• September 2, 2015

Professors Embrace Online Courses Despite Qualms About Quality

They worry about the quality of online courses, say teaching them takes more effort, and grouse about insufficient support. Yet large numbers of professors still put in the time to teach online. And despite the broad suspicion about quality, a majority of faculty members have recommended online courses to students.

That is the complicated picture that emerges in "The Paradox of Faculty Voices: Views and Experiences With Online Learning," part of a two-volume national study released today by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities—Sloan National Commission on Online Learning.

The major survey of public colleges and universities found that 70 percent of all faculty members believe the learning outcomes of online courses to be either inferior or somewhat inferior, compared with face-to-face instruction.

Professors with online experience are less pessimistic. Among those who have taught or developed an online course, the majority rated the medium's effectiveness as being as good as or better than face to face. But in a potentially controversial finding, even among professors who have taught online, fully 48 percent feel it is either inferior or somewhat inferior.

The picture gets more complicated when it comes to what professors do, rather than only perceive. The majority of those who feel the learning outcomes of online education are somewhat inferior have recommended online courses to students.

The debate about the quality of online instruction is nothing new. But the scale of this study makes it significant. Responses came from more than 10,700 faculty members at 69 public colleges and universities across the country, a sector that accounts for much of the rapidly growing online market.

Recognition Deficit

When it comes to universities' support for online learning, the report showed broad faculty dissatisfaction. That was especially the case regarding incentives for developing and teaching courses. Also rated poor: recognition for online work in tenure and promotion.

Jack M. Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts and chairman of the commission that issued the report, described the findings about online support for such learning as "a call to action." when asked about them in a conference call with reporters.

"Institutions are going to have to do a better job of providing the support to the faculty—and, by the way, to the students as well," said Mr. Wilson.

The report also punctures the prevailing notion that older professors aren't as involved with online instruction. Veteran professors—those who have taught for more than 20 years—are teaching online at rates equivalent to less-experienced faculty members, it found.

The report raises many questions. Why do so many professors feel the online medium is inferior? And how inferior?

And why—given their quality concerns and belief that it takes more effort to develop and teach online courses—do so many do it?

More than 36 percent of faculty members have experience either teaching or developing an online course, according to the report, fresh evidence of the mainstreaming of online education. A large majority of survey respondents pointed to student needs as a "primary motivator" for teaching online.

Professors judge online education with somewhat different criteria, said Jeff Seaman, author of the report and a co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, which carried out the survey for the commission.

"The access issues trump everything else," he said. "The ability to get somebody in a course that they would not ordinarily be able to take, to finish that degree, to pursue that career, to do whatever, is sufficient."

Tenure Issues

Even for online- learning enthusiasts, broadly held negative perceptions can have an influence. Tenured colleagues or department chairs will in some cases advise professors to give up their online teaching if they want to get on a tenure track, said Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium.

"Because the perception is that, if the online teaching is going to take more time than face to face, what they should be doing is teaching face to face and getting their research projects started," Ms. Poley said. She added, "If the incentives aren't matched up administratively, then you're going to have people who at a minimum are frustrated."

The report argues that universities will need to involve a larger share of the faculty to meet the continued demand for online programs. And to do that, it says, "they will need to find ways to address the time-and-effort issue and make it as easy—and as rewarding—as possible for faculty to engage in online learning."

One veteran distance-education researcher argued that faculty members require instructional-design help but questioned the need for financial carrots.

"I don't necessarily believe that I need additional incentives beyond strong support," said Chère Gibson, a University of Wisconsin at Madison professor emerita. "Nobody paid me the first time to develop my face-to-face class."

Thomas L. Russell maintains a Web site called The No Significant Difference Phenomenon that compiles studies comparing distance and traditional education. He chalked up professors' negative online perceptions about online learning to a different source.

"I think deep down inside they don't want it to replace them," he said. "They're fearful."


