The recent explosion in the number of online courses offered at colleges and universities throughout the land has been both praised and scorned by members of the higher education community. Proponents of online instruction tout its ability to deliver courses and degree programs to students who are unable to attend traditional courses because of time, distance, work and family-related constraints, thus making higher education available to a new segment of the general population. Online instructors also report increased levels in the quality of interaction that takes place online compared with their traditional face-to-face courses because students have the ability to think about responses before posting them and are often freed from the constraints of "stage fright" that prevents shy students from contributing to class discussion (Maloney 1999). Furthermore they plug evidence documenting that the quality of online learning is comparable if not better than the quality of learning that takes place in traditional classrooms (Navarro and Shoemaker 2000, Redding and Rotzier 2001). Finally, proponents argue that the growth in online instruction is an inevitable result of advances in information technologies and as such should be embraced not shunned (See Feenberg 1999 for a brief discussion of the history and efficacy of online instruction).
Opponents of online instruction are skeptical of these claims. Many tend to view the growth of online instruction as being driven by university administrators looking for economical ways of increasing enrollments and by software corporations motivated to colonize higher education for financial gain (Blumenstyk 1999; Carswell, Thomas, and Petre 2000). They view the economic and human capital costs of developing and delivering online courses as a drain from resources that could be used to strengthen "tried and true" traditional class room instruction. Some critics fear that faculty members maybe forced into delivering online courses against their wills, they worry about intellectual property rights, and fear that online vendors and perhaps part-time employees will seize control of the curriculum. Some worry that quality control policies are often not in place for online courses and consequently an inferior product may be delivered; that online instruction may amount to little more than selling credits. Finally, opponents worry that online instruction isolates students from face-to-face social interaction that they believe is a vital part of a quality education (For a review of concerns about online instruction see Maloney 1999).
The benefits and threats listed above cannot be easily dismissed or easily answered and the debate about the merits and shortcomings of online instruction will undoubtedly continue for quite some time. Continued research is in order to analyze the benefits and costs of online instruction and continued effort must be made to include student opinion in this research. The purpose of the present study is to measure the opinions of students at a medium sized university in the Midwest about their perceptions of online instruction. Why do they choose to enroll in online courses in the first place? How do they compare online courses with the traditional classroom courses that they have taken in terms of educational worth, academic rigor, and quality of interpersonal interaction between themselves and their instructors and classmates? Finally what do we know about the demographic characteristics of students who choose online courses and how these characteristics influence their opinions of online instruction?
In this paper I will report the results of a recent survey research project that measured the opinions of a random sample of students at a medium sized public university in the Midwest who have completed both online and traditional classroom coursework. These students provided information about their motives for enrolling in online courses, their evaluation of the educational quality of online coursework, how satisfied they have been with the online courses they've completed, how the rigor of online courses compares with traditional class room courses, how the amount of interaction that takes place in online courses compared with traditional face-to-face courses, and finally their gender, age and academic level. …