Pew: Public still skeptical about online learning

Faith Merino · August 29, 2011 · Short URL:

Only 29% of the public believes online classes are on par with traditional classes

This time last year, Bill Gates made the argument at the Techonomy conference that in five years, the highest quality education will be online.  Education, he insisted, needs to be less “place-based.”

Online education is a growing phenomenon, ranging from online institutions to less formal sites like Udemy, to education-based social networks like Grockit and Piazza, and so forth.  But many people still aren’t convinced that formal education on the Web is as effective as a classroom setting, according to a Pew study released Sunday evening, which found that only 29% of the public believes online classes offer the same value as an in-person class.

What’s really interesting is that college presidents across the U.S. disagree.  More than half (51%) say that online classes DO offer the same value as an in-person class.

To compare and contrast the views of the public against the views of college presidents, the Pew Research Center conducted two surveys.  One was a telephone survey of some 2,000 adults, while the other was done in association with the Chronicle of Higher Education and polled 1,055 college presidents across the country.

More than 75% of colleges and universities throughout the U.S. now offer online courses, with public institutions significantly more likely than private ones to offer online classes (89% and 60%, respectively).  Some 91% of two-year colleges offer online classes, with presidents of two-year colleges being the most likely to say that online classes are comparable to in-person classes.

The arguments for and against online learning are equally convincing: online classes allow students to be more self-reliant and proactive in their learning, while in-person classes teach students the critical skill of social discussion (debating a hot-button issue is so much easier online, where you can take your time to plan out your response and dodge the natural consequences of snarkiness.  Try calling someone a liberal/conservative hobgoblin in person.  Not so easy).

But 50% of college presidents say that ten years from now, the majority of their students will be taking classes online.  But the rise of the online classroom might not be that far off.  While only one-in-four (23%) college grads say they’ve taken an online class, that number doubles to 46% among those who have graduated in the last ten years.  And among those who say they’ve taken an online class, 15% have gotten their degree entirely online.

No one would argue the value of the Internet in education, but it has its drawbacks, too.  More than half (55%) of all college presidents surveyed say they’ve seen a rise in plagiarism, and of those, 89% say that computers and the Internet have played a major role in this increase.  Another 40% say the rate of plagiarism has stayed more or less the same.

Online classes are here to stay, but most educators would probably argue that the argument of whether they’re good or bad is a lot more complex than that.  Some classes are probably just as effective if taken online or offline—namely, those that are lecture-based.  But those that are based on group discussion and debate are probably more effective when taught in-person.  My conclusion: online learning is good, but not in exclusivity. 


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