Are Learning Outcomes in Online Comparable to Face-to-Face?

The view that online education is ‘‘just as good as’’ face-to-face instruction is by no means

universally held. While there has been a slow increase in the proportion of academic

leaders that have a positive view of the relative quality of the learning outcomes for online

courses as compared to comparable face-to-face courses, there remains a consistent and

sizable minority that see online as inferior. The results for 2011 show a small increase

among those who say online is ‘‘at least as good’’ -- those who rate online as either the

same or superior to face-to-face. This proportion now represents just over two-thirds of all

respondents, up from fifty-seven percent in the first year of the study (2003).

While over two-thirds of academic leaders believe that online is ‘‘just as good as’’ or better,

this means that one-third of all academic leaders polled continue to believe that the

learning outcomes for online courses are inferior to those for face-to-face instruction.

While there has been downward trending of this proportion over the nine years that these

reports have been tracking this dimension, there has not been any substantial change.

A consistent finding over the years is the strong positive relationship of academic leaders

at institutions with online offerings also holding a more favorable opinion of the learning

outcomes for online education. The more extensive the online offerings at an institution,

the more positive they rate the relative quality of online learning outcomes. It is unclear,

however, which came first -- is it that those institutions with a positive opinion towards

online are more likely to implement and grow online courses and programs, or is it that

institutions with experience with online develop a more positive attitude as their online offerings


Why do academic leaders rate the relative quality the way that they do? What dimensions

of an online course or of a face-to-face course contribute to their view of the relative learning

outcomes? While clearly not a measure of quality, there is one dimension that academic

leaders believe is equivalent for the both types of courses -- the level of student satisfaction.

These reports first examined this aspect in 2004, and found respondents believed that students

were at least as satisfied with online courses as they were with face-to-face instruction. The most recent results confirm this, with nearly two-thirds of all academic leaders surveyed report that they believe that the level of student satisfaction is ‘‘about the same’’ for both online and face-to-face courses. A small number believes that satisfaction is higher with online courses, while a slightly larger number say it is higher for face-to-face courses.

When probed about other dimensions of possible difference between the two types of

learning modalities, academic leaders also rated several other aspects as very similar

between online and face-to-face instruction. Their opinion of the relative advantage of one

type of delivery over the other in the presentation of course material, student to faculty

communications, and support for students with different learning styles showed roughly

equal numbers rating each type as superior. The area of student to faculty communication

shows a slightly greater proportion reporting face-to-face as superior (40% as compared to

32% who rated online as superior for this dimension). The other results are very evenly

divided between those who favor online and those who favor face-to-face.

There are other dimensions of a course for which academic leaders believe that one or the

other delivery methods is clearly the superior option. Face-to-face instruction is viewed as

far superior for student-to-student communications. Over one-half of all academic leaders

report that they believe that face-to-face instruction is ‘‘superior’’ or ‘‘somewhat superior’’

in supporting student-to-student interactions. Another one-quarter rates the two methods

as about the same for this dimension. The results are reversed when academic leaders are

asked about the ability to allow students to work at their own pace in each type of course.

Here nearly 80 percent of the respondents believe that online instruction is superior. This

compares to only four percent who say face-to-face instruction is superior for this


When asked why their institutions have implemented online courses and programs,

academic leaders have consistently told us that online education provides greater flexibility

--- sometimes for the institution or the faculty member, but primarily for the student. Not

surprisingly, online instruction is seen as having much better scheduling flexibility for

students. Over 90 percent of all academic leaders rate the scheduling flexibility of online as

‘‘superior’’ or ‘‘somewhat superior’’ to that for face-to-face instruction.

In summary, the only dimension among those examined where online was seen as inferior

to face-to-face instruction was in the area of student-to-student interactions. For most

aspects, the two were rated fairly equally. The advantage of online in terms of flexibility for

the student, both to potentially work as his or her own pace as well as for scheduling, are

the only areas where this type of delivery is seen as clearly superior.

While most academic leaders believe that online learning is ‘‘as good as’’ face-to-face

instruction, there remains a consistent minority that disagrees. Examination of several

specific aspects of instruction quality does not provide a clear determination of why

academic leaders hold this view. They rate online and face-to-face as equivalent along

most dimensions, with a clear preference for face-to-face for only the single aspect of

student-to-student communications. They consider the flexibility of online to be superior

to that of face-to-face, but that does not seem to provide sufficient reason for them to favor

online in general.