Americans Doubt the Rigor and Quality of Online Education

Nearly a quarter of respondents said the quality of online programs is poor.

A new Gallup poll found most Americans doubt the quality and rigor of online education.
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Although the majority of Americans say the value and format of online education are equal to or better than traditional education, many still doubt its quality, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday.

Most of the adults surveyed appeared to recognize the flexibility of online education, saying it provided a format most students can succeed in and that it provides a wide range of options for curriculum. One-third of the more than 1,000 adults surveyed also said the value for the money students pay is better than traditional classroom-based education, and 34 percent said it is equal to the value of traditional education.

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But despite the acceptance of online course formats and access, a report on the poll said Americans' views are still "tepid at best." Many still tend to think the quality of both the instruction and the instructors is far below that of classroom-based education. Additionally, nearly half said they believe online degrees are less accepted by employers.

A recent survey from the nonprofit organization Public Agenda supports that belief. The survey found that the majority of employers said they prefer applicants with traditional degrees from average universities over those with an online degree from a top university, despite the fact that nearly the same amount said online programs require more discipline on the student's part.

A separate Gallup survey asking participants to rank the quality of education by different types of institutions (four-year colleges, two-year colleges, and Internet-based programs), found that only 5 percent viewed online programs as "excellent," while 18 percent said the quality is "poor," and 34 percent said those programs are "only fair" in terms of quality.

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"If leaders in the field want online learning to have equal status with campus-based programs, they need to do more to demonstrate high standards for instruction, testing, and grading," the report says.

But Jeff Davidson, strategic initiatives manager of The Free Education Initiative at the Saylor Foundation, says this mind-set is the result of a lack of awareness and familiarity with online education.

"I don't think there's any weight to the belief that quality suffers in online education any more so than with a lot of brick-and-mortars. We know brick-and-mortar degrees vary in quality, and that's the same with online," Davidson says. "Are there diploma mills online? Absolutely. But there are brick-and-mortars doing that as well."

The authors of the Gallup report see an opportunity for online education to expand. There is already promise for expanding online programs, they say, as they offer a more cost-effective route to higher education at a time when tuition is sharply increasing, student debt continues to accrue, and college graduates are often unemployed and underemployed.

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But online education may fit into another niche because more Americans, the authors write, believe obtaining certain job-specific knowledge and skills is more important today than earning a college degree.

"This broadly suggests that online programs offering more targeted curriculum – distinct from a traditional bachelor's degree – or even certification in specific skills, could ultimately transform how students approach postsecondary education," the report says.

Overall, 50 percent of adults say obtaining certain knowledge and skills is more important than receiving a degree from a well-respected university. The numbers are about split, with a slight tilt in favor of knowledge and skills, for all age groups, education levels and political affiliations. In fact, only those over the age of 65, non-white , those with postgraduate degrees, and Democrats, said they believe having a college degree is more important.

Davidson says online education programs will expand and improve the same way traditional programs have in the past, particularly in the areas of perceived weaknesses, such as quality and rigor.