Online course offerings in the United States have expanded. In both K12 and higher education options for students to take whole courses, blended courses and—in some places—entire degree programs online are more prevalent than ever.
The Babson Survey Research Group, an organization that tracks online enrollment, notes that between 2012 and 2016 the percent of online enrollment in universities increased 17.2 percent while overall enrollment decreased. But that expansion doesn’t necessarily correlate with how the public perceives the quality of online courses, historically questioned for its lack of rigor and limited measurable learning gains.
Researchers that have looked into public perceptions of online learning note that over the last 15 years views inched in a more positive direction, evidenced by the increase of students enrolling in courses and surveys given to pupils and professors. A Gallup poll conducted back in 2015, found that 46 percent of Americans “strongly agree” or “agree” that online colleges and universities offer a high-quality education—up 30 percent from when the poll was conducted in 2011.
However, researchers caveat these findings, noting that these perception changes happen within particular pockets and are sometimes the result of strategic practices, such as universities not listing the medium of learning on student transcripts.
The last academic leader perception survey released by the Babson Research Group was in 2016. The organization’s co-director Jeff Seaman said in an interview this week that the group, which started collecting the data in 2004, stopped because of limited observable perception changes.
“We’ve had more and more of the group in the middle that said, ‘I’m not sure’ move into a pro online learning stance,” says Seaman, speaking of the academic leaders he surveyed in the past. “The negative group [those who viewed online learning negatively] had not wavered at all. The positive group did not waiver at all, but we had a steady migration flow of academic leaders in the middle.”
Yet, Seaman notes that the changes he observed were only incremental, a percent or two, of people in the middle changing their minds each year. He is not certain what drives that change, though the strongest correlation he observed was that many of the academic leaders who had favorable opinions of online learning had some direct exposure to the medium, whether it was through teaching or taking a course.
This correlation is one reason why Seaman believes perceptions of online learning will become more positive over time. “More students taking these courses means that there are more academic leaders and more faculty members with direct experience teaching online,” he continues.
Patrick R. Lowenthal, an associate professor of educational technology at Boise State University, notes that he was one of those professors who began to view online learning more favorably after engaging with the medium back on 2001. Since then he has been teaching courses for graduates online, a medium he admits he was hesitant to engage in before.
Lowenthal has also researched student perceptions of online learning in the past, finding that learners tend to give such courses more negative evaluations than in-person courses. He says that the findings may represent the lack of experience some educators have teaching in online classrooms. He expects that to change over time, noting that good teachers in person will eventually become good teachers online.
“I will be at a dinner party, and someone will ask what I do. Then they will mention taking one online course and hating it. Then they want to talk to me for 45 minutes about how bad online learning is,” says Lowenthal. “The problem with that is we don’t do the same thing with face to face. We have all had some really bad teachers and courses, but we don’t sit there and act like all face to face learning is horrible because of it.”
Lowenthal also notes that these days the term online learning is more ubiquitous than ever. Some even call it “digital learning” because it can mean learning on a laptop, tablet or smartphone. And, thanks to live video, it can also be face-to-face (at least sort-of), giving opportunities for students to connect in ways they couldn’t when he first started teaching.
“Some people say, you’re not actually learning online. Your learning is taking place in your brain,” Lowenthal explains. “So why do we focus so much on the platform?”