Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Plug in and learn

Published on 13 September 2011
Updated on 05 April 2024

A couple of surveys from Pew Research Center conducted in spring 2011 have shed some interesting light on online courses and, indeed, on surveys in general. I can’t help but wonder had Diplo Internet governance alumni been polled, would the results have been any different. For instance, according to Pew, only 29% of the general public thinks that online courses offer an equal value compared with courses taken in a classroom but that 51% of college presidents surveyed say their online courses offer the same value. Now, if you live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, or in the City of London, or indeed in any other cosmopolitan centre in the world, then perhaps this might hold true. But what if you’re living hundreds of miles from the nearest university, on a different island altogether perhaps, then what? What if you simply can’t afford to take the time off work to study in situ? What if your access to mainstream education is limited to Internet connection? How then do you measure value?

More and more students are taking advantage of the flexibility offered by online learning. According to these surveys, about one-in-four college graduates (23%) report that they have taken a class online. But if we narrow that down to the last ten years, this figure doubles to 46%. We have seen a similar trend at Diplo with the numbers enrolling in our online Internet governance courses increasing with each new call. Interestingly, those same college presidents predict that in ten years’ time, half of all students will be studying online.

Is there a connection perhaps with the subject being studied? Let’s take Internet governance or ICT policy – it seems somewhat appropriate to study both these topics using the medium which is at their core – the Internet. But let’s be clear about what we mean by online learning. It’s not simply a matter of downloading text and returning set assignments via e-mail. Diplo’s online classrooms bring together professionals from all over the world, each with their particular experience and knowledge, ready to share for the greater good. Blogs and forums augment the virtual classroom and conversations and discussions flow. Friendships blossom and networks comes come life. The only difference perhaps is that you can’t actually see your classmates.

Perhaps one of the more salient points revealed by the study is that nearly two-thirds of college presidents (62%) anticipate that 10 years from now, more than half of the textbooks used by their undergraduate students will be entirely digital. Educational textbook publisher McGraw-Hill is already gearing up to the challenge. In response to a new California state law requiring that all textbooks used in public and private post-secondary institutions be made available digitally by the year 2020, the publisher already offers digital versions of 95% of its current higher education titles. In Florida, a recent budget proposal advocates that all Florida schools  adopt digital textbooks by the 2015-16 school year and spend at least 50% of their textbook budget on digital materials by that time.

Interesting times lie ahead.


Read the complete study at
4 replies
  1. Vladimir Radunovic
    Vladimir Radunovic says:

    “Enhanced diversity” —
    “Enhanced diversity” — September 14, 2011 by Jovan —
    A good point on diversity. Online interaction even strengthens diversity. When we meet in person, we tend to “compromise” and find middle ground in the way we talk and substantive arguments. Online communication clears “emotional noise” and make us focus on diversity of arguments and inputs. Any other experience?

  2. Vladimir Radunovic
    Vladimir Radunovic says:

    “Experience and diversity” –
    “Experience and diversity” — September 14, 2011 by CarmelR —
    Online courses are many a times taken by those who cannot afford to leave work and dedicate themselves to a full time course at the university. In itself this requires more committment from the student who is required to put in extra effort in order to satisfy both study and work requirements. Furthermore, these students are more likely to have on the job experience to share with other students in the online class. And having students from different countries, increases even further this experience.
    The experience and diversity found in online courses is very difficult to match when attending a classroom course.

  3. Vladimir Radunovic
    Vladimir Radunovic says:

    “False dilemma: Online vs In
    “False dilemma: Online vs In situ Learning” — September 14, 2011 by Jovan —
    Thank you Mary for a good digest and valid points. The Pew Research Center study is based on the false dilemma between online and in situ training. This dilemma was frequent in the early days of the Internet, when it was naively argued that computers would replace univeristies, media, banks, …. ( the ‘endism’ argument). Comparing online and insitu training as better or “worse was questionable. Two types of learning are different (not necessarily better or worse). Each one is used when it is appropriate. We, at Diplo, started online learning in order to provide training for diplomats from Commonwealth small island states. They did not have any viable alternatives.
    Today, this dilemma is becoming even more absurd. With Facebook, Twitter and mobile applications, we face a constant interplay between online and ‘real’ life. The switch between the two worlds is seamless and it is happening while we walk (using GPS), buy (comparing prices online + buying in a real shop), read and entertain.
    There is a need for much more serious research and, definitely, different research question. Any suggestions anyone?

  4. Vladimir Radunovic
    Vladimir Radunovic says:

    “value, or perceptions of
    “value, or perceptions of value?” — September 14, 2011 by Hannah —
    It seems to me that what these surveys measure is not the value of online learning, but rather perceptions of the value of online learning. We cannot assume that members of the public have all attended well-designed online and classroom-based courses on similar topics and can make an informed comparison. College presidents may have statistics on hand to compare learning outcomes in different kinds of courses, however they too are unlikely to have personal experience. So, these survey results don’t actually say much about the value of online learning. Instead, they say that most people, at least within the general public, (still) think that online learning is less valuable than face-to-face learning.
    Perceptions may change with greater exposure. And due to many factors (convenience in particular), exposure to and experience of online learning is increasing. Will people start to think of online learning as an equal or preferable choice at some point? Or will they continue to think of it as a second choice, even if it’s their only option because they live too far from campus, can’t afford to take time off work, or other reasons.
    Finally, I wonder how relevant it is to compare online and classroom-based learning these days? There is an increasing trend to blend the two (blended learning programmes, use of online resources and tools to support classroom based learning, etc). Eventually we may just talk about learning, judging its value by its effectiveness, rather than the medium of delivery?


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