Answering the Critics of Online Education

Douglas Campbell

There is a vigorous debate taking place on the quality of online higher education programs. Among recent significant contributions to this are the new book, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out (see review); the New York Timesfront page coverage of the phenomenon, and a study about community and technical colleges in Washington state. The last might sound overly specialized but it has become a key document in the debate.

In this essay, we, Douglas G. Campbell and Shannon Lynch-McClure, offer a response to Online and Hybrid Course Enrollment and Performance in Washington State Community and Technical Colleges (we refer to it hereafter as OHCE).1 OHCE has drawn the attention of many, some of which see it as evidence of the inherent inferiority of online higher education. We believe this conclusion is in error.

We are currently employed by an online university as senior lead faculty in that school’s BS in Business Administration degree program.  We each oversee a variety of courses and instructors, and we both hold terminal degrees. We also have extensive experience as both students and faculty in traditional and hybrid courses, as well as with online institutions.

The primary finding in OHCE is that the community college students “were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses”2, and were less likely to continue their education at that school, graduate or transfer to a traditional four year institution. The authors emphasized four problems that contributed to their finding: “technical difficulties, a sense of social distance and isolation, a lack of the “high learner control” that may be needed for success in the relatively unstructured and flexible online environment, and limited availability of online student support services”3. We believe these findings accurately reflect the challenges faced by traditional colleges or universities as they attempt to move courses and traditional lower division undergraduate students online.

Reputable online schools have long recognized and addressed these issues with innovative solutions and significant resource allocation that have not been equaled by most traditional schools. The reputable online institutions have been successful because their energy and resources are entirely focused on the delivery of education in an online environment. In contrast to traditional institutions, far more effort is made by online universities to build a vibrant community of online students, to provide academic services tailored to their needs, to prepare students for online learning and to train faculty to properly facilitate online learning. The authors of OHCE noted the inadequacy of financial resources committed by community colleges to address these challenges. This is true of many traditional institutions.

Administrators at traditional colleges and universities often do not grasp the time, effort and various expertise needed to develop a successful online course and then to support that course and its instructors. Instructors tasked with developing an online course are often under pressure and lacking in sufficient support and training. One common mistake is the assumption that an online course should mirror the traditional course that it was based upon. Instead, the content and supporting materials should be reconsidered, because each mode of delivery offers different possibilities. Many online colleges and universities employ an experienced team of developers, technicians, subject matter experts and marketing specialists who work, often in coordination with the textbook publisher, to develop a superior product.

Many traditional schools still operate on the assumption that little or no training is necessary for an instructor to transition from the physical classroom to the virtual classroom. In contrast, reputable online institutions have extensive and continuing training programs for their faculty, and tend to recruit faculty already familiar with this mode of delivery. Some highly talented faculty at traditional institutions are just not suited to teach online. It is unwise to force an unwilling faculty member to teach online, because the results will likely be unsatisfactory to all concerned. The authors of OHCE noted that faculty at the Washington state community colleges, did have access to specialized training. 

Dealing with and teaching the lower division, undergraduate online student is especially challenging. Online learning does take a greater amount of personal discipline. In many traditional classrooms, some students hide in the back of the classroom, seldom participating in discussions or engaging with the instructor. They pass those courses by virtue of the quizzes, exams and projects. Not so in most online classrooms, where every student must each week post intelligently in one or more graded online discussion threads and engage other students as well as often being directly engaged by the instructor. Discussion posting and responses to other students constitutes a major portion of the course grade in a well-designed online course. This can be a stressful experience for the shy students and those lacking confidence. Skipping class or failing to participate in discussions in an online course is generally much more penalizing than in traditional classrooms. Superb onboarding procedures, well-trained faculty and properly structured courses with easily accessible course materials will help reduce the number of dropouts and failures, but it is still up to those relatively inexperienced students to show up and do their work.

The properly designed and taught online course is not a passive environment. There are seldom online lectures that the students can rely on to pass a quiz, and certainly not the exams. Online students who don’t purchase the textbook or who don’t read the assigned chapters are at a greater disadvantage than in the traditional classroom. More so than most traditional classrooms, the properly designed online classroom is an environment where a student must be present, active and demonstrative, to be successful. For these reasons, we do not believe that online courses, no matter how well designed or taught, are appropriate for all students. Support systems can be constructed to assist online students with overcoming academic barriers: however, the development of personal maturity and self-discipline is an individual journey that cannot easily be facilitated by others.