1. dgcamp - August 31, 2009 at 04:49 am

I have taught numerous online courses for my college. I have found that whether the online course is superior or inferior to the face-to-face course depends on 1) the type of course (content-focused vs. experiential), 2) the manner in which the course is set up by the instructor, and 3) the type of students who are in the course. In short, it depends on many variables. Thus, comparing online to on-campus courses is much like comparing apples and oranges. Online and on-campus courses are different animals that require different skill sets of both the instructors and the students. In some ways online courses are supeior to face-to-face courses and in some ways they are inferior. On the whole, one is not necessarily better than the other, they are just different.

Interestingly, after teaching online courses every semester for the last six years, I recently decided not to teach online courses in the Spring (2010). I am burned out on teaching online. It consumes enormous amounts of time and is not as personally rewarding as face-to-face courses. Teaching online is like teaching without the fun. It is all paperwork, discussion boards, and e-mails. I have decided that I would rather spend my time in front of a class than in front of a computer.

Why have I taught online in the past? Student demand was certainly a factor. A focus by the administration on increased enrollment and graduation rates is another factor. I also figured that if I did not teach online for the department, somebody else would (i.e., the department chair would hire an adjunct instructor to teach our courses online). I was concerned about the quality of the online courses that would be taught in our programs. I knew that I could ensure quality courses if I taught them. Over the years, the demand grew so much that we had to hire adjunct instructors to teach many of our online courses anyway. I am now convinced that the adjuncts who teach online for us do just fine. We selected fine instructors and provided training as needed. When we had people who struggled greatly to teach effectively online, we did not hire them for online courses again. We keep the best and let go of the rest. We also evaluated the online courses of our adjuncts and suggested improvements. I am glad I was there in the beginning to see what worked well... to see how online courses can be most effective... and to see how they are different from face to face classes.

I am not fearful that online courses are going to replace on-campus classes because online classes are not a good option for many of our students. The demand for face-to-face courses will never die.... and the demand for more education will never die.

2. laurencejgillis - August 31, 2009 at 06:40 am

Properly done, online education can run circles around any other mode of instruction.

It can all be done economically, at the speed of light, with all the bells-and-whistles, with dazzling hyperlinks, with great audio, with polling, with great interaction and (best of all) with killer visuals.

Do the decent thing, on-site: go away.

Some of your brick-and-mortar campuses will make great monasteries. Others can be converted into office space, into section eight or elderly housing, or even be paved over for parking...

3. joekling - August 31, 2009 at 07:39 am

It is much easier to evaluate the quality of online instruction because the dean/supervisor has ready access to every aspect of the course (forums,assignments,quizzes, interactive bells and whistles, etc.) unlike the f2f classroom where once the door is closed, rarely if ever does anyone look inside. Outcome as in grades evaluation only tells us how the faculty member grades the students, not what is actually going on.

4. dwilliams5 - August 31, 2009 at 08:06 am

This article seems to follow the Chronicle's editorial slant against online ed. The summary of the report, found on the website of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (http://www.aplu.org/NetCommunity/Page.aspx?pid=1347), which commissioned the study, seems to have a more objective perspective. The report is linked there so that one can consult the source and interpret it for oneself, too.

5. haohtt - August 31, 2009 at 08:29 am

"Quality" is a very subjective term. If faculty members are dissatisfied with the conditions under which they teach online, then it is natural to feel that the online environment is inferior. Although Sloan-C is one of the better sources for research in e-Learning, this study must be recongized for what it is: an opinion poll showing that many faculty feel that they are not being well supported in their online teaching. The most important determinants of online learning quality are the learner outcomes/student achievement, which is not what this study measures. If my online students are performing as well as my face-to-face students, then this is a better indicator of the quality of online learning that an opinon poll of professors. The latest meta-analysis by the U.S. Department of Education is just the latest in a large body of literature indicating that online learners do not suffer academically. There is no consistent body of data (other than opinion polls) that indicates that online learning is inferior. What this Sloan-C report shows is that institutions need to do a far better job at recognizing and rewarding quality online development and teaching.

6. suzannegord - August 31, 2009 at 09:02 am

The common denominator in quality courses is not the mode of delivery but the design of the course. I have taught F2F courses and been frustrated with the difficulty I've had getting students to open up and share.

This semester I'm teaching online for the first time and am thoroughly enjoying the kind of thoughtful, open discussions and sharing that I find rare in my F2F courses.
There are deficiencies in online learning just as there are deficiencies in F2F learning. As educators, we need to put our energy into designing and developing quality content that allows our students to think critically and become lifelong learners no matter the delivery method.

