The Online Environment

Click the infographic to view the full PDF.Courtesy of Online Learning Consortium

Enrollments in distance education continue to grow while, overall, higher education enrollment is declining. Public institutions claim the largest portion of those distance students, with 72.7% of undergraduate-level and 38.7% of graduate-level distance students. (Keep in mind that the vast majority of U.S. higher education students attend public institutions). Because of this growing interest, many higher education administrators in a majority of colleges and universities consider online learning critical to their long-term enrollment strategy. [1]


Why Is It Important?

The online environment offers tremendous convenience and flexibilities to which learners can tailor their education and learning preferences, scheduling needs, and geographic constraints. In this way, the online environment has the potential to reach a more diverse student population and meet the needs of many more students than traditional in-person courses.

It is important to note that a 2015-2016 study (conducted by Noel-Levitz) of more than 118,000 students from 132 institutions found that 86% of students in four-year programs cited the reputation of the program as an enrollment factor. Therefore, “if the quality of online instruction, assignments, and faculty availability are issues, those could undermine the perception of the program and impede student completion” (p. 7). [2] This all means that it is critical to weigh the popularity and potential for learning in the online environment against the need to provide a quality educational experience.


Information to Consider

The ever-growing body of research finds that there is no significant difference between the effectiveness of face-to-face and online learning. [3] However, this might be because comparing the two modalities is very difficult due to variables of course design, student populations, and teaching effectiveness. The better questions are: What is perceived as quality online education? Are students satisfied with online learning? What do students say contributes to satisfaction and learning?

What is driving the increase of online education?

This table shows some of the key factors driving the increase in online education. Administrators, instructors, and students all have different perspectives and thus different reasons for pursuing online education.


Administrators Instructors Students
Enrollment growth; increased or additional revenue Improved access to course(s) for more students, especially for bottleneck courses in a degree program Greater access to education
Enhanced reputation Staying current with teaching trends and technologies Cost-savings (associated with some programs)
Streamlined curricula Improved and revitalized teaching Enhanced learning experience
Meeting demand;
staying competitive
Flexibility in teaching scheduling and modalities Opportunity to balance work/life/studies; convenience
Reduced classroom space shortages and increased scheduling options Greater interaction with students Reduced time-to-degree



Two Areas That Influence Quality Online Instruction

The research results shared above point to two areas that significantly influence quality online instruction:

  1. Online Course Design
  2. Online Teaching

This website features these two areas in order to provide strategies and resources to engage students in learning.


Where to Find Resources?


  1. Allen, I. E., Seaman, J., Poulin, R., & Straut, T. T. (2016). Online report card: Tracking online education in the United States (Rep.). Babson Survey Research Group. Retrieved from
  2. Ruffalo Noel Levitz (2016). 2015-16 national online learners satisfaction and priorities report. Cedar Rapids: Ruffalo Noel Levitz.
  3. No Significant Difference. Presented by WCET (2016, March 14. Retrieved from
  4. Seaman, J. (2009). Online Learning as a Strategic Asset. Volume II: The Paradox of Faculty Voices–Views and Experiences with Online Learning. Results of a National Faculty Survey, Part of the Online Education Benchmarking Study Conducted by the APLU-Sloan National Commission on Online Learning. Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
  5. Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. US Department of Education
  6. Noel-Levitz (2014). 2014-2015 national online learners priorities report. Coralville, IA.
  7. Shea, P., Swan, K., Fredericksen, E., and Pickett, A. (2001). Student satisfaction and reported learning in the SUNY learning network: Interaction and beyond – social presence in asynchronous learning networks. In Bourne, J., and Moore, J. (Eds.), Elements of Quality Online Education. (pp.145-56). Needham, MA: Sloan Center for Online Education. Retrieved from


  Want More?

The “The Online Environment” deep dive topic explores the nature of the online environment and raises important questions and considerations on how this medium is changing the landscape of higher education.

Topics covered include:

  • The Growth of Online Education
  • Factors that Increase Online Education
  • Understanding the Online Environment

Visit The Online Environment deep dive topic

Note: This course is available for FREE to all UW-Madison faculty and staff. When you click the link you will be prompted to sign in with your UW-Madison NetID and password. Then you will be taken to the topic homepage where you can learn more and complete activities.