A properly constructed and taught online course provides its students with a clearer path to success, but also a clearer opportunity to fail. Failing a course due to a failure of personal discipline can be a positive, maturing experience, if there is an opportunity to attempt that course again. It is our observation that online schools, to a much greater degree than traditional schools, reach out to successful and unsuccessful students to assist them and to bring them back to the classroom.

Many reputable online universities focus on graduate education, a pool of potential students more likely to have the maturity and self-discipline to adapt and excel in the online environment. Those online universities that have undergraduate programs tend to recruit students that have graduated from or been successful at a community college. They also attract older returning students that had to abandon their college career due to commitments. Many online schools have noted that young members of the Armed Forces often have the self-discipline to be successful in online courses. Some online schools have a minimum age, as high as 25 years old, to enroll in an online course. Still other online programs require the students to have completed the first two years of a degree or in some cases to have completed equivalent work experience.However, like the community colleges in the study, lower division undergraduate students, even older ones, remain a difficult challenge for online colleges and universities, particularly for those schools that operate on the premise of near open access to their undergraduate programs.

The initial on-boarding process for all students is critical to their academic success, and is more so for online students. The OHCE authors noted that those students who took a course designed to assist them with mastering the basics of the online environment did better in online courses. We suggest that such training in the online course environment should be mandatory for all new students, regardless of their intention to enroll in an online course.

Concerning the study’s finding that students that took online courses were less likely to continue their education at that school4, this finding may simply mean that those community college students who are less likely to continue their education tend to gravitate toward online courses prior to leaving. This finding might also indicate general dissatisfaction with the quality or content of the online courses at those community colleges. Online colleges and universities enroll many students that left a community college due to dissatisfaction or the lack of course or program options. Some students use online courses to explore their own interest in continuing their education, or to explore the feasibility of continuing their education while still fulfilling their family and professional obligations. Still other students want to see if an online course is easier or will facilitate their desire to cheat, which are common misconceptions.

Most traditional schools are not taking advantage of the opportunity that is available within this mode of instruction to monitor the quality of teaching and students’ reaction and participation to the instruction. At our university, we monitor the classroom activity of the courses we oversee. Without overt intrusion, we can log into various courses to assess the faculty, students and relative success of elements of those courses. We can then advise, offer assistance or take corrective action as needed. New faculty can be mentored through each week of instruction using this capability. The organizational culture of most traditional universities does not allow this degree of transparency and oversight. Our suspicion is that such oversight would be perceived as an unacceptable intrusion on academic freedom. Instructor behavior is a key contributor to student performance and retention.

We applaud the OHCE authors for identifying these challenges with online programs and for advocating for additional resources and efforts to improve online programs. We doubt, however, that progress at traditional colleges and universities will be swift. At most traditional institutions, online programs are still peripheral, conceived primarily as expendable cash cows to be milked for the maintenance of traditional operations and their extensive physical infrastructure. We do not anticipate that this situation will soon change, although we hope it does.  For the foreseeable future, the reputable online colleges and universities will continue to extend their quality advantage and attract more students by leveraging their singular focus on online education and their lower overhead costs to produce superior online courses, programs, instructors and support centers.

Additional research is needed to confirm and explain the challenges of delivering education online, and to evaluate the initiatives and pedagogy developed by various institutions to combat those challenges and to enhance online learning. These are not easy tasks, considering the numerous variables at work. Finally, we are disappointed with the tendency of some consumers of research to extrapolate findings, whether good or bad, concerning some online programs, at some schools, onto online programs at other schools. Just like traditional on-ground programs and schools, there is a full range of good to bad players in the online education community.

Dr. Douglas G. Campbell and Dr. Shannon Lynch-McClure are both Senior Leader faculty with Walden University’s School of Management, in the BS in Business Administration program. Dr. Campbell can be reached at [email protected] , and Dr. Lynch-McClure can be reached at [email protected].


  1. Di Xu and Shanna Smith Jaggars (2011), Online and hybrid course enrollment and performance in Washington state community and technical colleges, Community College Research Center, Working paper No. 31
  2. Ibid, Abstract
  3. Ibid, page 20
  4. Ibid, page 15 

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain 

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