Traditional Education Beats Online in Key Areas, Opinion Poll Finds

We’re years into the era of online education, and yet Americans still hold a skeptical view of online learning’s quality and value to employers, according to the results of a Gallup survey released on Tuesday.

In early October, Gallup asked two groups, each composed of more than 1,000 adults, whether they thought “online education is better” in a series of categories. In terms of “providing a wide range of options for curriculum” and “good value for the money,” online education got slightly better scores than traditional classroom-based education.

But online education scored much worse in four areas: in delivering “instruction tailored to each individual,” in providing “high-quality instruction from well-qualified instructors,” in offering “rigorous testing and grading that can be trusted,” and—finally, worst of all—in dispensing “a degree that will be viewed positively by employers.”

Only a third of the respondents rated online programs as “excellent” or “good,” while 68 percent gave excellent or good ratings to four-year colleges and universities, and 64 percent gave such ratings to community colleges.

But “what you are seeing in there is that traditional classroom education is beating out online education on some of the most fundamental elements,” said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education. To him the most surprising part of the survey results was the high number of people who said that traditional classroom education was still better tailored to the individual, while evangelists for educational technology and online learning tend to hype the personalized and individualized elements of their products. “The reality,” he said, “is that that has not permeated Americans’ perceptions of what it can do.”

The poll found that 5 percent of Americans, and 20 percent of college students, were enrolled in an online course. While that is a “huge win” for the online market, Mr. Busteed said, “I think we have to take it for what it is: some signs of adoption, but not supplanting traditional education anytime soon.”

On Monday morning, Mr. Busteed announced that the poll was forthcoming during an opening talk at a conference for educational-technology investors, online-education entrepreneurs, and venture-capital firms at Gallup’s headquarters, in Washington. Naturally, at that conference, the view about online education was very different. Many of the speakers, drawn from the for-profit and ed-tech sectors, bashed traditional higher education as overpriced and stagnant.

While some assertions rang true, others didn’t seem to have any grounding in reality. Andrew S. Rosen, chairman and chief executive officer of Kaplan, probably made the day’s most daring prediction: Within a few decades, all but 600 colleges will be dead.

However, a panel of three undergraduate honor students, moderated by a Chronicle reporter, seemed to back up some of the data in the new Gallup poll: They said that while they wished their professors were a bit more tech-savvy, they found some educational technology cumbersome and overrated. They were skeptical of online programs—saying that they gave peers opportunities to cheat—and even more skeptical of competency-based education. Traditional education, they said, offered something that online education had problems replicating: a connection with peers and professors.

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