Overview of findings
As online college courses have become increasingly prevalent, the general public and college presidents offer different assessments of their educational value. Just three-in-ten American adults (29%) say a course taken online provides an equal educational value to one taken in a classroom. By contrast, fully half of college presidents (51%) say online courses provide the same value.
These findings are from a pair of Pew Research Center surveys conducted in spring 2011. One is a telephone survey taken among a nationally representative sample of 2,142 adults ages 18 and older. The other is an online survey, done in association with the Chronicle of Higher Education, among the presidents of 1,055 colleges and universities nationwide.9
More than three-quarters of the nation’s colleges and universities now offer online classes, according to the survey of college presidents, and about one-in-four college graduates (23%) have taken a course online, according to the general public survey. Among those who have graduated in the past decade, the figure rises to 46%. Adults who have taken a course online have a somewhat more positive view of the value of this learning format: 39% say a course taken online provides the same educational value as one taken in person, a view shared by only 27% of those who have not taken an online course.
Online learning is more common in some sectors of higher education than in others. Among the presidents of four-year public colleges and universities, 89% report that their institution offers classes online. Just six-in-ten presidents of private four-year colleges report the same. These private college presidents are among the most skeptical about the value of online learning. Only 36% believe a course taken online provides the same value as a class taken in person. This compares with 50% of four-year public university presidents.
The vast majority of two-year colleges offer online courses (91%), and their leaders are among the most likely to believe that online learning is comparable to learning in a classroom. Two-thirds of the presidents of two-year colleges say an online course provides an equal educational value when compared with a course taken in person. Among the leaders of for-profit colleges and universities, 71% report that their institutions offer classes online and more than half (54%) say these classes offer the same value as classes taken in person.
Of those colleges and universities that offer online courses, nearly six-in-ten (58%) grant degrees for which all the course work can be completed online, according to their leaders. Public institutions are more likely than private ones to provide this option (66% vs. 47%).
Online courses are not necessarily the equivalent of distance learning. Among residential colleges and universities that offer online courses, 88% offer online classes to their students who live on campus.
Looking Ahead: More Growth in Digital Learning
Over the past decade, enrollment in online courses at colleges and universities around the country has grown at a greater rate than overall higher education enrollment. According to surveys conducted by the College Board and the Babson Survey Research Group, the number of students at degree-granting postsecondary institutions taking at least one online course increased by 21% from the fall of 2008 to the fall of 2009. Over that same one-year period, total enrollment increased by only 1.2%.10
College presidents see this trend continuing. While 15% report that more than half of their current undergraduate student body has taken at least one course online, 50% predict that 10 years from now a majority of their students will be taking classes online.
Whether learning takes place in a virtual classroom or in a more traditional setting, the textbooks used by college students are becoming increasingly high-tech. Nearly two-thirds of the presidents surveyed (62%) predict that 10 years from now more than half of their undergraduate textbooks will be entirely digital.
Laptops, the Internet and Plagiarism
Through their use of cellphones, smartphones, tablet computers and laptops, today’s college students are accustomed to being constantly connected. Increasingly, this has meant bringing these technologies with them into the college classroom. In the Pew Research survey of the general public, more than half of recent college graduates and currently enrolled college students report that they have often (35%) or sometimes (22%) used these types of devices during class time. One-in-five (19%) say they hardly ever used these devices in the classroom and 22% say they never have.11
The institutional rules about the use of laptops and other portable computers during class tend to vary across and even within colleges and universities. A narrow majority of college presidents (56%) say that at their institution it is up to the individual instructor to decide whether students can use laptops or other portable computers in the classroom. Four-in-ten college presidents (41%) say that at their institution, students are allowed to use laptops during class. Only 2% say laptops are prohibited in class.
Students’ ease of access to the digital world has created some problems for educators. A majority of college presidents surveyed say they have seen a rise in plagiarism over the past decade, and most believe that technology is a major factor behind that rise. Some 55% of college presidents say plagiarism has increased in college students’ papers over the past 10 years. An additional 40% say that plagiarism has stayed the same over this period. Just 2% say it has decreased.
Of those who say plagiarism is on the rise, the overwhelming majority (89%) believe that computers and the internet have played a major role in this trend. Only 7% say these new technologies have played a minor role.
A Disproportionate Impact across Institutions
These broad trends in technology use are not taking hold at the same pace throughout the nation’s institutions of higher learning. There is wide variance in adoption rates among colleges and universities. Aside from the differences among public, private, two-year and for-profit institutions, there are clear divisions across other dimensions. The presidents of liberal arts colleges and highly selective institutions are less likely than other college presidents to report that their schools offer online classes. And at the highly selective schools, fewer students are taking online classes when they are offered.
