More than 60 percent of professors at private colleges and universities plan on using online learning in their future curriculum, according to a new study by Babson College.

The eight-year study by the Babson Survey Research Group released these findings in a report called “Sloan Survey of Online Education,” which focused on identifying attitudes and implementation of online education (defined as any course that delivers at least 80 percent of the content online) at higher education institutions.

According to study results, those 60 percent of colleges and universities increasing their online learning sector reported that online learning is “critical” to their school’s long-term strategies.

These numbers took an upward turn over the past year for both private-sector colleges and universities and all other institutions, despite remaining constant for may years prior. And though private-sector colleges and universities have lagged behind public institutions in years past in the belief that online education was strategic, the gap between private and public universities has now closed, according to the study.

Still, “while private-sector colleges and universities may lag other types of higher education institutions in believing that online education is critical for their long-term strategies, they lead in acting on that belief,” Dr. Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, said in the study report.

For private-sector colleges and universities, acting upon that belief includes making more online courses available to their study body.

This sudden shift in attitude may have been influenced by current federal goals: as the federal government pushes their plan to have more college graduates across the nation, online programs play an essential role in the process.

“The study’s findings highlight the unique opportunities and challenges that higher education leaders are currently facing,” Pearson Learning Solutions CEO Don Kilburn said in a press release. “The continued growth of online learning, coupled with the federal goal of increasing the number of college graduates, underscores the need for innovative learning tools and strategies that will help all institutions implement successful, effective online programs.”

The study shows the perception of online learning has grown increasingly positive over the years, as techniques improve and become more mainstream with modern technology. In fact, according to the study, the majority of surveyed students and professors find online learning to be the same quality or superior to traditional college courses.

Economic downturn has also caused the public to look more fondly upon online higher education.

A bad economy can increase higher education enrollments across the board, according to the study, which revealed nearly 50 percent of private-sector colleges and universities report that the economic downturn has increased demand for face-to-face courses and programs.

Dr. Seaman equates these findings to lower rate of job openings or the higher job competition necessitating higher skill levels.

“Decreased availability of jobs encourages more people to seek education or because those currently employed seek to improve their chances for advancement by advancing their education,” Seaman said in the study report.

And the cost-effective nature of online learning is especially appealing during hard economic times, since economic downturn often results in more potential students requiring financial aid.

The study shows that 75 percent of private-sector colleges and universities report an increased demand for online courses and programs due to the economic downturn.

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