-based approach. This results in a student service approach that ensures student learning. However, students tend to feel less satisfied with totally online approaches when compared to traditional face-to-face approaches and online courses tend to show a higher attrition rate. Students who experience a low sense of community are at risk of dropping out (Rovai & Jordan, 2004). “If you foster a connection, students will be more persistent over all . . . more and more I see students who want to be engaged” (McClure, 2007).

This trend toward blended learning provides the sense of community for students.  “Graham B. Spanier, president of The Pennsylvania University, referred to this convergence of online and traditional instruction as the single-greatest unrecognized trend in higher education today” (Rovai & Jordan, 2004, p. 11). According to the authors, this provides adult learners flexibility and convenience in a hybrid of traditional face-to-face with online components. Most importantly, blended learning provides more of a sense of community for students than either the traditional face-to-face or online approaches (Rovai & Jordan, 2004).

In a study by Castle and McGuire (2010) the researchers found that the data shows a trend suggesting that both undergraduate and graduate students preferred onsite learning to either online or blended learning. It is interesting to note that undergraduates preferred blended learning to online learning while graduates preferred online learning to blended learning. Furthermore, the research showed that while students preferred onsite education they scored online learning high when supplemented with synchronous technological opportunities and scored online learning high when supplemented with onsite learning opportunities. For example, independent studies that meet in the classroom and use online tools or online courses that use “synchronous technologies” (Castle and McGuire, 2010, p. 37).

In a study of learner autonomy as a predictor of online course success by Yen and Liu (2009), the researchers found that students taking online courses for the first time experienced high anxiety. The researchers suggested that the online course approach can be stressful for students and they should, therefore, receive guidance for course success, “one way to foster engagement is by minimizing issues students might have with technology, the admissions process, and access to materials” (McClure, 2007). Universities and colleges should be prepared to “provide guidance in time and stress management, note taking, reading and writing guides, test anxieties, health and wellness, and other self directed learning techniques” (Yen and Liu, 2009, p. 358).

            Instructors and students may initially feel outside of their comfort zones with technology associated with online education. It takes upfront patience, time, and training to get acquainted with courses and coursework. Furthermore, some students are uncomfortable expressing opinions in chats and in discussion board exercises. As perceived by faculty, web-based instruction has just as much potential as the face-to-face environment does for enriched interaction and collaborative learning. This online environment also has the potential for allowing students more opportunity for communication than a typical classroom setting (Lei and Gupta, 2010).

            There is no definition of quality for teaching online to guide the development and delivery of online courses for faculty to use as a guide. Students did, however, in a study by Young (2006) provide a definition for effective online instruction. According to Young, the definition included a combination of seven items. These combined elements should enhance the online experience between students, instructor, and course content. These items are as follows: “adapting to student needs, providing meaningful examples, motivating students to do their best, facilitating the course effectively, delivering a valuable course, communicating effectively, and showing concern for student learning” (Young, 2006, p. 73).

Faculty, as online instructors, are the content experts now working with technology experts to produce courseware for delivery to the students (Kim and Bonk, 2006). Faculty may also assume the role of mentor to other faculty members learning to teach online (Mitchell, 2009). Online learning technologies are experiencing a "perfect e-storm” (Kim & Bonk, 2006, p. 22). Adding to this challenge for faculty is the demand from bored students continually wanting more and more advanced technology. This type of course development requires additional time on the part of the instructor to keep up. In addition, instructors need to be online a minimum of five days a week in order to provide timely feedback to students. This evokes a feeling of "non-stop teaching" (Mitchell, 2009, p. 16) for faculty teaching online (Pastore & Carr-Chellman, 2009). In fact, one teacher stated that "my students never go away" (Mitchell, 2009, p. 16).

