Study: Students prefer real classrooms over virtual

Devin Karambelas, USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent 2:33 p.m. EDT June 11, 2013

online MOOC

Despite the rapid growth of online learning, many college students say they still prefer the traditional classroom setting.

According to results of a new national research study, 78% of more than 1,000 students surveyed still believe it is easier to learn in a classroom. But as the cost of a college education steadily rises, some experts say the data suggest virtual campuses are likely to grow — largely because they need to.

“Five years ago we would not even be having this conversation,” says Dan Schawbel, founder of consulting firm Millennial Branding, which conducted the survey in partnership with Internships.com.

“Millennials today expect customization and convenience, and colleges are having to find ways to cater to different situations.”

While students could traditionally expect decent job prospects upon graduation, the high cost of a degree has forced students to make choices. The bottom line, Schawbel says, is that students need options — and they are increasingly turning to online learning.

“With so many new technologies, it’s getting easier for the individual online experience to match that of the classroom,” he says.

2013-06-13_1241University of Vermont senior Becky Hayes, 21, opted to take an online journalism course over her winter break to earn credits — without having to pay extra money. She liked the idea of it, but says the format could use some improvements.

“I would have liked to see more interaction somehow. Instead of just reading articles and posting discussions about it, I would have liked to learn from a video podcast of the professor,” Hayes says.

Last month, some colleges publically committed to using online classes to bring in more students in the form of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, while others criticized the approach.

In early May, faculty from San Jose State’s philosophy department balked at the idea of using materials from Harvard professor Michael Sandel‘s online course to disseminate to students over an online platform, The New York Times reported.

“The move to MOOCs comes at great peril to our university,” a letter of protest stated. “We regard such courses as a serious compromise to education.”

Some critics went even further, calling the push toward online education a “dystopian nightmare” of monoculture, according to comments posted on an Inside Higher Ed article about a similar situation at Georgia Tech.

Despite the controversy, it appears more and more colleges are trying out MOOCs and other online learning platforms.

Out of hundreds of public and private universities surveyed, 43% are planning to offer MOOCs by 2016, a 30% jump from the number of institutions currently offering them, according to a May 30 study conducted by Enterasys Networks.

Kristina Chew, a classics professor at St. Peter’s University, wrote an article for The Guardian last month praising the value of face-to-face interaction. In her view, it is critical for teachers to be accessible to their students, and that connection is often lost with a screen in the way.

“I try to respond to e-mails, I Facebook; I give out my cellphone number,” Chew says. “This may bring up privacy issues, but my students know I’m accessible and they appreciate that.”

Online learning can also mean more work for the professor.

“Putting a lesson plan online requires an incredible amount of writing and typing for professors, and it’s usually not in their preferred medium,” she says.

But unless lawmakers can reach an agreement, student loan debt interest rates will double on July 1, from 3.4% to 6.8% — meaning it may be the right time for online learning platforms.

The average cost of attending a four-year institution in the 2010-2011 school year ranged from $13,000 to $23,000 depending on whether it was public or private, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

By comparison, online learning platform Udacity offers a for-credit course program for about $150 per course, and Open Culture sources hundreds of thousands of online courses and education materials — for free.

Based on these latest survey results, students are not yet sold on the idea that online learning is better than the current classroom model. Yet Schawbel says he believes additional results from the survey point to a slightly different conclusion.

“We also found that 53% of students think online degrees are just as reputable,” he says. “The college model is starting to make changes in the way that the business model has been shifting for years. For any brand, which every institution is, to make changes like this is huge.”

And then there are success stories beyond the college model.

Non-profit organization Khan Academy saw huge growth in only three years. It is part of a growing educational strategy called blended learning, says Chief Operating Officer Shantanu Sinha, and it tends to work well with supplementing lessons in the classroom.

While Khan Academy does not offer any degrees or certificates, its thousands of micro-lectures serve 6 million students a month, Sinha says. Using interactive graphics and videos, the result is a “quirky and humorous, yet deep” system of learning that finds potential within the limitations of virtual space.

“We’re working with the system rather than copying or replacing it,” Sinha says. “We personalize the experience by giving reports and feedback in real time. And when you do that, it’s a very different paradigm.”

Devin Karambelas is a summer 2013 Collegiate Correspondent.

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