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The importance of trust in online education and E-Learning

Thursday, April 25, 2019
Training and Education Report Trustpilot

Digital platforms are rapidly redefining the world’s notion of education.

Online programs have enjoyed massive growth in recent years, with the e-learning industry on track to triple in the next decade. In this day and age, many professionals see e-learning as essential to career advancement, gravitating toward “MicroMasters” or certificate programs to bolster their qualifications. As cynics of e-learning are quick to point out, online programs often have troublingly low completion rates and stunningly high prices. Researchers say student success depends on access to instructors, but e-learners often struggle without support.

In this modern digital age, online learning means democratised learning. Customers have no shortage of options available to them for whatever learning need they might have. Since most training and education companies deliver an online experience, potential customers for these companies are inherently tech-savvy and know to research potential e-learning companies, which often includes seeking out third-party validation and social proof like online reviews.

To better understand the current state of online education and e-learners’ motivations and frustrations, we analysed global industry data and surveyed over 2,000 previous and potential e-learning customers from the U.K. and U.S. Some findings include:

  • Although North America and Europe already have the largest e-learning markets in the world, these markets are still growing. In fact, around 9 in 10 consumers want to take an online course in the future. Only 13.6% of U.K. and 9.2% of U.S. survey respondents had no desire to take an online course in the future.
  • 87% of e-learners cite the reputation of the organisation administering their online experience is very or moderately important to them. Only 1% said reputation was not at all important to them.
  • Nearly 8 in 10 consumers researched e-learning programs before committing to a course, with nearly 70% spending at least one to two hours or more on their research.

Read on to learn more about the global landscape of online education, and what matters most to e-learners when evaluating their next course.

Global Growth

As the appetite for online education has increased in recent years, the demand in many countries is on the rise. Among emerging nations in the Asia-Pacific region, the e-learning market boasted a 54% compounded annual growth rate, led by nations such as Myanmar and Mongolia. In many of Asia’s rapidly developing economies, e-learning offers an unprecedented degree of opportunity: If traditional schools can’t teach coding, mobile apps can fill the gaps. Growth was equally robust in Latin America, where the recent proliferation of smartphones has made e-learning more accessible.

Even though the e-learning market is projected to expand in every region of the globe, some nations seem relatively cautious in their embrace of online education. Developed nations of the Asia-Pacific had a compound growth rate of 23%, well below that of Europe and North America. Interestingly, experts say wealthy Asian countries may particularly benefit from digital learning and training programs. Japan, for example, must anticipate the automation of its lauded manufacturing industry, and digital learning may serve to “upskill” workers accordingly. Even with growing markets around the globe, Europe and North America still have the largest e-learning markets in the world.

Figure 1
Figure 1

E-Learning Attitudes: U.S. and U.K.

In our own survey of individuals in America and the U.K., we found that consumers in these countries have considerably different e-learning backgrounds. A much greater percentage of U.S. respondents reported having prior e-learning experience. In fact, more than 80% of Americans surveyed reported they had taken an online course and hoped to take more, whereas just under 60% of individuals in the U.K. said the same.

This gap may stem more from a lack of access than lack of interest since U.K. residents were far more likely to say they wished to take a course online but hadn’t yet had the chance. E-learning is far more common in U.S. higher education than in the U.K., although that might soon change. Participation in online courses may increase in the coming years, though, as more U.K. students seek digital solutions to allay high university fees.

When looking at those who planned to take online courses in the future, whether they had previously participated or not, interest in both countries was about the same. Only 13.6% of U.K. and 9.2% of U.S. survey respondents had no desire to take an online course in the future. While there wasn’t a large difference in plans to take online courses by nationality, e-learners’ education levels did impact their desire to take additional online classes.

Figure 2
Figure 2

For those who have previously taken an online course and plan on taking more, education level can affect their likelihood of further online education. At every educational level, U.S. residents were more likely than individuals in the U.K. to have taken online courses and wished to take more. But among Americans with an associate, bachelor’s, or graduate degree, enthusiasm for e-learning was particularly high.

