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Analysis: College Student & Faculty Preferences at Odds, Says New Poll

In June 2023, a controversial new survey appeared that’s likely to have significant repercussions for online education. Unlike other recent polls, this study focuses scrutiny on several sharp differences of opinion between college students and their professors. Results include:

  • Almost 70 percent of students prefer classes taught fully or partially online, even though 55 percent of instructors prefer in-person teaching
  • A third of faculty prefer printed books, but three-quarters of students prefer digital course materials
  • About 60 percent of instructors send students to bookstores to buy course materials like printed and digital textbooks, but only 24 percent of students are willing to buy new materials

To our knowledge, results from the new Time for Class 2023 survey released by the Boston-based consulting firm Tyton Partners are unique. This marks the first time that a national poll has appeared showing divergent and often opposing views between students and faculty with respect to such a broad range of preferences.

Students Overwhelmingly Prefer Online Learning

For example, the poll found that in contrast to faculty, students prefer learning online by a wide margin. Sixty-nine percent of the students prefer entirely online, hybrid, or blended learning class options, leaving on-campus instruction as the top choice of only 31 percent. Students also say their most popular modalities are hybrid courses (22 percent) and fully online, asynchronous courses (15 percent).

Tyton’s consultants interpret this data as a milestone that reflects a fundamental shift in college students’ preferences. That’s because students now overwhelmingly favor fully online, blended online, and hybrid instruction formats in contrast to previous years. The analysts also believe this shift developed because of three factors they observed among students: their changing expectations for learning, their demands for flexibility, and their growing up with K-12 educations loaded with digital learning experiences.

However, by contrast, 55 percent of instructors reported that they prefer teaching classes in person. This is an 8 percent increase over the proportion of professors who preferred face-to-face teaching in a similar survey conducted two years prior by Bay View Analytics during the middle of the pandemic.

Students Prefer Digital Course Materials

Student preferences were also at odds with instructors’ preferences regarding course materials. Most faculty—34 percent—prefer printed books, but most students do not. Three-quarters of the students instead prefer digital formats, with their preferences split down the middle: 38 percent favor electronic textbook formats like PDF files, compared with 37 percent who favor courseware (educational software). In other words, students prefer digital course materials more than faculty do by a 29 percentage point margin; only 23 percent of the students prefer paper textbooks.

Of the faculty who require digital materials, most (three-fifths) require electronic textbooks, with about a third opting for courseware. And along with students, a segment of the faculty seems concerned that affordability barriers to accessing course materials remain.

Open educational resources (OERs), a free textbook option that we explored in a comprehensive December 2022 analysis here on, was selected by 36 percent of the instructors in the sample. This option is popular among all college students but especially among community college students from disadvantaged backgrounds. In July 2021, the California Assembly appropriated $115 million for a Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) program for the state’s community college students.

Generative AI: Surprising Poll Results

The survey also ranks where students turn for help when they face coursework challenges, and their top alternatives are not much different than before the internet revolution in the late 1990s. Students prefer classmates, their instructor, and course materials as their top three study support choices in that order. Their next two most popular choices are both online: free resources like Khan Academy or YouTube, followed by the subscription online homework help providers like Chegg.

This is where the poll results seem curious. Only 10 percent of first-year students and 5 percent of all other students reported that their top study aid was a generative artificial intelligence platform like ChatGPT at the time of this poll’s field research during March and April of 2023. But that’s not consistent with Chegg’s stock crash of almost 50 percent in one day after the firm’s CEO reported that ChatGPT was hurting Chegg’s business in early May; we examine the crash’s implications in our article titled “Analysis: ChatGPT Crashes Chegg’s Stock 50 Percent in One Day.”

Nor does this survey’s meager purported AI utilization rate seem consistent with Chegg’s layoffs subsequently announced in mid-June that dismissed four percent of the company’s workforce.

Low utilization of ChatGPT as a study aid isn’t the only surprise related to generative AI tools within this poll. For example, faculty and students are adopting these AI tools at vastly different rates. Although in March 2023, about a third of students told the pollsters that they were regularly using ChatGPT and other AI writing tools, only a tiny 9 percent of the instructors also reported regular usage. Moreover, even if such tools are prohibited by their instructor or banned by their university, 46 percent of students say that they will continue to use them for help with their writing assignments anyway.

And believe it or not, roughly five months after ChatGPT was first released by OpenAI in November 2022, a whopping 71 percent of college faculty and administrators had yet to try even one generative AI platform. That’s right—despite the frenzied torrent of press coverage over ChatGPT, less than 30 percent had experimented with it or another artificial intelligence chatbot.

“For higher education to make informed decisions about where and how to monitor or integrate, the 71% of instructors and administrators who have yet to try generative AI tools need to spend hands-on time with these tools,” write the authors. “Only once all parties have a sufficiently deep understanding of generative AI tools will we be able to engage in thoughtful discourse and experimentation around the future of this technology in education.”

Access Challenges: An Easy Fix

A disconnect also exists between college administrators’ aspirations for their students’ access to technology when compared to students’ actual access to reliable internet service plus a sufficient computer. That disconnect seems even more surprising given students’ clear preferences for online instruction and digital course materials—all of which depend upon reliable high-speed broadband connections.

“Improving access and flexibility” was the top digital learning objective administrators cited for their colleges, even a higher priority than growing their enrollment. Moreover, almost four in five administrators said they believe that digital learning can drive academic success for all students, including underrepresented minorities and those who are financially disadvantaged.

Yet as many as 40 percent of students in the sample reported feeling significant stress because of unreliable internet connections or limited access to computers. The problem is especially acute among students of color, who were, on average, 6 percent more likely to have experienced stress for these reasons.

Incredibly, the survey reports that only a minority of colleges include computer equipment and broadband access in their institution’s Cost of Attendance (COA) definition for federal financial aid purposes. Although three-fifths of private four-year colleges include broadband access costs in that definition, less than half of the two-year and four-year public colleges include those costs, and less than a quarter of colleges include a computer.

If the schools included such line items in their COA, students could have these costs underwritten by Direct Loans, Pell Grants, the Federal Work-Study program, and Federal Supplemental Opportunity Grants: “Educating students about the line items related to devices and the internet, and how different grants and loans apply or do not apply to them can be another way that institutions empower students and increase access,” write the authors.

Finally, pollsters College Pulse and Centiment managed student survey outreach for Tyton. Those firms collected data from three higher education samples with fairly robust sizes: 306 administrators, 1,748 instructors, and 2,048 students. Turnitin, Anthology, the Lumina Foundation, Macmillan, Every Learner Everywhere, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supplied funding.

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.