For example, among the presidents of four-year liberal arts colleges, 61% report that their institution offers classes that are taught exclusively online. By contrast, 79% of the presidents of research universities and 82% of those at community colleges say they offer online classes to students.12
Other Key Findings
- College presidents’ beliefs about the mission of higher education are linked to their views and experiences with online learning. Among those who believe the most important role college plays is to prepare students for the working world, 59% say online classes provide the same educational value as in-person classes. Among presidents who say the role of college is to promote personal and intellectual growth, only 43% say online learning offers an equal value.
- College presidents are major adopters of new digital technologies such as e-readers, tablets and smartphones: 87% use a smartphone on a daily basis, 32% use a tablet computer such as an iPad daily and 15% say they use an e-reader such as a Kindle or Nook every day.
- Among college graduates who have taken a class online, 15% have earned a degree entirely online.
About the Report
This report is based on two Pew Research Center surveys conducted in the spring of 2011.
The first, a survey of college presidents, was done in association with the Chronicle of Higher Education. The presidents’ survey was conducted online from March 15 through April 24, 2011, among the leaders of 1,055 two-year and four-year private, public and for-profit colleges and universities with enrollments of 500 or more. In addition, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of the general public from March 15 to 29, 2011. The general public survey was conducted by landline and cellular telephone among a nationally representative sample of 2,142 adults living in the continental United States.13
Analysis and writing of this report was carried out jointly by the staffs of the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project and the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The report is divided into three sections: Online Learning; Educational Hardware and Content; and College Presidents and Their Use of Technology. A detailed methodology and topline results for the general public and the college presidents surveys can be found in the appendices.
In an effort to make higher education more flexible and accessible to more people, many American colleges and universities offer online classes and even grant degrees for courses of study in which all the course work was completed online. Of the 1,055 college and university presidents interviewed for the Pew Research survey, 77% reported that their institution offers courses for which the instruction takes place exclusively in an online environment.
The extent to which online learning has been adopted by institutions of higher education varies widely, and there are significant differences by sector. Two-year colleges are the most likely to offer online course work, with 91% offering online courses. Nearly as high a share of public four-year colleges and universities (89%) offer online courses. Seven-in-ten for-profit colleges and universities (71%) offer classes online. Private, four-year colleges are the least likely to offer online courses, though six-in-ten of these institutions offer courses online.
Religiously affiliated schools and highly selective colleges are significantly less likely than other schools to offer online courses. While 65% of religiously affiliated colleges and universities offer online classes, fully 80% of schools without a religious affiliation offer those courses. Among four-year colleges and universities, barely half of highly selective schools (51%) offer online courses, compared with 80% of mid-tier schools and 86% of colleges with low levels of selectivity.
Students and Online Learning
While many schools offer online courses, only a minority of students are taking advantage of these offerings. Again, adoption of online learning by students differs across institutions.
Across all colleges and universities, three-in-ten presidents report that less than a quarter of their currently enrolled undergraduate students have taken at least one course online. Roughly the same proportion (29%) says between one-quarter and half of their students have taken an online course. Only 15% report that more than half of their students have taken an online course.
College presidents see the potential for growth in this area. Fully half of those surveyed predict that 10 years from now a majority of their undergraduate students will be taking a class online. The presidents of two-year colleges anticipate the most growth in this area. Roughly two-thirds (65%) say that in 10 years, most of their students will be taking at least one online course (up from 16% currently). A majority (54%) of the leaders of for-profit institutions also predict that by 2021 most of their students will be enrolled in online classes.
The presidents of four-year public and private colleges don’t anticipate quite as much growth over the next decade. Among the presidents of four-year public institutions, 45% say in 10 years at least half of their students will be taking an online course (up from 14% now). And among the presidents of four-year private colleges, 37% say most of their students will be taking courses online 10 years from now.
According to the Pew Research survey of the general public, roughly one-in-four college graduates (23%) report that they have taken a course online for academic credit. Among recent college graduates, that share rises dramatically. Nearly half (46%) of those who graduated in 2000 or later say they have taken a class online.
Black and Hispanic college graduates are more likely than whites to have taken a class online (35% vs. 21%). In addition, graduates who attended college later in life are more likely than those who went to college right after high school to have some experience with online learning. More than one-third (36%) of college graduates who completed college when they were 30 or older say they took classes online. This compares with only 17% of graduates who finished college when they were 22 or younger. In addition, college graduates who majored in business are more likely than those who majored in science, engineering or liberal arts to have taken online courses.
