Americans Respect Quality of Online Education

By Staff

Online education got a boost this week after a survey by the polling group Gallup shows that most of the Americans polled feel that online college courses are at least as good as their brick-and-mortar equivalents. Inside Higher Ed reported that the poll’s results are an important step in lending greater validity to online education programs in the eyes of employers, educators and students’ peers. While this is an important boost, respect for online coursework is still not as high as it could be.

According to the poll, a majority of Americans believe online instruction is at least as good as classroom-based courses in terms of providing good value, a format most students can succeed in, and instruction tailored to each individual. But they question the rigor of testing and grading, and whether employers will view such degrees positively.

In a survey this month of more than 1,000 adults aged 18 and older, Gallup asked a series of questions about use and perceptions of fully online courses. Five percent of those surveyed said they were currently taking an online course (the survey did not differentiate between whether it was for formal education or training, or for personal edification), with 18- to 29-year-olds, at 8 percent, likelier than their older peers to say so.

Asked to rate online vs. face-to-face courses on seven factors, touching on the courses’ reach and quality, more Americans rated online courses as worse than as better than traditional courses on five, as seen in the table below. In this particular question, the survey defined online education as “classes conducted entirely or partially over the Internet,” and did not differentiate between courses taken for credit, personal enrichment, or professional development. But on all but one of the factors — “providing a degree that will be viewed positively by employers” — a majority of respondents rated online courses as the same or better.

Yet, when asked to rate the “quality of education” provided by four-year colleges and universities, community colleges, and “Internet-based college programs, in which the courses are conducted entirely online,” the latter category fared by far the worst, as seen in the table below. Unlike the earlier question, though, that one focused only on fully digital courses, which is not how most online education is frequently offered — in many cases by those very same traditional colleges and universities, and blended with traditional ground-based instruction.

The past year has been particularly big for online education because of the explosion of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Among the higher ed community, there is fairly broad-scale agreement that MOOCs and other technology-enabled education will be truly transformative in higher education only at the point that they give educators the tools to do two things: (1) expand access to the low-income students who are disproportionately excluded from today’s higher education system, and (2) provide instruction that is more targeted to an individual’s educational needs — a goal, several argued, that might ironically be achieved sooner precisely because technology enables education to be delivered to so many students at one time.

Even those who don’t think MOOCs will transform the face of higher education acknowledged the extent to which they had changed the conversation about online education in a fundamental way.

Because institutions such as Stanford University (through Coursera and Udacity, companies created by its professors) and MIT and Harvard University (through their own MOOC startup, edX) have thrown their prestige and influence behind online learning, “the best universities must be seen as bringing their education to people who don’t have access to it now, and I’m grateful for that shift in perception,” said Susan Cates, executive director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s MBA@UNC, an online program that is neither massive nor open. “Coursera deserves credit for paving the way for great universities to do things that are a little different.”

Andrew Ng, the Stanford engineering professor and a co-founder of Coursera, told Inside Higher Ed that he believed that the world’s best traditional universities will “for the foreseeable future” continue to be the top destination for the best students.