On Opinions of Online Education:
by Christopher DiStasi
The face of higher education is changing rapidly, and Public Agenda is working hard to help education leaders, faculty, students, policymakers and employers better navigate these complex changes.
One of the biggest developments in higher ed is online education. While public opinion on online ed is becoming more positive and the sector is growing, our research and other organizations' show that serious questions and uncertainties remain.
As of late last year, almost half of adults (48 percent) say an online degree “provides a similar quality of education as compared to traditional colleges or universities,” according to researchers at Northeastern University. Just a year and a half earlier, less than a third of adults (29 percent) thought the educational value of online courses is equal to that of classroom learning, according to a Pew poll.
This shift comes in light of impressive growth in the percent of all Americans who have taken online courses for credit. In 2011, 16 percent of Americans had taken an online course for credit, up from 6 percent in 2001, according to Pew. Among just those Americans who have at least some college education, more than a quarter (26 percent) have taken online courses for credit—a number that rose 13 percentage points just between 2005 and 2011.
And Pew’s 2011 data confirms what we would suspect: that those who have taken an online course are more likely than those who have not (by 12 points) to say its educational value is equal to that of a classroom class. Furthermore, most chief academic officers agree; more than three quarters say the learning outcomes of online instruction are the same or better than face-to-face instruction, according to a 2012 survey.
But, on the question of quality, some important stakeholders, including higher education faculty and employers, may remain unconvinced. Nearly 60 percent of faculty said they felt "more fear than excitement" about the growth of online education in a 2012 survey.
And employers tend to favor candidates who obtain their degrees in a traditional face-to-face setting over ones who completed a degree online, notes Nikolaos Linardopoulos at Rutgers University in a recent review of literature on the topic. However, employers ultimately consider the format of an applicant’s instruction—whether online or in-person—secondary to factors like the reputation of the institution from which the degree came, according to the author.
Options for Online Education—and Their Tradeoffs
Today, a growing number and variety of institutions are embracing online ed. The sector’s most striking growth is among what have traditionally been its largest players: for-profit schools, such as DeVry and University of Phoenix. In 2011, seven in 10 for-profit schools offered online degrees, according to Pew. Increasingly, traditional public and private colleges are offering online courses and programs as well.
One of the most interesting new players in online ed are MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs have drawn huge numbers of students to high profile course content from recognized and often prestigious institutions, but usually they do not offer academic credit. Thus, the future of MOOCs in higher ed is still unclear. The largest portion of administrators at academic institutions (45 percent) are unsure whether MOOCs will be accepted in the workplace—though most of those remaining (36 percent) believe they would — according to the Babson Survey Research Group.
Nonprofit institutions, from public community colleges to elite private universities, may have the most potential to sway skeptics on the value of online education, and many of these schools have begun to make their mark in the sector. Two thirds of four-year public institutions now offer online degrees, along with about half of two-year schools and private four-year schools, according to Pew. But the entry of reputable institutions into online ed does not automatically allay serious concerns. Low-performing students are significantly more likely to fail or give up when they take their courses online, some recent studies show. Schools must establish standards for evaluating the quality of online versus classroom instruction and address whether online ed is appropriate for all students.
What Public Agenda Has Heard from Students and Employers
Public Agenda’s researchers have seen uncertainty about online ed among both students and employers firsthand in focus groups across the country. Prospective college students are actively weighing whether in-person or online education is best for their goals and preferences or not. “I went at my own pace,” one woman told us. “I didn’t have to leave my house. I didn’t have to deal with anyone else. I just went and did what I had to do and got it done.” But skeptics often fear that such convenience comes at too steep a price; “A lot of employers have said that they don’t even look at people that have done online courses,” one man declared.
Employers with whom we spoke also expressed uncertainty about online degrees, but they seemed far more charitable than researchers like Linardopoulos might suggest. Hiring managers were grappling with concerns about academic honesty and hands-on experience, but they also recognized a clear and credible reason for online ed: it allows students to attend school no matter where they live and what their schedule. Many who spoke positively of online education did so from personal experience. Though, we too found that, for these employers, the reputation of the institution issuing a degree matters more than whether that degree was earned online.
As online education becomes more common, institutional reputations may ultimately shape public, student and employer opinions of online degrees. But a trend is clear: more students are enrolling in online courses for credit, and more schools are offering online-only degrees. As people see more friends and family members enrolling in such programs, familiarity may lead to favor. And as employers see more qualified applicants walking in the door with online degrees, necessity may outweigh apprehension.