            The evolution of online courses and teaching online requires that faculty think and feel differently about the classroom and the learning environment. This change in thinking does not need not to be viewed negatively. There is some reluctance, on the part of faculty, to move from behind the lectern to the virtual classroom. As the role of online instruction in higher education develops, instructors are assuming multiple responsibilities as teacher, learner, and technical support person. Faculty should not feel alone in this evolution. Administration must also get behind this and support faculty (Fish & Wickersham, 2009).

            At a minimum, faculty need initial and ongoing training in technology to teach online courses effectively. Training faculty can be costly whether universities invite online technology experts on campus or they send selected faculty to offsite training (Lei & Gupta, 2010). According to the Sloan Consortium, there is no single approach to training but most universities provide mentoring and training options for faculty teaching online. Specifically, 65% provide training courses and 59% provide informal mentoring options (Allen & Seaman, 2010).

            The size of online classes is a concern. Class size is generally determined by individual universities. Over 20 states in the United States have policies limiting the number of students per class. On the one hand, some universities advocate large size classes to encourage collaborative learning that produces the most positive learning outcomes. On the other hand, other universities maintain that the best instructor to student interaction is reached through smaller classes (Orellana, 2006).

            Early approaches to distance learning did not require different thought processes toward teaching from previous lecture driven instruction. Online education is a new form of distance-learning that focuses on collaborative discussions between students and teachers. Those instructors teaching online, according to Mitchell (2009), felt that because of their online experiences they interacted more effectively with students in face-to-face classes than before. Additionally, teachers now view students as more autonomous and more self-driven.


            Mitchell (2009) conducted a case study on a large, suburban community college to determine if and how faculty and administrators’ perceptions of the college changed due to online education. The research demonstrated that organizational perceptions changed as a result of the structural and procedural changes produced by online instruction. This perceptual change was a result of the structural changes. Administrators need to address the issues of how faculty are dealing with the long-term effects of the changes brought on by online education.

            Chief Academic Officers have reported a decrease in faculty acceptance of online courses in the past year. Until the past year's drop of 3% there was an increase of almost 6% each year (Allen & Seaman, 2010). As previously stated, online teaching requires time and commitment from faculty. It has become an expected part of the teaching load and as a result “we should be concerned about faculty burnout” (Bolliger & Wasilik, 2007). Faculty satisfaction needs to be monitored for the success of online education.

Mitchell (2009) maintains that there has been some question about the quality of teaching by online educators. According to the Sloan Consortium (2010), 58% of the universities with no online offerings perceived online education to be inferior to face-to-face instruction. It is interesting to note that only 14% of the universities teaching online rate online instruction as inferior (Allen & Seaman, 2010). This might suggest that as more universities offer online courses the percentage of universities perceiving online education as inferior will decrease.

            Administrators are beginning to view the changes from online education as holding out possibilities of offering more college services to a broader range of students than ever before. "This is how the student body has changed. It went from single moms who just couldn't get out of the house to anybody" (Mitchell, 2009, p. 11). Even with course offerings aimed at a broader range of students administrators are finding that the students are a mix. Students, according to administrators, are viewing online as another venue available to them and are enrolling in online courses as a convenience factor rather than as a need. As a result, institutions with online longevity and variety of offerings are viewing the retention of online students as more of a problem then the retention of students in traditional face-to-face classroom settings (Allen & Seaman, 2010).  

            Faculty and administrators perceive changes in the type of students being taught online in the community. Students are now being taught who were home-bound or were working parents with families and unable to attend college classes. Online students are beginning to resemble the more traditional students such as males and students in four-year institutions. This change was viewed as evidence that online courses have "caught on" (Mitchell, 2009, p. 11) and have become a more acceptable form of instruction then was previously thought. Chief Academic Officers view online education as here to stay (Allen & Seaman, 2010).

