One of The Pew Research Center's most recent reports emerging from the Social & Demographic Trends Project is the "Digital Revolution and Higher Education Report," which is based on the analysis of data from two different surveys. One survey was a national telephone survey of 2,142 U.S. adults, while the other was an online survey of 1,055 college presidents across the spectrum of different types of higher education institutions. This report reveals the perceptions of those surveyed about the value of online learning compared to face-to-face classes. Overall, the report reveals that the opinion of university presidents and the general public is fairly pessimistic regarding the value of online education. However, it also makes some bold projections about the future prevalence of virtual learning which seem to contradict the opinions regarding the current value of distance education.
A Poor Perception of the Value of Online Learning
The early portion of the report offers an interesting insight into the public perception of online education, revealing that only 29% of the adults surveyed believe that online courses offer a comparable value to face-to-face classes. This is somewhat surprising given the relatively poor perception of higher education in general that the American public seems to have. If the overall perception of the value of a university education is so low, this even more pessimistic view of the comparative quality of the online offerings of higher education is troubling.
A trend that seems positive, however, is the perception of online education among university presidents. Of the college and university presidents surveyed, 51% said that they believe online courses offer a similar value to classes taken in person. But while that is considerably more positive, it is still not a resounding endorsement of the virtual education experience, especially when you consider that the same survey revealed that 75% of the presidents who responded preside over institutions that offer online courses.
Lack of Confidence in Online Learning
What does this lack of confidence mean for the 46% of recent college graduates who have taken at least one class online? In short, it leaves them in doubt about the value of their education and whether their degree will be meaningful to potential employers. However, we need to consider the limitations and potential biases of the individuals surveyed to help understand this trend. After all, university presidents are busy people and few have specific knowledge of the 3,000+ other colleges and universities in this country. As my alma mater's president Bill Durden told me during an interview about the prestige section of the U.S. News rankings, "Those are a lot of colleges. And it is very difficult for us to know in-depth, anything about the majority of those colleges. We know some general national trends, but we really don't know enough. . ." (Dickinson takes on U.S. News Ranking system, 2007).
Consider Durden's statement in light of the fact that online educational options are far more prevalent in two-year or community colleges (91%), and that the leaders of those institutions have a considerably higher opinion of their courses – in fact, according to the survey, 67% of presidents at two-year colleges believe that the quality of their online and face-to-face offerings is equal. Given that these executives are far more likely to have meaningful insights into their own institutions than outsiders, it is fair to grant more weight to their opinions. An additional issue contributing to the overall poor perception of online programs may be with the perceived quality of the institutions offering the online classes. There is a general perception that the overall quality of all classes at two-year colleges is not on par with that of other institutions of higher education, as this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Community Colleges Must Focus on Quality of Learning," indicated. This could make online offerings from community colleges suffer in reputation as well.
Another thing that could be feeding the negative perception of the institutions most likely to offer online programs is their selectivity. Selectivity is one of the most often considered variables in determining the quality of an educational institution, with more selective schools generally considered to be more rigorous and having a better overall reputation (College Rankings: Democratizing College Knowledge for Whom?). The following chart from the Pew report illustrates the prevalence of online classes at different types of institutions and includes data pertaining to selectivity of the institutions offering those classes:
There is a correlation here between the type of institution, their selectivity and whether they offer online options for their students. This data corresponds with the overall mission and philosophy of each type of institutions. Among college and university presidents whose institutional focus is on promoting intellectual growth, only 43% responded that online courses offered equal value. In contrast, among those who believed in a more vocational, skills-oriented approach, 59% believed that online education provides a comparable value to face-to-face classes. This indicates that there is a perception among college presidents that intellectually-focused content cannot be delivered online, but while an online, liberal-arts-type education is not currently common, it is not out of the realm of possibility.
Changes in Perception are on the Horizon
So is online education strictly a vocational track? While the view of higher education leaders seems to be that it currently is, some hope is offered by the data on the projection that within 10 years, an increased percentage of college students at all types of institutions will take some of their classes online:
This projection is unlikely to mean that all institutions of higher education will become vocational schools within the next ten years. Those colleges and universities which were most likely to report that their institutions focus on promoting intellectual growth are unlikely to radically alter an educational philosophy that has served them for centuries. The change, in all likelihood, means that we are at a watershed moment in educational history where the balance is shifting towards most schools needing to offer their content online in order to remain economically viable. As economic circumstances and public outcry for more affordable alternatives increase, universities will need to adapt to the public demand, particularly as the demographics of higher education continue to evolve.
The Changing Demographics of Higher Education and Value
The final reason for a positive reading of the value of online learning may lie in the changing demographics of higher education. The Pew Report data indicated that there is a significant disparity between minority participation (35%) in online learning and that of white students (21%). Further, there is a difference in the participation in online classes between those immediately entering the university after high school graduation (17%) and those returning to higher education later in life (36%). Perhaps the real conclusion that can be drawn from the data presented in the Pew Digital Revolution and Higher Education Report is that, in regards to higher education, value is relative to an individual's learning objectives, stage of life, and ethnic background. There is not enough information in this current report to unpack this issue further, but there is hope that future research can examine the relationship between a wider range of societal variables and the value of online learning. In general, while the report negatively portrayed the value of online learning, it leaves some room for hope that the value is greater than those interviewed believe, both now and in the future.