Barriers to Adoption of Online Learning Systems in U.S. Higher Education

Published May 01, 2012

Lawrence S. Bacow, William G. Bowen, Kevin M. Guthrie, Kelly A. Lack, Matthew P. Long

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This Ithaka S+R report is a landscape review of important developments in online learning today. It is the first in a series that will provide leaders in higher education with lessons learned from existing online learning efforts to help accelerate productive use of these systems in the future. The goal of this research was to understand what benefits colleges and universities expect from online learning technologies, what barriers they face in implementing them, and how these technologies might be best shaped to serve different types of institutions.


Even though there are many “online courses” in existence today, the environment for systems that support interactive learning online (ILO)—those that are full-featured and used by teaching institutions to assist in the effective delivery of credit-bearing courses—is at a very early stage of development. Ithaka S+R worked with leaders, administrators, faculty members, and other key stakeholders to investigate the potential for the use of these delivery systems.


Two important findings came out of this work: 1. the need for open, shared data on student learning and performance that are created through ILO; 2. the need for investment in the creation of sustainable and customizable platforms for delivering interactive online learning instruction. We hope this report will help to stimulate discussion and planning among leaders on these important topics.


This study complements Ithaka S+R’s Online Learning in Public Universities research project, which is testing the effectiveness of interactive online learning systems, and builds on Ithaka S+R’s experience with open courseware initiatives such as those profiled in Unlocking the Gates.

Danielle S. Allen, UPS Foundation Professor, School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study

Barbara A. Bichelmeyer, Associate Vice President for University Academic Planning and Policy; Director, Office of Online Education; Professor of Instructional Systems Technology, Indiana University

Daniel Greenstein, Vice Provost for Academic Planning, Programs and Coordination, University of California

William E. Kirwan, Chancellor, University System of Maryland

Alexandra W. Logue, Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost, City University of New York

James McCarthy, President, Suffolk University; former Provost, Baruch College

Michael S. McPherson, President, Spencer Foundation; President Emeritus, Macalester College

R. Scott Ralls, President, North Carolina Community College System

Karen A. Stout, President, Montgomery County Community College

David Wilson, President, Morgan State University

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