Unpacking the Bias Against Online Education: A conversation about the causes and effects of bias, and providing leadership for change

Concurrent Session 5

Brief Abstract

Substantial research demonstrates online education’s efficacy, with demand for online courses growing each year. However, critics and skeptics abound, resulting in deleterious effects for faculty who teach online and ultimately, students. Join a conversation about these effects and discuss strategies to overcome persistent criticism of online education.


Shannon Riggs serves as Executive Director of Course Development and Learning Innovation for Oregon State University Ecampus. In this role, she supports Oregon State’s land grant mission by providing leadership and direction for course development and learning innovation throughout the division. She directly oversees several units, including the Ecampus Course Development and Training Team, the Ecampus Research Unit, and Ecampus Open Educational Resources. Since coming to Extended Campus in 2011, Riggs has served as an instructional designer, as director of the Ecampus course development and training unit, and on the University’s Faculty Senate and several of its subcommittees. Active nationally in the field of online and continuing education, Riggs regularly presents at conferences and has written for publication about online course development, faculty development, leadership, and innovation. She is currently serving a three-year elected position for the Quality Matters Instructional Design Association leadership team and a three-year elected position for the WCET Steering Committee. Riggs is also a contributor to High Impact Practices in Online Education (Stylus, 2018) and The Business of Innovation (Stylus, 2018), and is the author of Thrive Online: A New Approach for College Educators (forthcoming in 2019 from Stylus Publishing).

Extended Abstract

The research overwhelmingly shows that online education, when designed and facilitated well, is as effective as traditional campus-based instruction. In fact, in a meta-analysis and review of research about online learning, the U.S. Department of Education (2010) found that students in online learning environments met learning outcomes and performed modestly better than counterparts studying the same material in traditional face-to-face courses. Visit a college campus that offers online education and listen to conversations among the college faculty and administrators there, however, and you would think that online learning were an ill-advised, insufficient, second-rate form of education, not fit for the hallowed halls of higher education. Indeed, in a recent study, despite what research and experience have shown, Allen, Seaman, Poulin, and Straut (2016) found that nearly one-third of academic leaders believe online education to be inferior to traditional classroom instruction, and two-thirds of chief academic officers reported that their faculties do not perceive online education as legitimate. 

This skepticism manifests in several ways: dismissing online education as though it were on par with correspondence courses; dismissing online education by discipline, saying that online education might work in some, but not in their particular discipline; acknowledging online education only as an unfortunate necessity to reach underprivileged place-bound populations; suggesting that online education is all about revenue; and, perhaps most commonly of all, skeptics say that there is “magic” that happens in face to face classes that cannot be replicated online. Interestingly, the most outspoken critics are often those who have never developed, taught, taken, or even seen an online course. When faced with these negative attitudes, online educators tend to become defensive or to shrink away from confrontation. Neither of these responses have proven effective.

With the demand for online education growing, and with the number of online educators increasing, allowing faulty assumptions and unjust criticism to define the field is unsustainable. At stake is the professional satisfaction of online educators. Faced with relentless and unjust criticism, online educators can be left feeling angry, insecure, uncertain, and isolated. In a profession that depends upon collegiality, these are certainly undesirable outcomes, especially when the reason for them, suspicion about inefficacy, is unfounded. Additionally, when online education is marginalized, online educators can be isolated from curricular discussions, left in the dark about important educational and student support initiatives, and cut off from critical support and professional development. If quality is truly a concern, we must be inclusive of online education and educators. Online educators are blazing new trails, and they need a community of practice and support to be effective. Finally, we must acknowledge that bias against online education is a social justice issue. With tuition costs rising and wages for college graduates lagging, many students find part-time online education to be the only affordable way of attaining a degree.

To transform the higher education culture to a more inclusive one, online educators and leaders in higher education need to unpack this conflict in our professional culture. We need to identify the causes of this bias, examine how it is manifested, consider how it impacts faculty and students, and share strategies for effecting meaningful change within our professional spheres.

I propose a Conversation, Not Presentation style session that opens with one slide featuring the “no significant difference” finding of the 2010 Department of Education meta-study juxtaposed with the Allen et al (2016) findings about negative perceptions about online education.

If selected, I would like to then lead a conversation with several key discussion questions:

  1. In what ways have you witnessed bias against online education?
  2. In what ways have you and others you have witnessed addressed that bias, or failed to?
  3. What are possible factors contributing to this bias? What do skeptics and critics stand to gain from holding onto it, despite evidence regarding its efficacy?
  4. Where else in our culture have we seen resistance to change, especially technological change?
  5. How do you believe faculty are negatively impacted by this bias?
  6. How do you believe students are negatively impacted by this bias?
  7. How do you believe your institution’s mission is impeded by this bias?
  8. What are some strategies for overcoming this bias? Some suggestions:
    1. Embracing the differences, setting aside the goal to make online courses “equal” to on-campus courses. There are things we can do better online, and we should be emphasizing and leveraging those strategies.
    2. Embracing the “wicked challenge” of changing faculty roles identified in the Horizon Report. Online educators are trail-blazers and should be celebrated as such.
    3. Embracing student-centered teaching as a natural fit for the user-centered environment of the internet, and working with this instead of against it.
    4. Seeking leadership opportunities, regardless of your position in an institution, to effect change in your sphere of influence.

My forthcoming book, Thrive Online: A New Approach for College Educators, is part of a new series from Stylus Publishing launching in 2018 and is intended to support online educators who feel isolated, unrecognized, and unsupported in their teaching efforts. Attendees and participants in this conversation will hopefully be led to identify the very real bias against online education, consider its deleterious effects for faculty, students, and institutions, and discuss strategies that can help undermine this bias to create a more inclusive professional culture for online educators and ultimately more effective learning experiences for students.