What do students think about online education?

What do students think about online education?The Chronicle of Higher Education has a great two-part feature, “Did anyone ask the students?” It’s an absolutely relevant question that is missing in almost all discussions of the future of higher education (for evidence of this, look no further than last week’s Harvard’s edX announcement and related coverage, which featured lots of administrators and experts talking, but not a single student.)

Anyway, back to the Chron article. The writer, Jeff Selingo, went out and talked with hundreds of students at all kinds of colleges (SNHU, Georgetown, Arizona State, the University of Central Florida, Valencia College, Franklin & Marshall College) and asked them what they thought of the technological revolution that’s blossoming across higher education. He got some surprising answers, particularly concerning the value of online education. Although the students have grown up in an online, mobile world, and have these technologies deeply integrated into their lives, they see huge value in the face-to-face educational experience:

Face-to-face education matters even more now. Because these students see the world through screens (mobile, tablet, and laptop), I expected them to embrace the idea of online education. Just the opposite. They want to engage with a professor and with their classmates, they crave the serendipity of classroom discussions, and they want the discipline of going to class. Even the adult students I met preferred a physical classroom. Online “you’re pretty much paying to teach yourself,” a Valencia student told me. “It’s like text messages. There’s no tone of voice.”

That doesn’t mean these students like everything about traditional higher ed. They’re over the lecture, they like the idea of “flipping the classroom,” and they do seek out online resources to brush up on certain subjects. “A lot of professors are petrified by online classes,” one Georgetown student said. “They really want to improve the classroom experience.”

However, there is some sample bias here. The students Jeff talked with are already talking in-person classes. Talking to online students, some different perspectives come up. I have written extensively about online education at the Harvard Extension School. Some students lament the lack of contact and interaction with Harvard professors and their classmates. But others who put more of an emphasis on convenience, such as this ALM in IT student who didn’t see much value in attending Extension School classes in person:

The [Harvard Extension School] doesn’t offer an internet degree yet, to Kendra Kratkiewicz’s regret. This semester, she’s forced to make the long drive from Billerica to Cambridge as she toils toward her master’s degree. Nothing would please her more than a chance to complete her Harvard education without having to show up at Harvard.

In the rush to celebrate the convenience of sitting in front of a computer at home, Harvard Extension School and some of its students forgot how important face-to-face interaction is.