Faculty Perceptions and the Stigma of Online Education


By Marie Ritchie, Brock University

“A continuing failure of online education has been its inability to convince its most important audience – higher education faculty members – of its worth. The lack of acceptance of online faculty has not shown any significant change in over a decade”(Allen & Seaman, 2015, p. 21).

In 2016, more than half of the enrolled students in higher education institutions were also working and more than one quarter were raising children while studying. The knowledge economy continues to strengthen and the goal for adults obtaining postsecondary degrees or credentials is 60% by 2025 (The Lumina Foundation for Education, as cited in Andrade, 2016). These students are increasingly likely to seek online education in efforts to balance life responsibilities with academic pursuits (Nash, 2015).

Despite support from higher education administrators and its promise of convenience and accessibility for students, online education continues to lack full teacher support in terms of its value and legitimacy (Andrade, 2016). Advancements in technology, online teaching experience, and continued increases in institutional support have done little to change these negative perceptions (Allen, Seaman, 2015). As long as faculty continue to question the validity and legitimacy of online instruction, it seems unlikely that higher education institutions will ever be successful in eliminating the “stigma attached to allowing students to earn credits from a university without ever stepping foot on campus” (Johnson, 2013, para. 11).

Lack of acceptance by faculty is driven by concerns for student experience and conduct, achievement of learning outcomes, and perceptions of online degrees not being equal to traditional ones. Teachers also cite personal concerns such as increased workload, appropriate compensation, effect on tenure opportunities, and technical efficacy as barriers to full acceptance (Wingo, Ivankova, & Moss, 2017). Yet despite reservations, one half of teachers who believe online education to be inferior to face-to-face instruction recommended online courses to their students and among the teachers who teach online much concern exists about the quality of learning outcomes (Allen & Seaman, 2015).

So, why do teachers who question the validity and legitimacy of online education recommend it to their students? Why does the stigma surrounding online education persist despite significant advances in technology and scholarship? Is it possible that this stigma is less about the student experience and achievement of learning outcomes than it is about the teaching experience and its associated pressures and paradigms? Is it also possible that challenges to personal professional identities and institutional power struggles are standing in the way of full acceptance of online education as a trusted and valid educational pedagogy?

In 2017, Glass used a phenomenological study to explore the question “What are the primary features of faculty members’ experiences teaching online that shape their attitudes towards online education?” (p. 240).  He concluded “that faculty attitudes toward online education may be affected, not only by their perceptions of the quality of student learning, but also by the quality of their own experiences expressing subject matter and performing valued social roles in their online courses” (p. 249). Glass suggests that online teaching may create a challenge to personal professional identifies for some tenured and tenure-track professors by highlighting comments from professors that range from positive notions of opportunity in using a new medium and potential increases in professional exposure to negative perceptions including feeling stifled by the new medium, having limited windows for creative expression, and a feeling of isolation from the rest of their colleagues.

From an institutional and organizational perspective, researchers Peach and Bieber (2015) found that “online education enhanced faculty autonomy and visibility but that it was also used to control faculty members, and for some professors, it was used to alter their professional identities” (p. 26). Using a conceptual power model, the researchers were focused on power relationships within institutions of higher education and how the use of technology in educational delivery creates the “opportunity to establish new structures, with different norms and policies, through which to control professors in new and different ways” (p. 26).

The advent and evolution of online education is more about technological availability and advances, money flowing to institutions, and the accessibility of higher education for students than it is about the pedagogy itself or teacher satisfaction. Some teachers who have been convinced or have chosen to teach online do perceive benefits but wide spread acceptance has been difficult to achieve. Exploring in detail faculty perceptions, biases, and experiences is essential if we are to reach the tipping point for full acceptance of the value and legitimacy of online education for all stakeholders.


Allen, E., & Seaman, J. (2015). Grade level: Tracking online education in the United States.  Babson Park, MA: Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group. Retrieved from http://onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/gradelevel.pdf

Andrade, M. S. (2016). Curricular elements for learner success – 21st century skills. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 4(8), 143- 149.

Glass, C. R. (2017). Self-expression, social roles, and faculty members’ attitudes towards online teaching. Innovative Higher Education42(3), 239-252.

Johnson, T. (2013). Did I really go to Harvard if I got my degree taking online classes? The Atlantic, retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/09/did-i-really-go-to-harvard-if-i-got-my-degree-taking-online-classes/279644/

Nash, J. A. (2015). Future of online education in crisis: A call to action. Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology – TOJET14(2), 80-88.

