Defending the Honor of Online Education

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At first glance, the poll numbers don’t look very good. I’m not referring to the latest review of any politician, I’m looking at a number of recent surveys from college students, faculty, employers, and the general public concerning the quality and credibility of online education.
Initial reports show that, at very least, online education still has a PR problem.

Main Threads:

  • Online ed is still unfamiliar – Most populations surveyed weren’t familiar with online learning (for example, only 5% had taken an online course). As a respondent’s familiarity with e-learning increased, so did the respondent’s likelihood to give a positive opinion.
  • Better branding is needed – The language used to compare online education to in-class programs is biased. The public Gallup poll, for example, compares a “traditional college degree” to an “online college program”. Online degrees are degrees, period.
    • Also, online is MORE than MOOCs! (I really want to shout this from the rooftops.)
  • Acceptance is on the rise – As I stated before, when respondents are asked if online is better, the same or worse (or wording along those lines), the majority of respondents picked “the same” rather than worse, meaning online higher education is being accepted as an equal substitute.

I’ll dig into each of the surveys below.

Public Perception

Some media outlets focused on the negative elements of the recent Gallup poll on public perceptions of online education. In fact, if you look at the full report, most of the respondents thought an “online college program” was capable of providing either “the same” or a “better” experience as a “traditional in-class” education in several areas: range of curriculum, value for the money, and instructional format most students could succeed in.

It is true that most people aren’t overwhelmingly convinced that online would be an overall better experience, but the public is starting to accept online higher education as an equivalent to the in-class experience in terms of delivery and value, which is an important step for online acceptance.

Online education was perceived as worse in terms of secure assessments, instruction/instructor quality and credibility in front of employers. Public Agenda’s survey seems to corroborate some of these perceptions.

Employers and Community College Students

A poll from Public Agenda taken in September examined perspectives from employers and from community college students in several states. The employer survey revealed some interesting, if a bit contradictory, attitudes toward e-learning.

For example, employers felt online courses required more discipline than “regular” in-class courses, however, many felt they were easier to pass (this perception was still nearly tied, 41% agreeing versus 39% thinking the difficulty was nearly the same). Many would also prefer hiring a candidate with a “traditional” degree, completed entirely in a classroom (56%), versus an online degree from a prestigious university (17%); only 21% of employers said it wouldn’t make a difference.

Of the community college students who were polled, about 46% percent take at least some classes online. Of the students that take classes online, 39% percent felt they were taking the right amount of online classes and 41% would take fewer courses online. However, what is missing from the report is why the students are taking classes online, and/or their respective level of preparation for online learning.

Faculty Attitudes Toward Online Learning

In partnership with Inside Higher Ed, Gallup also conducted a poll to examine faculty attitudes toward technology in education, focusing on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).

For the faculty survey, many of the concerns focused around faculty approval and oversight of MOOCs at their universities. Overall, 62% of faculty wanted to be able to approve the creation of MOOC programs. A majority also stated institutions shouldn’t offer MOOCs if they aren’t willing to give credit for the courses.

Also, the issue of familiarity influenced faculty opinions of the quality of online programs. Of faculty who had taught an online course, 54% agreed or strongly agreed that online programs at their home institutions could achieve learning outcomes “at least equivalent” to in-person programs. Only 26% of faculty who had never taught a course online made the same statement. In contrast, 61% percent of faculty who had never taught an online course felt online programs would not be able to attain the same learning outcomes as an in-person class.

“It is important to remember that these are still relatively early days for online learning” says Jeff Davidson, Saylor.org’s Strategic Initiatives Manager. “Open content will continue to proliferate and technology will advance to increase learning opportunities that will strengthen the perception of online learning’s value. And, as you can see right here on Saylor.org for example, there are some very good options available right now!”

What are your thoughts on these surveys?
Have you seen other online education polls that we should mention?
Let us know!

Photo Credit: Leshaines123 via photopin CC BY 2.0

2 thoughts on “Defending the Honor of Online Education

  1. October 26, 2013

    Paul Morris Reply

    Online education is MORE than MOOCs! It is also not terribly new, despite the current flurry of interest. Distance education has existed for at least a century in the form of correspondence courses and has been issuing fully accredited degrees for over forty years here in the UK through the efforts of the Open University (OU). Originally based entirely on written work sent by post, supported by late night TV programming, it has moved over to a largely online format over the last 10-15 years.

    My wife is currently studying her last course for a Masters in Psychology with the OU, three out of the last four courses were entirely online: study materials, assignments, tutorial support and even library access. The courses bear little resemblance to the slick MOOC presentations but are fully accredited and universally accepted.

  2. November 30, 2013

    Claudio Reply

    I think the problem is that many people think about online education as a secondary choice: you don’t have money or don’t have possibilities, you study online. In the past, in Italy or Spain in particular (I speak about something I know), distance programs were a poor choice. Nowadays everything changed and everybody has to understand that studying online is the same or even better than studying on traditional universities. I’ve studied in the “traditional way” and online, actually I’m in a Master in Online Marketing, and I’d like to achieve a BS/BA in Business Administration online. I’ll do the best to spread the idea that online education is really good and can prepare people to improve their lives. I hope that in the future many people will do the same.

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