For a while now, online education has been a good option for students who – for various reasons – can’t access on-the-ground education. And although there are still examples of rudimentary online courses out there (think compliance training), both the technology and the pedagogy powering online learning have gotten considerably better over the last decade. And now, fairly suddenly it seems, there are a growing number of cases where online education is actually outperforming its traditional classroom counterpart. Evidence of student success and, indeed preference, for the online classroom is mounting – and this will serve widespread benefits for all of us.
A Babson/College Board study in 2012 showed a glimmer of early recognition of quality in online education. The survey revealed that 77% of academic leaders thought online education was equal to or superior to learning in a physical classroom. Over 69% of chief academic officers believed online learning is a critical part of long-term education strategies.
A 2018 study conducted by Learning House, Inc., showed 85% of students who had previously enrolled in both face-to-face and online courses felt their online experience was either the same or better than the classroom course. That included 37% who felt it was a superior experience.
Examples of online degrees outperforming traditional degrees can be found across the globe and across students of all ages. In the U.K., University of Essex’s online degrees placed in the top 18% of all U.K. institutions with a 91 score in the National Student Survey (NSS) run by Britain’s higher education regulator.
The average first-time pass rate for distance learners at law schools taking California’s First Year Student Law Exam (FYSLE) was slightly more than twice traditional law schools in the state—34.8% versus 17.1% based on publicly available data for the last ten FYLSE administrations. Purdue University Global’s Concord Law School, the first fully online law school in the country, witnessed a first time pass rate of 45% at the most recent FYSLE administration.
Kaplan’s Test Prep unit recently surveyed MCAT students to find out how its in-person versus Live Online students rated their experiences. The ability to interact and chat with instructors in real time was paramount for both groups. Curiously, some of the students taking in-person classes questioned the value of having to be somewhere at a certain time. So real-time interactivity, rather than place, seems to be emerging as the defining factor behind student preferences.
On a broader basis among high school students, the Test Prep team has been seeing a consistent six to eight point favorable difference between Net Promoter Scores (NPS) for its Live Online Programs versus their in-person counterparts. There are a number of contributing factors, which include a team-teaching model where students are supported by several instructors and the ability to tap the best talent globally for each class.
Gallup released a study last April, which compared the outcomes of Western Governors University (WGU) graduates with graduates from other institutions. WGU’s competency-based education model, where all courses are fully online, stacked up better than more traditional colleges. WGU graduates full-time employment rate exceeded the national average by almost 20 percentage points; their grads are nearly twice as likely to be thriving in their wellbeing, and were more likely to be engaged employees. To date, WGU remains the highest scoring institution measured by Gallup in the percentage of graduates saying they had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams. So much for the myth that mentoring is relegated to in-person, on-campus and smaller-sized institutions.
Students are increasingly turning to online courses because they have become a better way to learn.
-Online courses offer students greater control over their own learning by enabling them to work at their own pace.
-More engaging multimedia content, greater access to their instructor and fellow classmates via online chat, and less likelihood of outside scheduling conflicts can contribute to improved retention metrics.
-Online courses also tend to include more frequent assessments. The more often students are assessed, the better their instructors can track progress and intervene when needed.
I experienced all this myself when I completed a six-week online program through Columbia Business School this past fall. As a busy executive with a demanding travel schedule and a young family – the only way I was able to take such a course was online. And it proved to be an incredibly valuable and timely experience – highly relevant to my new job. I was able to do many of the lecture portions from my iPhone while sitting on a plane. I did coursework early Saturday morning and turned in weekly assignments Sunday evening. And each Wednesday, scheduled into my work day, I attended live online sessions with professors and students from around the world. It was as good an experience as I’ve had in traditional classrooms – and I deem it superior because it met me where I am in my career and life.
On a variety of measures, many students who have taken both face-to-face and online courses now rank their online experiences equal to or better than their more traditional classroom courses. We have reached a watershed moment when the discussion will no longer be about the relative merits of online learning, but how best to implement online programs for maximum effect on student enrollment and success.
Disclaimer: This article references data from both Kaplan and Gallup sources; the author is currently President of Kaplan University Partners and was formerly Executive Director of Education & Workforce Development at Gallup.