The Value of Online Learning
Along with the growing prevalence of online learning comes a real sense of skepticism among the public about the value this format offers students. Respondents in the general public survey were asked whether they thought a course taken online provides an equal educational value as a course taken in person in a classroom. Only 29% of all respondents said online classes offer an equal value. Six-in-ten said online courses do not offer the same value as classes taken in person, and 11% were unsure.
Views on this issue are fairly consistent across major demographic groups. In spite of the fact that they have grown up in a digital world, young adults are as skeptical about online learning as are their older counterparts. Among those younger than 30, only 28% say a course taken online is equal in value to a course taken in person; 67% say it is not. The same is true for those ages 30 and older: 30% say an online class offers the equivalent value of a class taken in person, 58% say it does not.
Most college graduates have a negative view of the value of a class taught online as opposed to one taught in a more traditional classroom setting. Only about one-in-five college graduates (22%) say an online course offers an equal educational value, while 68% say it does not. Among non-college graduates, 32% say online classes are equal in value to classes taught in person.
Those who have personal experience with online learning have a somewhat more positive view of its value. Even so, a majority rejects the notion that online classes offer the same educational value as in-person classes. Roughly four-in-ten (39%) of those who have taken an online course say online classes in general provide an equal value when compared with classes taken in person in a classroom, and 57% say they do not. By comparison, 27% of those who have never taken a class online say the value is equivalent to being in the classroom.
Compared with the public, college presidents have a more positive view of the value of online learning. Still, they are divided over whether a class taught online provides an equal educational value as a class taught in person. Overall, 51% of college presidents say online classes offer an equal value, and 48% say they do not.
Presidents who lead colleges where online learning is part of the curriculum have a much more positive assessment of the value these classes provide than those who oversee institutions with no online classes. Among presidents of colleges that offer online courses, 59% say these classes are equal in value to in-person classes. Only 21% of presidents whose institutions do not offer online classes agree.
Looking across different sectors of higher education, presidents of two-year colleges are among the most likely to say online classes are just as valuable as classes taken in person (66%). More than half of the presidents of for-profit colleges (54%) agree that online classes provide an equivalent educational value. Among the presidents of four-year public universities, opinion is more evenly divided: 50% say a course taken online is equal in value to a course taken in person; 48% say it is not. The leaders of four-year private colleges are among the most skeptical about the value of online learning: 36% say online classes provide the same value as classes taken in person, while 62% say they do not.
Beliefs about the mission of higher education are linked to presidents’ views about the value of online learning. Those who believe that the mission of higher education is to prepare students for the workforce are more likely to say that online courses provide equal value to in-person classes (59% vs. 40%). Meanwhile, presidents who believe that the mission of higher education is to promote personal and intellectual growth are less enthusiastic about the value of online courses—43% say they are equal in value to in-person classes, while a 56% majority says they are not.
Online Degrees and on-Campus Options
Online courses are provided not simply to increase student access to certain classes, but in many cases the courses are offered as a part of a fuller online degree program. Of the roughly three-quarters of American campuses that offer online courses, more than half (58%) offer degrees for programs where all of the course work has been completed online, according to their presidents. Online degrees are most prevalent at for-profit institutions, where 71% offer them, and at four-year public institutions, of which two-thirds (66%) offer degrees for work completed entirely online. Among two-year colleges that offer online classes, 54% also offer online degrees, and among four-year private schools, less than half do so (47%).
Institutions that do not offer full degrees for courses taken online are less likely to have a large percentage of students taking online courses. Half (54%) of schools where less than one-quarter of students take online courses do not offer online degrees. In contrast, 82% of schools where at least three-quarters of the students take online classes offer degrees for work completed entirely online.
While many online courses are designed to facilitate distance learning for those who cannot or choose not to be on campus, many campuses now have a substantial number of on-campus students taking courses online. According to their presidents, half of universities and colleges that offer online courses make at least some of those courses available for their on-campus undergraduate students; 7% do not make these courses available; and 42% do not have residential students. Of residential colleges that offer online classes, 88% offer online courses to on-campus undergraduates, and 12% do not. On-campus online courses are more prevalent at four-year public schools (96% offer these classes to their residential undergraduate students) than at four-year private schools (73%).
Educational hardware and content
In addition to expanding access to educational opportunities through online learning, digital technology shows promise in revolutionizing other aspects of education. College texts are big business, with the higher education market estimated at more than $8 billion annually.14 But paper may be giving way to digital versions—whether consumed on a web page, a library’s “e-reserves” or through an e-reader such as a Nook or Kindle. The advent of digital textbooks has already begun; digital textbooks make up about 3% of sales, according to the National Association of College Stores.15 And in July, Amazon announced the option to rent textbooks on the Kindle for as little as 30 days.16
The college presidents surveyed believe that a rapid conversion to digital textbooks is just around the corner. Just under two-thirds of today’s college presidents (62%) believe that more than half of the textbooks used by students at their institution a decade from now will be entirely digital. Just 7% of presidents believe that less than a quarter of the texts their students will use in the future will be digital, and 30% estimate the share will be between 25% and 50%.
