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Online Learning Ratings Continue to Climb

Suddenly, the news is full of interesting online education research.

The following rundown summarizes three particularly significant reports released during mid-2022.

Wiley’s “Voice of the Online Learner” Survey

The 11th annual “Voice of the Online Learner” survey from textbook publisher John Wiley & Sons has just been released. It’s based on a national poll of 2,500 adult respondents enrolled or planning to enroll in an online degree or certificate program.

The vast majority of online students in the survey—a whopping 94 percent—said they have a “positive” or “very positive” opinion of online instruction. This is a significant increase from the already huge 86 percent majority who held these views of this modality before the pandemic in late 2019. That is a 9.3 percent increase over these past two years.

Furthermore, 80 percent of the sample believes that a college degree can lead people to better jobs and that their degree is important to achieving their goals. Eighty-three percent of the respondents said they’d take another online course.

What’s more, among online graduates, 87 percent even reported achieving an outcome attributable to their online instruction, like earning a boost in compensation or more marketable skills. The most frequent outcome listed within this group was a salary raise, reported by 36 percent of the sample. That outcome was followed by 29 percent who developed more marketable skills or earned certifications, 26 percent who landed a new job or felt a sense of increased workplace confidence, and 22 percent who successfully changed careers.

Clearly, career outcomes like these are what motivate the online learners. The top drivers of pursuing online degrees are to improve job prospects (40 percent) or to advance or launch their careers (38 and 35 percent). The next largest motivation is changing careers, either to switch to a career that better aligns with their interests or to earn more money (32 and 31 percent).

The Wiley survey is well known for having identified the perspectives and traits common to the online learners it tracked during the past decade, which it labels as traditional online learners. But during 2022, Wiley’s survey identified a distinct group of students with very different characteristics for the first time. It differentiates them as pandemic-driven online learners, and here’s how the groups differ.

Traditional vs. Pandemic-Driven Online Learners

Traditional online learners inherently prefer to learn online. They tend to be over 25 years old and prioritize online learning’s flexibility as the major factor that motivated them to choose this modality. They are somewhat open to logging in on specific dates and times for synchronous class sessions, as long as they’re occasional. They also are less likely to transfer to a program on campus for any reason.

This traditional group is markedly different from the pandemic-driven online learners. The pandemic-driven group doesn’t inherently prefer online education—they were forced into doing things this way when the pandemic-related restrictions were what prompted them to start learning online. They are much younger, generally under 25 years old. Moreover, this group is also more likely to inherently prefer instruction on-campus and in person. They also seem to love live, synchronous class sessions and are open to participating in them online or in person. Additionally, pandemic-driven learners are more likely to switch to a future on-campus program.

Much of the rest of this survey focuses on some of the precise ways these two groups tend to differ in 2022. For example, about a third of prospective online learners had never even thought about learning online until the pandemic, and within this group, 48 percent aren’t likely to switch in the future to a campus program. However, slightly more than a third are likely to transfer back to on-campus instruction, and only 14 percent aren’t sure what they’ll do.

The report does contain a few surprises. One of the criticisms of online instruction has always been that it can only play a limited role in laboratory sections of courses like chemistry and biology. To our knowledge, the Wiley survey is the first to ask students if they would accept online alternatives to lab sections that require campus trips to use university facilities. About 30 percent of respondents said they’d instead accept lab simulation exercises they can perform on their computers, and another 20 percent said they’d accept laboratory kits shipped to their homes.

In addition, when the researchers asked respondents why they wanted to enroll in on-campus programs, the top reason seems like a curious choice: “to attend graduation ceremonies.” But the second-highest ranked reason made more sense: students said they wanted to develop closer relationships with faculty.

Strong relationships with teaching assistants and professors can help undergraduates earn better grades in some courses, which can be crucial in obtaining strong recommendation letters for graduate school. However, in 2022, many college and graduate students have no trouble developing close relationships with their professors by using the latest advances in online meeting technology through applications like Microsoft Teams and Zoom.

CCNY: Pandemic Data on Online Higher Education

The Wiley poll is by no means the only such survey just released that presents high satisfaction ratings. Presenting the latest data collected during the pandemic, a related journal article written by economics professors Kameshwari Shankar, Punit Arora, and Maria Christina Binz-Scharfat of the City University of New York found great benefits for the online modality in large undergraduate courses.

