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Online Learning Quality: Perception and Reality

Although online higher education has been available for 20 years, and is now offered by more than 60% of institutions, it still struggles to shed a number of negative stereotypes—namely that it is not as rigorous as its face-to-face counterpart, and its faculty are less engaged.

The 2013 Survey of Online Learning found that, although sentiment has been changing over the past decade, still more than a quarter of all academic leaders believe that learning outcomes for online education are inferior to outcomes for face-to-face instruction. Among academic leaders working at institutions that don’t offer online instruction, that number jumps to 72%.

For example, last year while I was conducting research with the Council of Independent Colleges, more than one CAO or provost remarked to me that online education could never be offered at their institution because faculty value face-to-face interaction with students, and that kind of engagement is a long-standing and prized tradition at their institution. Tacit in this statement, of course, is the assumption that faculty are better-able to engage their students through face-to-face instruction.

The Student Side of the Story

So it’s clear that a preference for traditional teaching exists among many faculty and administrators, but what do the students think? In a recent whitepaper published by Learning House in conjunction with Aslanian Market Research, my colleagues and I examined these stereotypes and found little evidence from the student point of view to support them. Data for the whitepaper came from the 2014 Online College Student (OCS) survey of 1,500 past, present, and prospective online learners, as well as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). In the OCS study, online students were asked questions from the NSSE pertaining to academic rigor and faculty engagement. The whitepaper compared the results from the online college students to those of the predominately face-to-face NSSE population.

To address faculty engagement, we chose questions from the NSSE survey that examine the frequency of different types of interactions between the faculty and students, such as how often faculty:

  • Explain course goals;
  • Teach in an organized way;
  • Use examples or illustrations to explain difficult points;
  • Provide feedback on a draft;
  • Provide prompt and detailed feedback on tests or assignments.


Across the board, little difference was found between online and face-to-face faculty, except that online instructors are quicker to respond to students with feedback on assignments. This could be due to some online courses running on a shorter calendar (e.g., an 8-week course vs a 16-week course) and faculty having to grade assignments faster, or it may be due to the technology used in online courses to complete and submit assignments, which may allow faculty to process assignments more efficiently. The table below summarizes some of our findings:


In the other areas, including “explaining course goals” and “teaching in an organized way,” online students provided similar faculty ratings compared to students taking exclusively or predominately face-to-face courses.

These data tell a different story than the one so commonly heard. Far from being inferior, when it comes to course rigor and faculty engagement, these data show little to no significant different between face-to-face and online instruction. Although some remain biased against online education, it may just take time for perceptions to catch up to this reality.

Tell us what you think!

  • How have faculty members at your institution embraced or rebelled around the adoption of online learning?
  • Have you seen perceptions of online education changing over time among your colleagues?

Read the full  whitepaper, where we examine these issues more, as well as questions around academic rigor and the perception of for-profit providers.  

About Andrew J. Magda

Andrew leads in the development of custom and large-scale market research studies and assists partner institutions with their research needs. Prior to Learning House, he was a senior analyst at Eduventures and a project manager at the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.