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What if Online Education Really is Better Than In-Person Learning?

Surprising and massive jumps in a group of statistics about the American public’s rapidly changing perceptions of online education quality first appeared in late July 2022. Most Americans—55 percent—now rank the quality of online education equivalent to or better than in-person instruction, a tremendous surge over the 2021 report.

Several of these statistics showed astonishing spikes over the previous year’s values in the only numbers that really matter in surveys like these: the percentage increases. For example, the proportion of respondents saying that online education is equivalent in quality to in-person instruction shot up from 34 percent in 2021 to 47 percent in the latest year’s report, a 40 percent increase.

What’s more, the proportion saying that online instruction is better than traditional classroom education climbed from 3 to 8 percent, which included 17 percent of current students. That might not sound like much of a difference in absolute terms because those values at first appear small. But as a proportion, that percentage more than doubled, skyrocketing 166 percent.

Writing in Forbes, higher education industry analyst and Kaplan executive Brandon Busteed presented this analysis:

This is a stunning acceleration in favorable views of online education, and is a real tipping point that may present an existential threat for many in-person educational programs and residential-based colleges.

In a podcast promoting his Forbes article, Busteed points out that as assessed by various metrics, Americans’ perception of the quality of online education has traditionally been fairly low since around 2002. Starting in about 2011, this “quality gap” between online and in-person instruction slowly started closing, with small incremental gains each year during the subsequent decade. But the way these 2022 results suddenly shot up was unusual, displaying by far the largest single-year gains during any of the past ten years.

Titled “Varying Degrees 2022: New America’s Sixth Annual Survey on Higher Education,” the survey polling 1,500 Americans was released by the New America Foundation, a liberal Washington, D.C. think tank focused on public issues and policy analysis.

Incidentally, New America attracted intense scrutiny in 2017 when it unexpectedly fired a team of analysts in its anti-monopoly Open Markets program. The New York Times reported that New America, which had received $21 million from Google since 1999, axed the team following complaints from the Silicon Valley giant about its scholars’ public praise of the European Union’s antitrust penalty against the firm. New America’s 2022 survey was paid for by another organization with tech industry connections, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Why the Quality of Online Education Improved

Busteed argues that several factors have driven perceptions of improving online education quality. But before those drivers gained traction, he says that other disincentives which had inhibited the quality evolution in online education for decades had to be cleared out of the way.

One of the inhibitors was stubborn resistance by faculty to pedagogy changes. Professors who enjoyed their role as the “sage on the stage” in huge lecture halls at major research universities resisted giving up that power and authority. At the same time, many of them also resisted newer instructional modalities that provided alternatives to the traditional lecture-discussion format. Project-based education was one of those modalities, and more recently, online instruction was another.

Busteed then suggests that the pandemic’s infection control measures forced faculty to give up much of that resistance. Demand for videoconferencing platforms like Zoom and learning management systems to accompany them like Canvas drove demand for technological improvements, largely because profit-motivated software firms sought lucrative advantages over their competitive rivals. These enhancements brought new capabilities, functions, and flexibility, and reduced the frequency of software issues like bugs and system crashes. Starting in March 2020 after about 30 months of rapid and intense software development, the result was a continuous and dramatic improvement in user-friendliness and ease of use.

He also points out that professors started publicly sharing best practices in using these technologies on the internet, which enabled many educators to boost the quality of their online teaching. As faculty and students alike became more confident with educational software tools, frustration started to abate, lesson caliber increased, and ultimately learning outcomes improved.

Finally, all these developments contributed to rapidly improving perceptions of online education quality among the public, most recently reflected by public polling such as the survey conducted by New America.

Why the Blackout?

So if these survey results are such a big deal and the quality of online education across America has improved so dramatically, why has the New America study received so little attention? As of November 2022, no major media outlet besides Forbes has covered this story. What’s more, OnlineEducation.com could find only a single university professor who’s published remarks about it online.

Why? A good clue that foreshadows this blackout appears buried in a March 2022 opinion piece. Entitled “Online College Classes Can Be Better Than In-Person Ones—The Implications for Higher Ed Are Profound,” the piece was written for the Brookings Institution by an astute UCLA electrical engineering professor.

“Something unexpected has happened,” writes Dr. John Villasenor. “For many college courses, online instruction is proving to be far more effective than many people anticipated.”

