A Different Perspective on Online Education

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There are very few things in the world that are irrefutable. Two plus two will always equal four; the sun will always rise in the east and set in the west; and even when they win, the Red Sox will cause us “agita!”

But it is rarely surprising to find research that seems to contradict or at least provide an alternative perspective about educational issues. There are multiple theories and applications and there are always varying opinions and interpretations.

A little over a month ago, I wrote a blog entitled, “The Value of an Online Degree” (September 8, 2013). Referencing highly reliable research, this study indicated extremely positive views towards online degrees … views comparable to perceptions of traditional degree programs. But a recent Gallup Poll provides a significantly different perspective.

Gallup recently polled two groups of 1000 adults asking them if they thought “online education was better” in a number of categories. The results were mixed at best.

In terms of overall quality, only 34% of respondents rated online programs as “excellent” or good” compared to 68% rating traditional four-year programs as “excellent” or “good.” Online programs only received highly favorable ratings in terms of the “wide range of options for curriculum” (72% say online better) and providing “good value for the money” (67% say online better).

However, respondents believe that online programs provide “less rigorous testing and grading,” less qualified instructors, and, in direct contrast with the previous study I reported, “less credence with employers compared with traditional, classroom-based education.”

As I reflect upon this data, I think the reader has to retain a clear perspective. These results are likely an accurate reflection of the general public. The 2000+ respondents in the two samples in Gallup’s study were picked in a way to insure randomness and conformity to national demographic trends. They were all 18 years old or older.

But they were not disproportionately college educated. We know that fewer than 30% of Americans earn a college degree. So what did these respondents know about online programs or traditional programs? Only 5% had any experience with online education in any form. So how were they sufficiently informed to assess?

Public perceptions tell us a great deal about how we communicate the value and quality of online education to the general public. The previous study focused on the assessment of employers and recruitment professionals, who may not have taken an online course or program, but have a database of candidates and employees who come to them with varied educational backgrounds.

From my experience, the best way to understand and appreciate online education is to try it. I have been amazed to see faculty and students wary of the comparability of online programs in terms of quality and personal attention go through a conversion experience once they teach or take a class.

There will always be traditional on-ground programs. But the reality is that online education is growing because of the demands of today’s and tomorrow’s students. There is still a lot of educating to do about online education, but it is worth it.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Friday, 18 April 2014