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Review: The Digital Revolution and Higher Education


The Digital Revolution and Higher Education is a new report from the Pew Research Center released just last week. One of the most recent research reports from the Pew Social and Demographic Trends Project, it includes information gathered in the spring of this year from two surveys: one of more than 2,000 adults representing the general public, and another of more than 1,000 college and university presidents representing public, private, and for-profit institutions. The adults included in the survey were at least 18 years of age and over half did not have a college degree. This report addresses the perception of the value of online learning in higher education and identifies trends in the use of technology, as well as predictions for the future of online education.

This post highlights some of the study's findings that may be the most relevant for online learners: educational value, trends in online delivery, and trends in technology use. The full report and survey questions [PDF] are also available for your review and further investigation.

Perceptions of Value

What do people think of online learning in terms of educational value? In the two surveys conducted for this report, perceptions differed between the general public and higher education presidents. Only 29% of adults surveyed responded that "a course taken online provides an equal educational value to one taken in a classroom," but 51% of institution presidents responded that the value of online and traditional courses is the same. Of the surveyed adults who had previously taken an online course, 39% found the value of online and traditional formats to be equal.

Trends in Online Delivery

The Digital Revolution and Higher Education report found several trends related to the online delivery of academic courses, and asked the college presidents to weigh in on their predictions for the future.

  • Online enrollment is increasing. There are other research efforts, such as those by The Sloan Consortium, that document this trend. The Pew study reports that 50% of college presidents believe that a decade from now the majority of students will take courses online. It's also interesting to note that 77% of the surveyed institutions are already offering online courses. Of the adults surveyed representing the general public, 46% of those who graduated in the last 10 years reported having taken at least one course online.
  • Online may not mean "at a distance." Of the schools that do already offer online courses and also have residential campuses, 88% offer their online courses to their traditional, on-campus students, as well as students that are considered to be strictly "online students."
  • Trends vary by type of institution.  The more selective the institution is, the less likely it is to be involved in offering online course options. This was also found to be the case at liberal arts colleges. Two-year community colleges and less selective institutions were more likely to offer online courses. The Barron's Profiles ratings of competitiveness were used to categorize the schools represented in this study. The most competitive and selective institutions typically admit fewer than 33% of applicants.

Trends in Technology Use

Technology is playing a larger role in higher education. This includes the development of more online courses and programs, as well as the use of technology to support students in both online courses and traditional classrooms.

  • eBooks are more prevalent. Sixty-two percent of college presidents predict that more than half of textbooks for undergraduate courses will be in digital format in the future.. We are seeing these trends reported elsewhere, as many categories of publishing make the move to either offer digital format options of print titles or replace print with digital versions.
  • Plagiarism is increasing. Just over half of college presidents (55%) agree that student plagiarism has increased over the last 10 years and the majority (89%) feel that the digital nature of information, access to the Internet, and the use of laptops and mobile devices are major factors in the increase. This is especially applicable to traditional courses where students are allowed to bring laptops, etc. for use in class.

Implications for Online Learners

This Pew Report is important for students moving forward in their exploration of online learning options. What information from this study might have an impact on a student's academic decisions?

  • Perceived value and future employment. While this report did not include any feedback from employers, the general public's perception of value may include individuals involved in hiring and is worth further consideration. The majority of those surveyed did not see equal educational value in online and traditional face-to-face versions of courses. While employer perceptions, as documented by other sources, are changing, and acceptance of online degrees is growing, this is still an issue that online students may have to address in the job search environment.
  • Innovations in the administration and delivery of courses. Online learners can anticipate increased use of technology beyond the online access to their courses. The increased use of digital textbooks is forecast as a way in which technology will be leveraged to provide access to course resources. Students, both online and traditional, can also anticipate more attention to plagiarism detection and development of assessments designed to prevent cheating.
  • Expanding options. Higher education institutions of all types – traditional and online, for-profit and not-for-profit, two-year and four-year – are currently engaged in online course delivery. Options are expanding for students who want to enroll in academic programs that are completely online or in programs that include a combination of online and on-campus courses as part of their overall degree plan.

More about the Pew Research Center

The Pew Research Center is a "nonpartisan 'fact tank'" involved in ongoing research across seven projects. In addition to the Social and Demographic trends study highlighted in this post, you may also be interested in the Internet and American Life Project and the Global Attitudes Project. All of the research reports are provided online, including access to data sets, if you are interested in working with Pew's databases as part of your own research efforts. Check out their websites for more information and add them to your news feed to receive regular updates. You can even follow them on Twitter (@pewresearch and @pewinternet) to receive announcements about new reports.

September 7th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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