Li and Akin (2005) listed sixteen myths they found to be associated with online learning. As online education continues to develop the researchers caution against believing everything that is stated about online teaching. It is prudent to review the information regarding online instruction with an open mind. For example, one myth presented by Li and Akin (2005) included the claim that face-to-face courses can be copied to an online learning environment when in fact they countered this myth by stating that a strategy successful in a face-to-face setting will not guarantee the same success in an online setting. An instructor must consider, according to the researchers, e-pedagogy for designing meaningful and successful online courses. Instructors need to provide as many asynchronous tools as are available for effective learning and collaboration. The authors suggested encouraging students to share a webpage at the start of a class to encourage interaction and sense of community. This action would enhance the use of team assignments which may otherwise be difficult in online instruction.

In a study by Pastore & Carr-Chellman (2009) the researchers reported that 98% of 109 committee chairs stated they preferred traditional degrees over online degrees when hiring faculty. Furthermore, according to the researchers, online education is perceived as a “cash cow” or a “money-maker” but not adequate for developing thinkers or researchers.

In the same study, both faculty and students perceive online education to be just as effective as face-to-face education. In a survey of 128 online students, both graduates and undergraduates reported they felt they were able to save time, enjoy more flexibility, earn equal grades, and take more courses online. Surprisingly, the students reported they preferred face-to-face courses over online courses. The researchers concluded that the findings were not the reasons students selected online courses but were merely the reasons they liked online courses (Pastore & Carr-Chellman, 2009).


            It is projected that, even though the trends in enrollment in higher education have been on the rise, that the future will see a decline according to Hollenbeck, Zinkhan, & French (2005). This decline is due to the economic downturn and the rising cost of tuition. “The most recent annual College Board survey shows higher education rising 7.7 percent from the previous year” (Hollenbeck, Zinkhan, & French, 2005, p. 39) in tuition costs.

            In a study on motivation for resident students taking online courses, it was predicted that enrollment in online courses might decrease because of students being overwhelmed with technology and constant online exposure. Students are in front of the computer too much already and even though they are becoming more comfortable with technology they are at risk of becoming de-motivated (Pastore & Carr-Chellman, 2009).

According to Kim & Bonk (2006) there will be a growth of about 10-20% in online certification and recertification programs in the future. There will also be a rise in associate degrees offered online. The researchers also stated that monetary support and pedagogical competency would impact the future success of online offerings. This was followed by the need of faculty competency in technology for online success.

            Further projections made by Kim & Bonk (2006) indicated that blended learning will have more emphasis. The overall quality of online education will improve and 60% of the respondents believed online education will equal face-to-face instruction in 2006, 47% felt it would be superior and 39% felt it would be the same by the year 2013. Only 6% felt online education will be inferior to the traditional classroom. This is reflected in learning outcomes as 42% felt it would be superior and 39% felt the same by the year 2013.


            The purpose of this literature review was to identify significant trends in the development of online education. This review of the literature was intended to be exploratory in nature. Once trends were identified then areas of further research can be determined. It is recommended that further research be conducted on assessment of learning outcomes; i.e., that is compare assessments of learning outcomes of online classes with learning outcomes of face-to-face classes. Some additional areas of research in online learning include: selection of online faculty, training of online faculty, impact of class size in online learning, and determination of courses that can or cannot be taught effectively online.   



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Bolliger, D. U., & Wasilik, O. (2007). Factors influencing faculty satisfaction with online teaching and learning in higher education. Distance Education 30(1), 114.

Castle, S. R., & McGuire, C. J. (2010). An analysis of student self-assessment of online, blended, and face-to-face learning environments: Implications for sustainable education delivery. International Education Studies 3(3), 36-40. 

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About the Authors



Gail D. Caruth, MS, plans to complete her doctoral studies in Educational Leadership at Texas A&M University-Commerce in May, 2013. She is a former human resource manager and a Senior Professional in Human Resources. Her articles have appeared in a number of academic and professional journals.


Donald L. Caruth, Ph.D., is an Independent Management Consultant. He is a Senior Professional in Human Resources. His articles have appeared in numerous academic and professional journals.