When Cedrick Alexander was reviewing the courses he needed in order to complete his journalism degree at the University of Alabama, he found that some classes that fit his schedule were only offered online.
“If I would have had the option, I would have probably gone with in-class options,” says Alexander, who is in the process of finishing his degree. “The reason I took online courses was because they were the only ones available, [and] with time commitments, they worked for me.”
Alexander notes that there were some benefits to taking classes online, beyond the flexibility. “Online classes make you more accountable for your learning, instead of relying on guidance or instruction,” he says. “But I definitely appreciated the in-class experience more just because it allowed me to have more interaction with instructors and students.”
According to a recent report from Eduventures, a higher education research and consulting firm, which surveyed 1,500 U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 70, a majority of prospective students prefer the in-class experience compared to an online-only or majority-online course.
In fact, just 38 percent of respondents noted that they prefer online courses, which is up only 1 percent from 2006. But, whether it is due to the convenience of online courses or increased options for online classes, the report shows that while adults prefer in-class instruction, 28 percent of respondents are enrolled in an online course, up from 18 percent in 2006.
“The good news is that there is still a significant gap between preference and participation,” the report’s authors write. “The bad news is that the gap is shrinking, and cautions that unless online delivery develops a broader value proposition, long-term growth may prove elusive.”
The fact that adult preferences for online courses have remained relatively stagnant between 2006 and 2012 may be due to the lack of information people have regarding the technological advancements in education, notes Coursera cofounder and Stanford University professor Andrew Ng.
“For a long time, online education has had a mixed reputation,” Ng says. “A couple years ago, it was challenging to find high quality courses. Even today, many people do not know about the high quality offerings that are available to them.”
For Arizona State University graduate student Megan Goodrich, online courses have been a prominent fixture in her academic career: She took nearly 20 online courses during high school and as an undergraduate at Florida State University.
“Online classes are more acceptable than they were a couple years ago,” Goodrich says. “I had to self-teach myself through these courses, though. You’re able to get ahead [in online courses] but I don’t feel like I was learning. If you’re going to school to learn, go to class and don’t take it online.”
Goodrich’s assessment of online courses compared to in-class courses aligns with what the majority of respondents noted in the Eduventures study. According to the report, only 7 percent of adults view online delivery as superior to in-class delivery, up from 1 percent in 2006.
“Both ratios are low in absolute terms, and reiterate that to date online higher education fundamentally embodied convenience rather than broader value-add,” the report’s authors write, “but the improved ratio may be an encouraging sign that online sophistication is increasing.”
Coursera’s Ng says that many online courses already rival that of large classrooms and, in fact, a “website can be made to be much more interactive than a large lecture hall.
“For a 400 student course, the online experience is that every week, students watch two hours of video of me lecturing and then they do homework,” he notes. “The live classroom turns out to be only slightly better. With a class of 400 students, there really isn’t that much one-on-one interaction with students.”
Although perceptions and preferences among adults lean heavily toward in-class instruction, Ng believes the growth of massive open online courses, provided by companies such as Coursea, edX, and Udacity, will change outlooks in the long term.
Coursera alone has 33 member schools, including Stanford, Princeton University, and the University of Pennsylvania, offering free online courses, and the company recently announced that it passed 1 million student enrollments. Having top-ranked universities offer courses through the online delivery model will ultimately have a strong influence on adults’ perspectives on online education, Ng says.
“We all trust prestigious universities to have high standards,” he notes. “From a student perspective, if you go online and take a class through Princeton, there’s something reassuring that it’s a Princeton course. When you put on a résumé that you took a course from a Princeton professor, that means something.”