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Higher Ed Faculty Skeptical About Online Course Quality
Gallup Blog

Higher Ed Faculty Skeptical About Online Course Quality

by Valerie J. Calderon and Jeffrey M. Jones
Chart: data points are described in article

While online learning continues to drive change in higher education, most faculty members remain skeptical about the quality of education offered via web-based courses. About one in five (19%) U.S. faculty members "agree" or "strongly agree" that online courses at any institution achieve student learning outcomes at least equivalent to those of in-person courses; nearly three times as many "disagree" or "strongly disagree" (55%).

These findings, from The 2016 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology booklet, provide insights into how faculty and education technology leaders at U.S. higher education institutions perceive and pursue online learning and other emerging opportunities for delivering course content.

Gallup conducted the survey via web on behalf of Inside Higher Ed Sept. 6-19, 2016, receiving 1,671 responses from college and university faculty members in the U.S. Faculty members were randomly selected across private, public and for-profit institutions, using the most comprehensive sample information available. Gallup statistically weighted the sample based on key institution characteristics to ensure it is representative of the views of faculty members at colleges nationwide. The obtained sample of faculty was also similar to the national distribution of faculty members on age and gender.

Faculty diverge around their perceptions of online courses based on whether they have experience teaching online; 32% of those with online teaching experience and only 13% without it agree that online and in-person courses can achieve equivalent outcomes at any institution.

Inside Higher Ed investigated faculty members' perceptions of the ability of online courses to achieve strong outcomes for students in the following four education settings:

  • at any higher education institution
  • at their own institution
  • in their department or discipline
  • in classes that they teach

About four in 10 faculty say they have taught an online course. These faculty are increasingly optimistic about the equality of online and in-person courses the "closer to home" the educational context; 32% agree or strongly agree that equal outcomes are achievable for online and in-person courses at any institution, and 52% agree or strongly agree this is possible for the classes they teach. Those who have taught online are four times more likely than their inexperienced peers to agree or strongly agree that equal learning outcomes can be achieved for online and in-person versions of the classes they teach (52% vs. 12%).

While faculty with online teaching experience grow increasingly positive, faculty sans online teaching experience grow increasingly skeptical about the equality of online and in-person learning outcomes the "closer to home" the educational context. Six in 10 (61%) of faculty members without online experience disagree or strongly disagree that equal online and in-person learning outcomes can be achieved at any institution, but more disagree or strongly disagree (78%) they can achieve the same outcomes for the classes they teach.

Faculty Members' Perceptions of Outcomes for Online and In-Person Courses
Using a five-point scale, where 5 means strongly agree and 1 means strongly disagree, please indicate your level of agreement with the following statements: For-credit online courses can achieve student learning outcomes that are at least equivalent to those of in-person courses in the following settings:
All faculty Faculty with online teaching experience Faculty without online teach experience
% % %
At any institution
Agree (4s + 5s) 19 32 13
Neutral (3s) 26 26 26
Disagree (1s + 2s) 55 43 61
At my institution
Agree (4s + 5s) 28 45 15
Neutral (3s) 21 20 22
Disagree (1s + 2s) 52 35 63
In my department or discipline
Agree (4s + 5s) 25 47 11
Neutral (3s) 16 18 15
Disagree (1s + 2s) 58 35 74
In the classes that I teach
Agree (4s + 5s) 28 52 12
Neutral (3s) 12 14 10
Disagree (1s + 2s) 60 34 78

Faculty members clearly harbor reservations about the quality of online courses. Also, there are unquestionably kinks to work out as institutions experiment with new ways to deliver valuable, relevant, high-quality courses and content. But those who have taught online say online teaching is helping them to improve as teachers.

The large majority of faculty who have taught online courses (79%) say the experience has helped them develop skills and practices that have improved their teaching in the classroom as well as online. From the Inside Higher Ed booklet: "This includes 89% of nontenure track faculty and 69% of tenured faculty. Asked about specific ways in which their online teaching has helped improve their teaching skills, 86% of faculty now say they think more critically about ways to engage students with content. Eighty percent also say they make better use of multimedia content, and 76% say they make better use of their learning management system. Fewer, 57%, say their online teaching experience has made them more comfortable using techniques like active learning or project-based learning. The same amount say their experience has made them better with out-of-class communication with students."

As the cost of college continues to climb, higher education institutions continue to look for ways to provide postsecondary education more conveniently and inexpensively for students. Online learning could open doors for those with jobs or families who can't live on campus and need to work and earn while they learn. Giving faculty members a chance to teach online, coupled with rigorous online course and program evaluations, could best position online learning as a viable option in the pursuit of a great job and a great life.

View full results from The 2016 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology.


Jeffrey M. Jones, Ph.D., is a Senior Editor at Gallup and partners with education organizations.

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