The journey through higher education ought to be one in which students face novel and exceptional cognitive challenges to master learning and critical thinking. However, while academic rigor yields capable graduates, it is not in the nature of most people—especially Gen Z students fresh out of high school—to select willingly a difficult path through their college years. The path of least resistance is the most trodden one.
Recent survey results indicating a strong preference toward online education are thus predictable. These data, from Champlain College Online, show that the perception of online education is improving, with respondents suggesting that online higher ed is a reasonable substitute for on-campus learning.
The surveyor’s vested interest in validating its own business model notwithstanding, the data make online higher education appear promising. Respondents praise the convenience of online coursework, and 84 percent of them believe employers have become more accepting of online degrees. Furthermore, 73 percent of surveyed adults said that online education is “the same or better at meeting the needs of traditional students.”
These glowing results warrant a significant degree of skepticism. Responses to overbroad questions showing more positive “perceptions” of online learning (whether among students or employers) may not be an indication of actual academic quality.
Serious institutions must weigh the convenience of online programs against their shortcomings in rigor.While the Champlain survey results paint a rosy picture from the outside looking in, one ought to examine online students’ experiences at a more granular level. After all, we have available for study a cohort of students who have experienced both in-person and online education thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic response. A study of 366 college students of all grade levels at the University of West Attica (Greece) found that students are “more time concentrated, understand better, are more engaged with learning, and communicate more effectively with the teacher during in-person classes.” Researchers concluded that “socialization is not just a feature of education but a prerequisite for successful learning.”
Not only did the study of students at the University of West Attica find that in-person education is more effective, but it seemingly debunked the claim that online education is more flexible and convenient. The authors write that “digitization of the material and [teacher-student] communication increased the workload for students and teachers.” Online students were actually found to be more constrained than their in-person peers.
Some argue that online education is nevertheless a valuable option for some students. Those with kids at home or with other full-time obligations may benefit from the supposed flexibility of online education, provided they possess the discipline and time-management skills necessary to fully engage with course material. However, if an online program enables students completing a four-year degree to do so while maintaining a full-time extracurricular or employment schedule, it seems impossible that they could be as engaged as full-time, in-person students. Time-constrained individuals looking to complete a college degree would do well to consider a part-time program in order to fully engage with course material while reserving time for outside obligations.
There are two factors that likely inflate the perceived credibility of online education. One is the shift away from traditional liberal education and toward career preparation. Students are increasingly demanding training for rote occupational skills and professional exam preparation, and thus interactive, rigorous learning environments may appear less necessary. The other is the belief that a college degree is primarily a signal to prospective employers of one’s conformist achievement. After all, if merely attaining a diploma is the primary objective of those pursuing higher education, then it seems rational to maximize flexibility and minimize rigor. Why waste mental resources in a seminar discussing Great Books when you can have ChatGPT write at-home assignments while you sit in your pajamas?
Colleges should expect high demand for online learning to persist, but serious academic institutions must weigh the purported convenience of online programs against their shortcomings in effectiveness and rigor. Colleges that wish to immerse their students in a dynamic, collaborative, and rigorous learning environment—one that is aimed toward academic achievement rather than transactional degree granting—should keep their students on campus.
Harrington Shaw is an intern at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and a senior studying economics and philosophy at UNC-Chapel Hill.