Even those presidents who oversee institutions where online learning is less prevalent predict a dominant role for digital textbooks. Among the leaders of four-year private colleges, 60% say that 10 years from now more than half of the textbooks used by their students will be entirely digital. This compares with 59% of presidents from four-year public universities, 65% of presidents from two-year institutions and 66% of presidents from for-profit colleges.
Laptops on Campus
As more and more students own laptops and other portable computing devices, and as course texts migrate into digital environments, schools have a policy decision before them—allow laptops in the classroom for note-taking and e-textbook reading; ban their use during class time as an unwelcome distraction from learning; or allow instructors to make their own decisions about whether to allow the devices in class. Most colleges and universities have settled on a middle ground for the time being. A narrow majority of college presidents (56%) report that it is up to the instructor as to whether students can use portable computers during class. An additional 41% say that students are allowed to bring their laptops to class. And just 2% say their institutions prohibit laptops from the classroom.
Plagiarism and New Technologies
While technology has shown promise in expanding opportunities for distance learning and for creating less expensive and more interactive learning materials, it may also facilitate certain negative behaviors including plagiarism and cheating. When asked about plagiarism in papers among college students, the majority of college presidents (55%) say that it has increased in the past decade. Another large portion of presidents (40%) believe that it has stayed the same over the past 10 years. Very few college presidents (2%) believe that plagiarism has decreased over the past decade.
These findings are similar across different types of colleges and universities, nonprofits and for-profits, four-year and two-year institutions, community colleges, liberal arts colleges and research universities as well as across the spectrum of admissions selectivity.
When asked whether they feel that computers had played a role in the increase in plagiarism, presidents overwhelmingly believe that they have. Roughly nine-in-ten presidents (89%) believe that computers and the internet have played a major role in the increase in plagiarism on papers over the past decade. Just 7% say they have played a minor role, and 1% say they have not played a role in the increase.
College presidents and their use of technology
College presidents are adept at using multiple forms of technology. They have high rates of access to technology, with 91% of presidents reporting they use a laptop computer at least occasionally, 88% saying they use a smartphone and 87% saying they use a desktop computer. They are also early adopters of new technologies such as tablet computers and e-readers. Roughly half of the college presidents surveyed (49%) report that they use a tablet computer (such as an iPad) at least occasionally, and 42% use an electronic book device (such as a Kindle or Nook). Just under one-third of presidents (32%) report using a mobile phone that is not a smartphone on at least an occasional basis.
College presidents employ multiple forms of technology (laptop and desktop computers, smartphones and other cell phones) to varying degrees on a daily basis. Presidents most often rely on smartphones, with 86% using them several times a day. Desktop computers are the second most often used technology, with 82% of presidents using them several times a day, a third higher than laptops (56%). One-in-four (24%) report that they use other mobile phones several times a day.
Roughly one-quarter (26%) of the college presidents surveyed say they use a tablet computer several times a day. Nearly one-in-ten (8%) use an e-reader this often.
Compared with the general public, college presidents are proving to be early adopters of many of these new technologies. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 12% of all adults had an e-reader such as a Kindle or Nook. This compares with 42% of college presidents who report using such a device at least occasionally.17 Similarly, while only 8% of the general public report having a tablet computer such as an iPad, 49% of college presidents use this type of technology at least occasionally.
Many college presidents are also utilizing social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter. Fully half of those surveyed say they use Facebook at least occasionally, with 18% saying they use it every day. Nearly one-in-five (18%) say they use Twitter at least occasionally.
College presidents may be slightly ahead of the general public in their use of Facebook and Twitter. In the 2011 Pew Internet survey, 45% of all adults said they had used Facebook and 10% had used Twitter. However, college presidents lag behind or are on par with young adults in their use of social media. Among those ages 18-29, 74% use Facebook and 17% use Twitter.
Technology use by college presidents is fairly consistent across different sectors of higher education. While the institutions may differ in the degree to which they have embraced online learning, their leaders are equally adept at using many of the newer technologies. Younger presidents (under age 50) are more likely than their older counterparts to use laptop computers at least daily. There are notable patterns by region as well. Presidents of colleges located in the East are less likely than their counterparts in other regions to use a smartphone daily. East Coasters also lag behind the rest of the country in Facebook adoption. While presidents of 50-55% of the colleges in the Midwest, South and West use Facebook at least occasionally, just 37% of East Coast presidents use the social network.