7. rjensen65 - August 31, 2009 at 09:11 am

“Cause and Effect: Instrumental variable help to isolate causal relationships, but they can be taken too far,” The Economist, August 15-21, 20098 Page 68.
It is often the case that distance education courses are taught by non-tenured instructors, and non-tenured instructors may be easier with respect to grading than tenured faculty because they are even more in need of strong teaching evaluations --- so as to not lose their jobs. The problem may have nothing whatsoever to do with online versus onsite education --- ergo misconstrued causality.

8. rjensen65 - August 31, 2009 at 09:13 am

The major five-year, multimillion dollar study that first caught my eye was the SCALE experiments on the campus of the University of Illinois where 30 courses from various disciplines were examined over a five year experiment.
Yes the SCALE experiments showed that some students got higher grades online relative to onsite courses from the same instructors, notably B students who became A students and C students who became A students. The online pedagogy tended to have no effect on D and F students --- http://www.trinity.edu/rjensen/255wp.htm#Illinois

9. rjensen65 - August 31, 2009 at 09:15 am

The Chronicle's Goldie Blumenstyk has covered distance education for more than a decade, and during that time she's written stories about the economics of for-profit education, the ways that online institutions market themselves, and the demise of the 50-percent rule. About the only thing she hadn't done, it seemed, was to take a course from an online university. But this spring she finally took the plunge, and now she has completed a class in government and nonprofit accounting through the University of Phoenix. She shares tales from the cy ber-classroom -- and her final grade -- in a podcast with Paul Fain, a Chronicle reporter.
Chronicle of Higher Education, June 11, 2008 (Audio) --- http://chronicle.com/media/audio/v54/i40/cyber_classroom/

10. berkshire - August 31, 2009 at 09:41 am

I have been teaching online since the late 1990's and believe that the online experience is just as good as the learning that occurs in the classroom. Much has changed in distance learning since the first time I taught a class when bandwidth and other technical problems were in the way. Today, there are no obstacles to ensuring a quality experience. If all one does is post lectures and/or PowerPoints and expects students to simply submit assignments, then the experience might not be as good, but if the instructor uses the tools available the experience can be as enriching, if not more so, than the classroom. Just as in the classroom in the 2000's, one can't rely solely on lecturing, there must be a variety of learning tools used. Online allows the teacher to engage students in discussions that could never happen in the classroom, to do quick quizes, to run virtual team exercises, provide short videos, and a host of other things that ensure each student receives the information. Obviously it may take more work for an instructor to teach online, and hence the reason to include such teaching in course loads, or perhaps adjust the payment to reflect the extra time online takes. There are several reputable studies that do indicate that the quality of online meets or exceeds the quality in the classroom.

11. johnfritz - August 31, 2009 at 10:09 am

Dgcamp's comment was helpful and balanced. There ARE a lot of variables to take into account. And even if we could agree with laurencejgillis that online can run circles around f2f there's that little word "properly" in his comment that renders his viewpoint facile.

12. jmblair - August 31, 2009 at 10:38 am

What jumps out from the article is that the two major issues are: 1)online take more work for the instructor, and 2) it doesn't count toward the quest for tenure. What about the student's perspective? Also, are those in the sample newbies or do any come from the pioneers in online education?


13. tesmith - August 31, 2009 at 11:19 am

Online learning requires the instructor to engage every student and does require more work with complete review of course material with each individual. I don't understand the quality factor. I think we have more of a lazy self-interest factor here. I've had many of in-class experiences where engagement with students was minimal and the delivery of instruction was inaudiable. And this is quality?

14. raymondmrose - August 31, 2009 at 11:37 am

Interesting that in all the comments about quality, no one has mentioned the Dept of Ed report that finds online education to be of higher quality than on-ground instruction. While that report only looks at online instruction in K-12 it's still about online education, so those who say there's no research that shows online education doesn't compare are right -- but not that it's not as good, that it's better. Does the online K-12 community know something that some folks in higer ed don't know?


