Virtual classrooms have been touted as an innovation that can eradicate higher education’s woes. They’re supposed to open up new lines of revenue for cash-strapped colleges while reducing financial inequality among students.
The Georgia Institute of Technology stirred excitement when it launched a $6,000 two-year master’s in computer science degree in 2014. The school says the online program is as rigorous as its traditional brick-and-mortar curriculum — at a fraction of the cost.
Lately, however, virtual education doesn’t look like the robust frontier it once did. February brought a 13% bump in inquiries into online degrees, according to education consultants Gray Associates — but that came after months of decline.
A wary generation
Whatever colleges and universities say about their online degrees, recent data from the ACT suggests entering students aren’t buying the pitch. A survey given to the more than 1.9 million 2015 test-takers brought these results:
- 80% agreed traditional classroom programs offer a higher quality education and only 3% disagreed
- 67% said the quality of online classes varies widely, depending on the school
- 48% had no plans to take an online course
- 37% said they would take “a few” online classes
- 4% said “most or all of my classes” would be online
Enthusiasm for online classes within this demographic is definitely underwhelming. Given that the 16 to 18-year-old respondents have spent much of their lives online, their preference for brick and mortar is all the more striking. Isn’t this generation supposed to end our cultural bias against virtual experience once and for all?
Some industry-watchers have asked whether online education is a fundamentally different product, one that shouldn’t be marketed as an equivalent to brick-and-mortar learning. These skeptics see online classes as mainly offering well-organized information rather than education. College students are already inundated with free data. A class that provides little more would have almost no value.
An uneven field
Based on my online teaching experience, I would agree with the respondents to the ACT poll about at least one thing: quality of online classes varies widely.
The virtual composition classes I taught for Columbia College offered more than information. They required students to write at least a paper a week while also participating in virtual discussions and critique, which demanded even more writing. In my brick-and-mortar classes, I remind students they learn more from the act of writing than from textbooks and teachers. The online classes forced students to learn by doing — something they couldn’t get from an internet search about, say, sentence economy.
That said, I’ve tutored students taking online courses from other institutions that consisted of no more than a requirement to memorize lists of facts. The facts were offered without context or interpretation, making them less illuminating than your average Wikipedia article.
Including student voices
Tepid enthusiasm for virtual courses among new college students is not a reason to shut down offerings. Rather, colleges and universities might target non-traditional students who often need the flexibility of online courses more than traditional freshmen.
Schools might also conduct surveys about students’ online experiences and change their marketing plans — and, perhaps, their course content — accordingly. A 2014 paper published in the MERLOT Journal of Online Learning looked at perceptions among students already in college. The authors found this group also did not see online and face-to-face classes as equivalent.
However, those who had actually taken an online course in the past saw these classes in a more positive light. They also did not regard the courses as easier. The study’s authors stressed the need to gather data and include “student voices” in planning.
Perhaps the market for online education will grow in accordance with the strength of online curricula. Virtual classes aren’t going anywhere, but virtual info-dumps disguised as education are on their way out.
Let’s thank the wisdom of our incredulous incoming freshman for that.