However, typical graduate seminars with many fewer students endured challenges that were significant, mostly because the students thought that the online modality inhibited opportunities for face-to-face discussions.

The CCNY report demonstrates that online instruction is particularly effective with (and appreciated by) undergraduates in lectures with more than 100 students because “those students can use chats and virtual feedback to raise questions they aren’t able to ask in giant, impersonal lecture halls,” says the New York Times. “Evidence shows that overall, students prefer the online format although the responses varied by class size, course material, and course duration,” say the authors.

The class size relationship isn’t the only conclusion of that study based on the latest pandemic-era data that seemed significant to the Times. The professors argue that in contrast to the latest data, pre-pandemic studies might have drawn overly pessimistic conclusions about online instruction in universities, primarily because the credibility of these studies suffered from what the authors call “self-selection bias.” According to the Times,

. . .people who chose to take courses online also shared other inherent characteristics, skewing the results. Students who enrolled in online higher education programs before Covid tended to be older and studying part time, for instance, and often had jobs and families. “We would expect a part-time student with other obligations to perform less well,” Dr. Shankar said.

During the pandemic, the variety of students learning online “absolutely increased,” said Di Xu, an associate professor of higher education and public policy at the University of California, Irvine, who began doing research into online learning before Covid. That makes it easier to objectively determine “who seems to benefit and who struggles the most,” Professor Xu said.

Dr. Shankar and others have been combing through the massive amounts of newer information generated during the pandemic, when learning online was largely no longer a choice, eliminating self-selection bias. “We are optimistic that the post-pandemic data will show more favorable outcomes,” she said.

UC Irvine: Online College Students Graduate Sooner

College students who want to graduate sooner should take more online courses, and taking courses online correlates with a higher probability of graduating within four years. These are among the newsworthy findings disclosed by a fascinating new study in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis entitled “Increasing Success in Higher Education: The Relationships of Online Course Taking With College Completion and Time-to-Degree.”

The September 2022 study was prepared by a team of five education professors and doctoral candidates from the University of California at Irvine and Germany’s University of Tübingen, near Stuttgart. They derived their conclusions from analyzing the progress toward graduation of 10,572 UC Irvine undergraduates over six years.

Delayed graduation has become a hot educational policy issue because recent research has focused intense scrutiny on its economic consequences for college students, universities, and society. A longer time-to-degree interval produces these pernicious effects:

  • Reduced supply of college-educated workers
  • Greater burdens on federal and state loans
  • Increased university resources required for an individual student
  • Larger class sizes
  • Increases in costs borne by students, such as greater tuition, more borrowing, more opportunity costs from foregone earnings, and decreased lifetime compensation

The consequences of increased university resource requirements, such as larger class sizes and course overcrowding, are particularly challenging. As a result, most universities offer programs designed to reduce the time-to-degree interval.

For example, the reason why universities offer summer school programs was never so that they could offer shorter and easier versions of their regular academic year coursework. Traditionally, universities have operated such summer sessions to enable students to obtain courses they couldn’t complete during an academic year. Typically, students cannot enroll in those courses because of insufficient classroom capacity or unmet prerequisites because “sold out” classes are not available.

But this UC Irvine study suggests that online education may have rendered summer school obsolete. It suggests that a more effective university response that would alleviate course crowding pressures at minimal cost would be offering more online courses.

The UC Irvine study focuses on the results of taking courses required by major fields of concentration online, instead of in person. Some of the results are eye-popping. For example, a single percent increase in the proportion of major-required courses that a student takes online correlates with a 14.4 percent increased probability of graduating within four years. A substantial boost in that probability would be music to the ears of college associate and assistant deans and academic advisors, who spend much of their week counseling frustrated students unable to satisfy all the requirements that will keep them on track towards a timely four-year graduation.

Similarly, a 1 percent increase in the proportion of lower division freshman courses required by a student’s major correlates with a 9 percent greater chance of graduating in four years. That single percent increase also translates to a 12 percent decrease in time to degree, corresponding to a roughly six-week time savings.

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.