15. mbelvadi - August 31, 2009 at 11:53 am

Given the cognitive dissonance involved in an instructor teaching an online course admitting that any aspect of it is "inferior" (a very powerful word emotionally), the fact that as many as 48% could overcome the dissonance to admit consciously to themselves, much less to someone else, that the outcome/effectiveness is "inferior" should be ringing very loud alarm bells about what's happening.
I would have found it of great concern in that regard if even 20% of those who actually teach online admitted openly it was inferior (for the students, aside from the workload/working conditions issue for the instructor), much less 48%! Perhaps it's naive of me to think most instructors have a strong enough professional ethic to experience cognitive dissonance over admitting that they're delivering an inferior learning experience to their students, but I don't think so.

16. intered - August 31, 2009 at 12:01 pm

We have conducted various kinds of research comparing degree-level fully online learning with traditional classroom learning since we assessed a first fully online BSBS cohort in 1989. The focus has been working adults so some of you may see some differences. The generalizations are many and have evolved over time. I offer a few for your consideration:

1. Large groups don't work very well. Optimum classroom size is around 10-15.

2. Instructor workload is roughly the same, net, but is substantially different with respect to the distribution and to some extent nature of the workload.

3. Structured engagement is essential to creating a successful virtual learning environment. There is now a substantial knowledge-base to which those unskilled in establishing and managing online instruction can refer to develop their skills.

4. Instructors whose idea of teaching is limited to building a set of lecture notes and multiple-choice tests and working from them with no attention to or concern for engagement does poorly in the online environment (as they do for most students in the physical classroom).

5. While we had initially thought differently, the general skills associated to excellence in on-ground instruction are not substantially different from those required in online instruction.

6. In those situations where we were able to control as closely as practicable for differences in inputs, etc. the learning outcomes in online environments tended to be slightly superior. The differences were generally accounted for by the larger proportion of students who achieved satisfactory outcomes (i.e., fewer students left behind than in the traditional classroom).

7. Online learning is not less expensive and does not undermine the role of the instructor (quite the opposite). It is about the students (some of us need reminded). Online programs increase access and, if done well, can increase success and learning.

8. The quality of online learning is improved substantially through the use of structured learning objects, whether home-grown or professionally developed. That said, the same is true with respect to a physical learning environment.

9. Authenticity in learning objectives, activities, and outcomes becomes more important in a virtual environment. (We think because irrelevant BS is easier for students to detect in this world.)

10. The potential to exploit technology to improve teaching and learning is enormous in the online environment. Shamefully, almost no one has scratched the surface.

Robert W. Tucker
InterEd, Inc.

17. 11272784 - August 31, 2009 at 12:08 pm

It's possible to be a great instructor or a lousy one in ANY medium - including face to face. Most instructors are still learning how to teach online, but they get better at it all the time. Those who "mail it in" online are just as boring and ineffective as those who "mail it in" in the classroom. Teaching is what you make of it - the medium is NOT the issue.

18. thlae - August 31, 2009 at 12:14 pm

I'm simply curious what the control is here. Could professors be projecting their own computer ineptitude onto students?

19. fiscalwiz - August 31, 2009 at 01:17 pm

You are going in for major heart surgery. How many of you want the cardiologist to have gotten his/her degrees from excellent on-line education programs? The IRS is prosecuting you in a major tax fraud case, one that may bring jail time? How many of you want your attourney to have gotten his/her degrees from excellent on-line education programs? Right.

20. intered - August 31, 2009 at 02:36 pm

To the IRS Heart Surgeon:

In addition to demonstrating a lack of understanding of the many ways that clinical experiences, practica, etc. take place and are managed in online environments, you take yourself too seriously by overestimating our contributions as teachers. Since the value added by the degree represents such a small component of any mid-career professional's competence, a rational person in your scenarios would be concerned with the nature and scope of the surgeon's or the attorney's professional experience. This is where the material portion of his competence was acquired. If you really believe the physical classroom created the surgical or legal competence, we will stand by to watch you hire a newby graduate for that serious surgical or legal work. We seldom let these people anywhere the important work for quite a few years.

