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What Do Americans Think About Online Learning When It’s Not a Matter of Life and Death?

The conversations around online learning are unusually heated right now because they’re literally life and death for many people.  Whether or not to open schools, hold in person classes, bring students on to campus … and if so, how … are questions with actual fatality rates attached.  

There is no bigger picture than that, at the moment.  But seeing the forest instead of the trees can sometimes make it difficult to ask:  how are the trees doing?  Are they growing properly?  What should we be considering if we want to make them healthier and stronger?

It’s the same thing with online education.  When the stakes are life and death, it’s much harder to focus on reading and writing and ‘rithmetic.  

That’s what makes a recent survey by Strada Public Viewpoint on the subject so useful.  It gives us a fairly clear, and hopefully accurate, snapshot of how online learning would function in a world where whether to attend campus classes could be decided on the basis of preference, rather than infection rates.

According to the survey:

  • 3 in 10 say that they would prefer online education even if Covid-19 was not a threat.  
  • “Recent graduates of programs at online institutions rate the value of their education higher than graduates of other four-year colleges.”
  • 48% of women (as opposed to 33% of men) would select an exclusively online education if enrolled in the next six months.
  • Black Americans, at 60%, have the most confidence in the quality of online education.  

What does this tell us?  Well, first that online education is not going to sweep the country if people have a choice.  Traditional classrooms aren’t going away:  people are pining for them.

BUT … the about 30% of people (not an insignificant number) for whom online education is a primary choice are not only happy on average with their choice, they’re happier on average than people who go the traditional route.

Which tells us that online education is here to say:  it is actually satisfying the people who want it.  It’s much less satisfying to the people who don’t want it, for whom it’s a second or third choice, but, why would that surprise us?  Isn’t that usually the way?  What’s important is that the people who, for whatever reasons, are looking for an online education tend to be happy with what they’re finding.

What we also get a snapshot of is who those people are:  people who are traditionally less well served by the higher education system.  People of color and women, in particular, seem to be enthusiastic about the opportunities presented by online learning.  That, too, is important to note.  

There’s still a lot we don’t know about preferences for online and in person education.  But this is a great start, and confirms much of what we at Calbright have been saying for some time:  that the value of online education isn’t just that it’s “online,” but that it creates opportunities to serve specific populations that have been ignored or locked out by traditional education.  The benefit of online learning isn’t that it can replicate traditional learning, but that it can support specific populations to make sure their needs are met, their education is effective, and their lives are improved.  That support will require a lot more information, but we’re off to a good start.