For example, over 92% of individuals with an advanced degree said they had taken an online course and would do so again. This finding underscores e-learning’s benefits even after earning a diploma; skill-oriented courses are a popular means for established professionals to boost their earning power. Those with advanced degrees might be extra scrupulous when choosing an e-learning platform, since higher degrees and excellent research skills often go hand in hand.

As one might reasonably expect, experiences and attitudes related to online education differed significantly by generation in each country. However, 9 in 10 people in every generation were interested in future online courses, revealing that consumers of all ages find e-learning valuable. Although the majority were interested, their previous e-learning experience varied greatly by generation and nationality.

American millennials were the most likely to have taken online classes and wanted to take more, with just 5.5% reporting that they had not yet taken a course despite wanting to. In the UK, twenty-six percent of millennials had not taken an online course but wanted to, nearly five times as many as their U.S. counterparts.

The trend continued across the older generations, as nearly 25% of British Gen Xers were new to e-learning and looking to take courses, twice as many as American Gen Xers. Seventy-five percent of American baby boomers had taken online classes and wished to do so again, 20% more than British consumers in their generation.

Certainly, economic incentives exist on both sides of the pond: Experts recommend that baby boomers take online courses to remain relevant at work. While new and returning interest combined is equally as high in both countries, special attention should be paid to the high number of new consumers in the U.K. who will be carefully researching the best online courses and platforms.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Platform and Pedagogy

So, how do those interested in online courses prefer to learn?, Most respondents favored engaging in digital learning platforms via their computers. This feeling was particularly strong in the U.S., where almost 73% of learners expressed a preference for using their desktops. In some ways, these attitudes may seem oddly outmoded: The majority of internet traffic now comes from smartphones and tablets, but some student tasks lend themselves to larger screens. When poring over reading materials or typing discussion posts, smartphones may prove inconvenient.

Additionally, a majority of U.K. and U.S. respondents favoured solitary learning, a natural preference for those studying online. However, approximately 32% of students in each country expressed a preference for social learning as well, suggesting a lingering desire for the conviviality of traditional classrooms.

Indeed, veteran instructors of online courses say that fostering engagement and interaction among students is a major challenge. Because social learners value opportunities for interpersonal communication and group participation, they may struggle with the independence of the e-learning experience.

Preferences and Priorities

When researching an e-learning platform or course, online students seek out information about the quality, specifically the quality of learning materials, user experience, and instructors. When asked which aspects of an online course they regarded as very important, more than 6 in 10 users in each country identified the quality of learning materials as an essential concern.

E-learners considered learning materials more important than user interface or instructors – however, around 59% still regarded the quality of instructors as very important. If consumers can’t trust that the learning materials are high quality, then the instructor teaching on the platform hosting those learning materials may become less credible. When we took a deeper dive into the features of e-learning experiences, we discovered what truly matters most to e-learning consumers.

While the learning materials are important, respondents were generally concerned with the delivery of course content and overall user experience: The majority found the use of interactive or multimedia assignments to be important. Nearly as many valued video lectures or live streams by real instructors. Beyond elements of the learning experience itself, nearly three-quarters of respondents were concerned with obtaining a certificate upon completion. The financial opportunities resulting from these credentials are significant, especially in fields that prize concrete skills. Google recently established an IT certificate program in partnership with Coursera, noting the country’s largest employers are constantly seeking workers with this technical skill set.

In some cases, however, respondents in the U.K. and U.S. had substantially different perspectives. Americans, for example, were more likely to value the use of social learning methods, whereas U.K. residents placed greater emphasis on mobile accessibility. Interestingly, a minority of individuals in both countries found strict deadlines and well-established expectations important to the e-learning experience. Online courses claim to offer greater flexibility, but a lack of structure can actually make time management more difficult for many students.

For e-learners in both the U.S. and U.K., 24/7 customer service was considered more important than social learning methods, mobile device accessibility, and deadline and topic variance. 89% of consumers have ended their business with a company after encountering poor customer service — a key reason that consumers lose trust in a business and leave a negative review.

