College Presidents Are Bullish on Online Education but Face a Skeptical Public

August 28, 2011

Delivering courses in cyberclassrooms has gained broad acceptance among top college leaders, but the general public is far less convinced of online education's quality, according to new survey data released this week by the Pew Research Center, in association with The Chronicle.

Just over half of the 1,055 college presidents queried believe that online courses offer a value to students that equals a traditional classroom's. By contrast, only 29 percent of 2,142 adult Americans thought online education measured up to traditional teaching. The presidents' survey included leaders of two-year and four-year private, public, and for-profit colleges and was conducted online. The public survey was conducted by telephone.

The gauge of differing perceptions comes at a critical moment for online education. Just 10 years ago, few colleges took teaching onto the Internet, and skepticism about the practice was the norm among professors and university leaders.

Now many studies have proved the effectiveness of online instruction, and colleges trying to cut costs and serve students who want more convenient options are embracing this form of teaching.

But the relatively dim view of online-course quality by consumers of higher education suggests that colleges need to do more to make the case for Internet-based teaching as they increase their offerings, according to some proponents of online learning.

Presidents "should be more visible in making the assertion" that online education is high quality, said A. Frank Mayadas, who started the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's online-education support program. "There's a huge amount of misunderstanding of what 'online' is. You ask the man in the street, 'What do you think of online learning?' and they'll say, 'You can't just learn by yourself.'"

Fighting Popular Culture

Portrayals of online learning in popular culture don't help, said Russell Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis at the Wiche Cooperative for Educational Technologies. He pointed to a recent episode of the TV show Glee, in which a character was insulted for having a degree from an online institution. "You still have a lot of people who grew up in an era where there was very little or no technology in their classroom, so it's very hard to relate to taking a course either partially or fully online," he said. "It's good to see that the presidents—who also did not grow up with technology—are seeing at least some value in online education." (Most of the presidents in the survey were 50 to 64 years old.)

Not surprisingly, presidents of colleges delivering substantial numbers of online classes expressed higher regard for them than did leaders of colleges offering fewer such courses. Two-year colleges reported the most activity online: 91 percent of two-year presidents said their institutions offered at least some online courses. Two-thirds of those presidents said online learning was comparable to face-to-face instruction. In contrast, 60 percent of presidents at private, four-year colleges said their institutions delivered courses online. Of those presidents, only 36 percent thought the quality of online education was equal to that of in-person courses.

William J. Pepicello, president of the University of Phoenix, a for-profit institution with substantial online offerings, said higher education as a whole had been far slower than other sectors to adopt game-changing technology. "Higher education lags behind the rest of society," he said. "While lots of things have changed in the rest of society in the past century, higher education has remained substantially the same."

He said college leaders first had to be convinced before they would approve new delivery methods. "We're seeing that slowly, higher education itself is coming around to accepting online," he said, "and I think that has to come first."

Mr. Pepicello believes that online education will spread even faster than most survey respondents indicated. "I don't see how higher education can't go in that direction," he said. "People thought that shopping online or banking online were fads, and yet I can't tell you the last time I was in my bank. They're very nice people, and I like them, but I don't need to see them very often," thanks to online banking and ATM's.

Kenneth E. Hartman, president of Drexel University Online, a spinoff from the brick-and-mortar institution, said most college presidents have never taken an online course and have little sense of what's involved. "It's like asking someone, 'How do you like driving a Ferrari versus a Hyundai?' when they don't even have their driver's license," he said.

But even presidents who had never entered an online classroom had a better sense of distance learning than the general public does, said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education. "There is an excitement about the potential" of online learning to expand access and reduce costs, she said. She did note that online education fits the missions of some institutions better than others, which may explain the greater skepticism among leaders of private colleges that focus on a residential experience.

Indeed, most presidents who responded to the survey predicted continued growth in online offerings. About half of the presidents said that in 10 years, the majority of college students will take at least one college course online. Today, only 15 percent of the presidents said most of their students had taken an online course.

The presidents also were bullish about online educational tools. For instance, they saw a bright future for e-textbooks. Sixty-two percent said more than half of students' textbooks will be digital in 10 years.

Gadget-Happy Leaders

College presidents appear to be more tech-savvy than members of the public are. About half of the presidents said they used a tablet computer, for instance, compared with only 8 percent of the American adults surveyed. Presidents are also slightly more likely than the general public to use Facebook (50 percent, compared with 45 percent of the public) and Twitter (18 percent of presidents and 10 percent of the public).

"I would have expected even higher," said Ms. Broad. "When this is your profession, it's an important responsibility to try to stay ahead of the curve, or at least not stay too far behind the curve."

College presidents reported some downsides of technology use at their institutions. Fifty-five percent of the respondents said student plagiarism on assignments has increased in the past 10 years, and of those who saw an increase, 89 percent said computers and the Internet had played a major role.

Mr. Hartman predicted that the future for many colleges will most likely include new mixes of online and in-person teaching. For instance, he said, more residential colleges will offer students the option of taking courses on campus two days a week and picking up the rest of their coursework online, so they can hold jobs while keeping up with their studies, and without completely forgoing time in the traditional college setting.

"Right now the schedule is set up to be convenient to the institution," he said of most colleges. "Blended instruction provides an opportunity for students to structure their schedules so they are much more productive."