Most college students and faculty seem to share a preference for in-person, not online, instruction.
This shared perspective was revealed by two recently released studies from the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research. The first, published in October, surveyed more than 40,000 students at 118 U.S. institutions, while the second, published this week, drew on data from 9,500 faculty members across 119 US institutions.
Among student respondents, 70 percent said they prefer mostly or completely face-to-face learning environments. The professors surveyed were even more partial to face-to-face classes, with 73 percent preferring them.
Yet overall, about half of both students and faculty—including those who voted for “mostly” face-to-face instruction—indicated some degree of preference for course delivery that combines aspects of both in-person and online education.
This suggests that many students and instructors may be open-minded about online or “blended” education, although some may have encountered particular practices they especially liked or didn’t like, the researchers conclude. For example, far more student respondents expressed support for turning homework in digitally than for watching lectures online or for having online conferences with their professors.
“I think what it perhaps reflects is a need to maybe do online learning a little bit better,” said D. Christopher Brooks, director of research for the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research. “When we look at what students say their faculty are doing with technology in the classroom, I think a lot of times what we see is faculty are using it to some degree but maybe not using it in a way that is fully engaging.”
That might look like a course he once observed at the University of Minnesota, where students gathered in person for discussions and group projects once every other week. In between these face-to-face sessions, the students watched short lecture videos that the professor posted online.
This kind of half-and-half split between in-person and online instruction is “pretty rare at this point,” Brooks says.
On the opposite end of the survey spectrum, 9 percent of both students and faculty reported preferring instruction environments that are mostly or completely online.
Among students, stronger preferences for online learning came from those who reported working at least 40 hours per week, having dependents or domestic partners or having a disability. Another set of college students more likely to prefer mostly online instruction were those ages 25 or older—of which there were more than 7 million in fall 2019, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. These students may find online courses more flexible and practical than classes that require them to come to campus on a set schedule, the EDUCAUSE report speculates.
Among faculty, Baby Boomers and members of Gen X were twice as likely as millennial instructors to prefer teaching fully online. Because of their experience and tenure status, older professors may have more freedom to experiment with new kinds of instructional tools and formats, Brooks hypothesizes.
And for both students and faculty, experience with and preference for online learning seems to go together, although it’s not clear which comes first.
Either way, one bad online class may leave a lasting negative impression on a student or professor—discouraging him or her from trying other online courses, Brooks says.
What does that mean for educators who hope to make digital instruction successful?
“We need to create better online experiences,” Brooks says.