Peach, H.., & Bieber, J.  (2015). Faculty and online education as a mechanism of power. Distance Education, 36(1), 26-40. doi:10.1080/01587919.2015.1019971.

Wingo, N., Ivankova, N. & Moss, J. (2017). Faculty perceptions about teaching online: Exploring the literature using the technology acceptance model as an organizing framework. Online Learning21(1), 15-35. doi:10.24059/olj.v21i1.761.




3 thoughts on “Faculty Perceptions and the Stigma of Online Education

  1. Interesting article, thanks for sharing. 🙂

    I found the quote addressing “the quality of their own experiences expressing subject matter and performing valued social roles in their online courses” (p. 249, Glass), addressing how faculty members’ online teaching experiences were affected, interesting and insightful to my own work assisting faculty members with the development of online courser/instructional material.

    While my design recommendations typically zero in on the learning outcomes and learner experience, the online “facilitator” (faculty member, sessional instructor, teacher, what have you…) plays a primary role in the learning experience, but one that is slightly altered from traditional face-to-face instructional roles.

    Reading this article, I better understand how this new format of learning (online) can “shake up” or “disrupt” an instructors perceived “social role.” Because learners are no longer held captive in bricks and mortar rooms for scheduled appointments, other strategies and techniques must be incorporated to build engagement and facilitate learning. Not only does this require a shift in the perception of their role in facilitating student learning, but online learning strategies can quickly run aground without adequate technical knowledge, or a willingness to pursue assistance form someone with technical knowledge.

    I often take for granted the ease with which I shift from face-to-face to fully online learning environments. By no means am I claiming any mastery of these instructional roles, I still have a great deal to learn. But possessing equal levels of confidence in my ability to work in either learning space affords me a degree of flexibility, in my instructional techniques as well as my perceived role in the learning experience. When collaborating with other educators, I need to be constantly aware of the shift in roles the facilitator will need assistance and support with, in addition to the technical pieces.


  2. Your statistic regarding the number of instructors who find online learning to be inferior to face-to-face, yet would recommend students take an online course, shows very clearly that there is a disconnect in academia when it comes to online learning.

    You touched on support from higher education administration. In 2013 the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development launched eCampusOntario, an online database to help students find online courses, promote Ontario’s online learning advantages, and advancing best practices for elearning in post-secondary (eCampusOntario, 2016, p. 3). I’ve referenced this at the bottom, but the website is ecampusontario.ca. You may find some useful information from the Ontario perspective.

    This article from Sibley and Whitaker helpful as you identify how to engage faculty, https://er.educause.edu/articles/2015/3/engaging-faculty-in-online-education. They outline how Brown University creates by in for faculty to engage in online courses since they cannot mandate that faculty teach them, and assists interested faculty in course creation.

    So many disciplines advance with technology, including those that professors specialize in, and yet from your blog it would seem that higher education can be slow to move forward with technology.

    One small thing that may need clarification is if you are referring to online programs, online courses, or both? I didn’t see any differentiation, and it might not even matter, just something that I found myself asking.

    This is a great topic. Looking forward to seeing what solutions could be implement to engage more faculty in online education!

    Sibley, K., & Whitaker, R. (2015, March 16). Engaging faculty in online education. Educause Review. Retrieved from: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2015/3/engaging-faculty-in-online-education

    eCampus Ontario (2016). eCampusOntario strategic plan 2016-2018. Retrieved from: https://www.ecampusontario.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/eCampusOntario-Strategic-Plan-2016-18.pdf

  3. Hi Marie,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post. You posed many good questions, and are well on track in terms of exploring how faculty and institutions positively and negatively view online course facilitation. A question posed in your blog that I was especially engaged with had to do with “challenges to personal professional identities and institutional power struggles”; I look forward to reading more about that as you work towards your paper.

    While you were describing the ways professors may view their roles in online courses, it occurred to me that giving some insight into how students view professors in online courses might be useful. I’ve included two articles I found below.

    As technology advances and more people from a a spectrum of age groups and locations look to engage with higher education, it is essential to promote the validity of online education. You’ve chosen an excellent topic!


    Holzweiss, P. C., Joyner, S. A., Fuller, M. B., Henderson, S., & Young, R. (2014). Online graduate students’ perceptions of best learning experiences. Distance Education, 35(3), 311-323.

    Young, A., & Norgard, C. (2006). Assessing the quality of online courses from the students’ perspective. The Internet and Higher Education, 9(2), 107-115.

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