As online college courses have become increasingly prevalent, the general public and college presidents offer different assessments of their educational value. Just three-in-ten American adults (29%) say a course taken online provides an equal educational value to one taken in a classroom. By contrast, fully half of college presidents (51%) say online courses provide the same value.
These findings are from a pair of Pew Research Center surveys conducted in spring 2011. One is a telephone survey taken among a nationally representative sample of 2,142 adults ages 18 and older. The other is an online survey, done in association with the Chronicle of Higher Education, among the presidents of 1,055 colleges and universities nationwide.1
More than three-quarters of the nation's colleges and universities now offer online classes, according to the survey of college presidents, and about onein-four college graduates (23%) have taken a course online, according to the general public survey. Among those who have graduated in the past decade, the figure rises to 46%. Adults who have taken a course online have a somewhat more positive view of the value of this learning format: 39% say a course taken online provides the same educational value as one taken in person, a view shared by only 27% of those who have not taken an online course.
Online learning is more common in some sectors of higher education than in others. Among the presidents of four-year public colleges and universities, 89% report that their institution offers classes online. Just six-in-ten presidents of private four-year colleges report the same. These private college presidents are among the most skeptical about the value of online learning. Only 36% believe a course taken online provides the same value as a class taken in person. This compares with 50% of four-year public university presidents.
The vast majority of two-year colleges offer online courses (91%), and their leaders are among the most likely to believe that online learning is comparable to learning in a classroom. Two-thirds of the presidents of two-year colleges say an online course provides an equal educational value when compared with a course taken in person. Among the leaders of for-profit colleges and universities, 71% report that their institutions offer classes online and more than half (54%) say these classes offer the same value as classes taken in person.
Of those colleges and universities that offer online courses, nearly six-in-ten (58%) grant degrees for which all the course work can be completed online, according to their leaders. Public institutions are more likely than private ones to provide this option (66% vs. 47%).
Online courses are not necessarily the equivalent of distance learning. Among residential colleges and universities that offer online courses, 88% offer online classes to their students who live on campus.
Looking Ahead: More Growth in Digital Learning
Over the past decade, enrollment in online courses at colleges and universities around the country has grown at a greater rate than overall higher education enrollment. According to surveys conducted by the College Board and the Babson Survey Research Group, the number of students at degree-granting postsecondary institutions taking at least one online course increased by 21 % from the fall of 2008 to the fall of 2009. Over that same one-year period, total enrollment increased by only 1.2%.2
College presidents see this trend continuing. While 15% report that more than half of their current undergraduate student body has taken at least one course online, 50% predict that 10 years from now a majority of their students will be taking classes online.
Whether learning takes place in a virtual classroom or in a more traditional setting, the textbooks used by college students are becoming increasingly high-tech. Nearly two-thirds of the presidents surveyed (62%) predict that 10 years from now more than half of their undergraduate textbooks will be entirely digital. …