While online courses can offer definite career advantages, professionals’ motives may differ according to one’s position on the corporate ladder. For those in middle management positions or lower on the totem pole, gaining a certificate upon completion was a top priority. Conversely, those in senior leadership positions were more concerned with the inclusion of video lectures and the constant availability of tech support.

For those in senior leadership positions, 24/7 customer service was more important than an official completion certificate. Those professionals might be completing their courses outside of standard working hours due to their busy schedules, so customer service, no matter the time, needs to be available.

Price and Privacy

When researching potential e-learning options, consumers want to know the cost of the course and if the cost is worth it. When asked to assess the value of e-learning experiences relative to their costs, the largest segment of respondents found the pricing of online courses appropriate. Almost 29% of respondents felt even more positively about the value, regarding e-learning as a great deal providing considerable value at low prices.

Many certificate programs cost just a couple hundred dollars or less, pocket change compared to credit costs at most universities. But for those pursuing degrees, online students are often charged more than their peers on campus to cover technical and administrative expenses. That reality may explain the sentiments of almost 13% of respondents who felt online education offered high costs and relatively little value.

Figure 4
Figure 4

In an era of concern about user data, consumers need to know that they can trust e-learning companies with their information. 32% of individuals in the U.K. and nearly 26% in the U.S. said they worried about how their personal information might be misused or mishandled by an e-learning platform.

This slight gap might be attributable to cultural attitudes: European nations tend to favour more assertive privacy policies. With so much course content available for free, it might be reasonable to assume that companies are looking for ways to monetise user data. So far, however, big players such as edX have gravitated toward charging students, rather than selling their information to turn a profit. While data trust is important to consumers, company reputation has the biggest influence on their e-learning choices.

Questioning Quality

No matter who the consumer is, or what course qualities they care about, the reputation of the e-learning organisation is important to consumers. The reputation of an organisation involved in an online class was an important consideration for a staggering 99% of consumers. OOnly 1.1% said reputation was not all important to them.

Additionally, nearly 4 in 5 students said they researched online education programs before enrolling. Because some online colleges lack accreditation, failing to investigate in this way could lead to much wasted time and money. Nearly 70% spent at least one hour or more on their research, with only 22% not doing any research at all. With the large majority of consumers caring about reputation and spending time researching their decision, e-learning companies can’t afford not to care about their reviews and reputation.

Online Education: Access Needs Accountability

Our far-ranging findings attest to the explosion of online education opportunities in recent years. As e-learning’s global scale continues to expand, the sheer diversity of options can seem both enticing and overwhelming. IIn an industry evolving so quickly, how can consumers distinguish between excellent programs and those that fail to deliver on their promises? Which e-learning experiences are worthy investments, equipping participants with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed?

For many, the most important endorsements come from fellow students: In evaluating online courses, reviews are an essential source of relevant information. In this regard, the e-learning industry is much like many others – credibility depends on the feedback of real consumers. Trustpilot helps companies gather authentic reviews and share positive feedback with potential customers. Every day, we help thousands of businesses connect with the people they serve and improve to meet their needs. For a master class in managing your reputation online and gaining consumer trust with transparent reviews, explore our services today.


All survey data were collected via SurveyMonkey and hosted on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Prolific Research on Jan. 16, 2019. We surveyed 2,091 people in all: 1,044 U.S. adults and 1,047 U.K. residents. This sample included 1,041 men and 1,050 women and an age range of 18 to 74 years old. All other data were sourced from open online publications and are listed in the source list. The survey data we reported on here were all based on self-reporting, which is inherently limited by factors such as selective memory, exaggeration, response bias, and telescoping.

Fair Use Statement

Please share these findings with others who may find them interesting: In the ongoing conversation about digital learning, we hope these hard data are a welcome addition. With regard to sharing our work, we have two simple requests. First, please only use our information and images for noncommercial purposes. Second, link back to this page to properly attribute our team.


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