Dr. Villasenor then steps through some possible reasons why online instruction exceeds expectations and mostly agrees with Busteed’s analysis. Tech improvements have created better telepresence, and enormous numbers of instructors and students are now proficient in using online learning management systems, says Dr. Villasenor. He then talks about how the network effects of more people familiar with using Zoom amplifies the software’s utility as an instructional tool. “The quality of a well-run synchronous (i.e., live, as opposed to pre-recorded) online class can now rival—and in some respects exceed—the quality of the in-person equivalent,” he told Brookings.

Dr. Villasenor also argues that online platforms can support a broader range of learning styles. For example, such platforms are extremely effective at supporting shy students who have trouble speaking up during class but have no difficulty instead typing thoughts, reactions, and questions into Zoom’s chat window. Online instruction also provides for an expanded ability to invite non-local guest speakers to lecture during a class, even speakers from nations besides the United States.

So if online instruction really is better—in the sense that it is much more effective than many had expected—why aren’t other professors and university administrators saying so? Explains Dr. Villasenor:

Unfortunately, few college administrators are likely to acknowledge the advantages of synchronous online instruction. Doing so would call into question the entire model of the residential college—a concept that is a multi-billion-dollar business, a central feature of the American cultural landscape, and a rite of passage all rolled up into one.

Are Residential Colleges Ripe for Disruption?

This point is profound because it suggests that the residential college may embody a business model that’s ripe for disruption, the process where less expensive innovations vastly expand the market for a good or service. This is a point relentlessly argued since 2011 by the father of disruptive innovation theory, Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen. Apple’s Steve Jobs had repeatedly cited Dr. Christensen as his most important strategic influence.

Starting in 2014, Professor Christensen had predicted that within 15 years, as many as 50 percent of United States universities would close or face bankruptcy proceedings. He argued that the residential college business model would no longer be able to effectively compete against online education’s key advantages like reduced total costs, easier access, and convenience.

In turn, Dr. Villasenor argues that a campus classroom is “the actual and symbolic core around which all that college has come to mean is constructed.” But if a college classroom no longer needs to embody a physical environment populated with instructors and students in person, then what are the real purposes of residential university campuses?

A similar point was echoed by higher education management consultant Tim Westerbeck of Eduvantis:

Most institutional brands have been built based on stakeholders being on campus on a sunny spring afternoon, bonding with one-of-a-kind faculty, living in a rarefied culture, struggling with statistics in the library and tipping a few at the local pub with their classmates. . .

Most American colleges have housing requirements that require freshmen and sophomores to live on campus in supervised “university-approved” residences. Generally, these are dormitories, fraternities, and sororities. But if classrooms can all be moved to “internet space,” does removing them reveal that the real remaining objectives for on-campus university education in America mainly comprise socialization and socializing for America’s students?

In other words, are the real, remaining objectives behind residential colleges and graduate schools more along the lines of socialization instead of education? Instead, is the campus environment actually designed to create a framework that encourages the development of shared experiences, personal networking, interpersonal relationships, and bonding among the members of a university’s elite community?

Consistent with that notion, Professor Christensen argues that in-person university education may offer only one remaining advantage that cannot be easily “disrupted” away by online instruction. That advantage may be the potential for developing relationships with faculty that can change students’ lives.

In this lecture recorded live in 2014, Dr. Christensen recounts how the president of a New England liberal arts college showed him that the college’s alumni donors who each gave more than $19 million did so for the same reason. They all were so generous because each alumnus benefitted from a transformative personal relationship with an individual professor that changed their lives.

Dr. Christensen similarly points out that almost all donations to the Harvard Business School from alumni resulted from personal relationships between those alums—while they were HBS students—and only 12 professors during the business school’s entire history whom the students repeatedly said had changed their lives.

The potential for developing life-changing relationships like these with faculty might amount to the last significant remaining advantage of in-person instruction that resists disruption. However, these days thanks to software like Zoom, many relationships between students and faculty are also moving online. And as that trend continues, colleges can expect that such socialization advantages from their in-person programs will continue to diminish.

All in all, now that most Americans believe that online instruction is as good as or better than on-campus instruction, increasing numbers of students are likely to draw one more key conclusion. Those students will surmise that, on balance, the many advantages of online education outweigh the value of any potential relationship and networking prospects that they might acquire from their socialization within on-campus degree programs—since much of that socialization can now take place online as well.

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.