21. dsneden - August 31, 2009 at 05:45 pm

@fiscalwiz Seriously - the credentials you look at when selecting surgeons or attorneys are where they got their degrees? Hope you manage to keep in good health and hide your tax fraud well.

22. jreis99 - August 31, 2009 at 05:55 pm

The issue of quality in the DL arena is very similar to quality in the face-to-face environment.

Face it, some instructors run motivating classrooms; they engage their students, challenge them to excel, facilitate learning, all the while promoting a lasting understanding of subject matter. Others are less gifted; they barely do more than read out of the book, and are more apathetic about how much learning takes place. Such classrooms are filled with students who spend time texting, and browsing the internet on their laptops.

It's similar to the online arena. Some instructors engage, motivate, and teach; others babysit, post, and grade. There's plenty of good and bad -- successes and horror stories -- in both virtual and brick-and-mortar classrooms.

It's not the so much the medium; it's how the medium is used. Are the benefits of either medium exploited, or are professors simply going through the motions?

Looked at from this perspective, one could see how some instructors would fare better in an online arena, while other would need face-to-face interaction to excel. Factors such as course content, pedagogy, and teaching style are all important. Quite often, how much a good student will get out of a class depends on how much the instructor puts into it. DL or face-to-face, this truth always rings true...

23. 11142324 - August 31, 2009 at 06:37 pm

I agree, but not completely, with the comments made in the last paragraph of jreis99's comments: "Factors such as course content, pedagogy, and teaching style are all important. Quite often, how much a good student will get out of a class depends on how much the instructor puts into it. DL or face-to-face, this truth always rings true..."

What a student gets out of a class is not just what an instructor puts in. It's equally what the student puts into the course. Motivation and interest are critical.

24. olderstudent - September 01, 2009 at 02:30 am

I am an older student with no time to attend classes. I have taught, non-academically, and noted that some students can master material online better than in person becuase they can review it at their own pace. Note that I am not asserting that this is always true.

For appropriate categgories of course, I would think institutions (especially those with a good brand) would license online courses for use by other institutions, sharing the fees with the source faculty. A TA or adjunct faculty hired by the client institution could operate the course based on a teaching manual provided by - and perhaps with access to - the author.

I will go further to argue that state universities, in addressing their responsibility to serve the citizens of the state, should be mandated to create online courseware for delivery by ANY institution in the state. The U should provide quality control and recognize the credits as their own.

A community college, for example, should be able to deliver a U degree if the curriculum was fully based on U online courses.

25. jreis99 - September 01, 2009 at 08:57 am

In regards to 11142324's response to my earlier post, I agree wholeheartedly. As I said, "how much a *good* student gets out of a class..." (The word "good" was meant to infer "motivated and interested," as you aptly clarified). Good students will be hindered by poor instruction, while the best instructors can only do so much with mediocre students. Getting back to the topic at hand, this principle manifests itself in ALL classrooms, be they face-to-face or virtual.

I like how 112727 said it: "Teaching is what you make of it - the medium is NOT the issue." This is probably more true than a lot of people recognize.

26. pcastagn - September 01, 2009 at 12:24 pm

I developed an online intro to theatre platform: Theatre Beyond: A Cyber Journey through the World of Theatre published through Kendall Hunt and Great River Technology. After teaching two sections this summer, I found the students enjoyed the access to videos of productions, and other materials impossible to use in the classroom.

Online classes are more consistent with learner centered frameworks.
The student is more responsible for learning
The current students' obsession with grading can be solved with numerous instruments--feedback can be numeric or commentary. The results are posted instantly in the viewable gradebook, so it's all very transparent, reducing anxiety.
Takes the ego out of it. The emotional wrap between the instructor and self is effaced in favor of the pedagogy.

27. scccregistrar - September 01, 2009 at 12:48 pm

I have taken and taught online classes and have found the medium to be excellent for me. This is not always the case for everyone, especially procrastinators, but then they also create their own suffering in face-to-face classes.

If there is a problem with the quality of instruction, it is most likely with those schools that insist on enrolling 60 or more students in one section. That should be an argument for the loss of accreditation.

