The study — published by Eduventures, a higher education research and consulting firm — found that despite recent surges in interest in online courses, a majority of students still prefer the classroom experience. Only 38 percent of those surveyed prefer online classes to in-person classes. That number has remained relatively stagnant in recent years, only increasing 1 percent since 2006.
For many students, the convenience of online classes does not necessarily translate into educational benefits. The flexibility of the online format, which allows students to work at their own pace, is not always optimal. Without the benefit of interactions with peers and the professor, the lack of structure can be daunting, and a student who already struggles with a subject might struggle even more in an online setting.
However, despite the slow growth in interest, the number of students enrolling in online courses has increased by 10 percent since 2006, from 18 to 28 percent. The closing gap between preference and participation does not bode well for the future of online courses; as participation catches up to preferences, there is less room for online education to grow as a whole.
But proponents say that can be fixed by changing the perception of online classes. Only 7 percent of respondents believe that an online class is superior to an in-person class, up from 1 percent in 2006. While this may have been true in 2006, online education has changed dramatically since then. Massive open online courses provided through companies like Coursera and Udacity make available lectures from professors at prestigious universities, such as Princeton, MIT and Stanford.
Still, the study notes that if online courses are going to continue to grow, they have to have more going for them than just convenience. Instead of trying to replicate in-class instruction, they should take full advantage of the online format, so that they offer something that students cannot get in a lecture hall.