28. anzelom - September 01, 2009 at 02:47 pm

As stated by others here, online versus face-to-face is just different. There are so many variables. My great hope is that the online courses are NOT driven purely by the profit motive of college administrations -- Get more students -- we don't care how and we do not care why sort of mentality.

That is bad. As to replacing face-to-face classes and profs. that is not in the cards either. I was told over twenty years ago by a relative that computers were going to replace teachers. I am still waiting. By the way, I will retire soon. LOL.

The truth is that most students at most places need the TLC to get through their studies that only face-to-face interaction between faculty and students provides. The technology is a nice supplement.

29. jdonne5 - September 01, 2009 at 06:38 pm

Well, perhaps if most faculty actually participated in their online courses beyond the occasional "good comment" in the discussion boards or the all-too-familiar ancient paradigm of online learning wherein the instructor writes 2-3 sentences of "notes on the chapter" (in .doc or html format) and calls that teaching. Oh, wait, there's also my favorite read-this-chapter-take-this-quiz method. Faculty can no longer use "online learning is primarily self-guided" as an excuse to jot something hastily, call it instruction and collect a stipend. If all faculty put in half the energy into online courses as they do face-to-face instruction, this wouldn't be such a contentious issue. (Yes, I realize not all faculty operate this way, but a frightening majority do.)

30. ugacampuslife - September 01, 2009 at 06:54 pm

There is no doubt that there are enough "bad practices" being utilized to allow nay-sayers to give online learning a bad name. Of course, there are never any F2F classes that have limited faculty interaction, non-subject-oriented discussion, days-off, limited lectures, etc. The emerging course development and course designs will improve the online learning system. The idea proposed by the president has some real merit, by devloping national standards for a number of courses to be offered. Yes, getting faculty to teach online to a standard is a true full-time job. We are getting there.

31. 11232247 - September 02, 2009 at 11:12 am

When it gets personal, my thoughts on online educated doctors are similar to those I have for affirmative action doctors (or lawyers/engineers/etc.). That is, I think they are perfectly fine for someone else. I just do not wish to have them anywhere near me when it is my life we are discussing.

Perhaps we could just mass produce these online doctors and then turn them loose on the poor. We could claim we were finally giving the downtrodden in this country access to universal healthcare, while simultaneously reserving real healthcare for those of us who can pay for it.

Naturally, and to paraphrase H.L. Menckin, we would give this sort of health care to the poor, in the spirit that they themselves have come to expect. That is, good and hard.

32. jwjulius - September 03, 2009 at 01:53 pm

These arguments against online-educated professionals are strange strawmen.

First, there is a licensure process for MDs, attorneys, nurses, airline pilots, teachers, etc. If there were fully online programs for these professions which enabled their graduates to pass the licensure examinations, fulfill practicum requirements, etc. - isn't that the penultimate reflection of whether the education "worked"? (The ultimate being what most of us actually pay attention to when hiring or choosing to use the services of one of these folks - their track record of job performance / customer satisfaction.)

Second, online programs for highly skills-oriented professions are not going to be fully online anytime soon, until big advances take place in simulation/virtual reality technologies, along with public acceptance of those. There will always be a clinical component which is quite comparable (other than its location) to the clinical component of an in-person program.

Or am I missing something?

33. jwjulius - September 03, 2009 at 01:53 pm

These arguments against online-educated professionals are strange strawmen.

First, there is a licensure process for MDs, attorneys, nurses, airline pilots, teachers, etc. If there were fully online programs for these professions which enabled their graduates to pass the licensure examinations, fulfill practicum requirements, etc. - isn't that the penultimate reflection of whether the education "worked"? (The ultimate being what most of us actually pay attention to when hiring or choosing to use the services of one of these folks - their track record of job performance / customer satisfaction.)

Second, online programs for highly skills-oriented professions are not going to be fully online anytime soon, until big advances take place in simulation/virtual reality technologies, along with public acceptance of those. There will always be a clinical component which is quite comparable (other than its location) to the clinical component of an in-person program.

Or am I missing something?

34. brittanief - September 08, 2009 at 04:44 pm

I don't think online education should replace classroom environment; It should support it. I agree with how these two sites provide education: 1) http://www.thinkwell.mindbites.com & 2) http://www.mindbites.com/category/5-education

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