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How Much Faith Is There in Online Learning?

Posted on Jul 31, 2012

The Babson Survey Research Group and Inside Higher Ed report dealing with excitement and fear about online learning amongst faculty and administrators also explored feelings on the quality of online learning. It is worth mentioning up front that most faculty members have, at some point, recommended an online course to a student or advisee, so all responses should be evaluated in light of that knowledge.

Approximately two-thirds of faculty members felt that online courses are either somewhat inferior or inferior to face-to-face instruction, with only a small number (>6%) having reported that online courses are superior to face-to-face instruction. Chief academic officers and academic technology administrators, inversely, reported that they felt online education to be as effective as face-to-face instruction. Almost 20% of each of those two groups also felt that online education was more effective than face-to-face education.

The most striking thing, to me, is that faculty members who lack confidence in the quality of online education have recommended that students enroll in online courses. Taken at face value, this doesn’t make much sense. My guess, though, is that online courses can make a lot of sense for introductory classes. Introductory classes may be seen as tedious by faculty members, and many students need those classes to meet a requirement for graduation or in order to take higher-level courses. In the type of online courses I’m imagining, it makes sense, then, that faculty members would be willing to recommend online courses, despite not having a lot of faith in them. It would be more interesting to ask faculty if they felt that online education was “good enough.” It’s one thing if both online education and face-to-face instruction are both acceptable, with one being better. If one of the two is not acceptable, though, I would have significant concerns about why faculty would recommend online courses.

When asked if they were confident about the quality of their institution’s online offerings, but unsure about the offerings of other institutions, about half of faculty members gave a neutral response, while about a quarter agreed with the statement and another quarter disagreed.

I don’t believe that this is a good survey question because it does not make clear with what someone might be disagreeing. It’s obvious what it means if someone agrees that their stuff is probably better than what the other guy is offering, and neutral seems to more or less mean “no opinion” in this case, but what does disagreement mean? Are faculty members disagreeing that they’re confident of the quality of their institution’s online offerings, or are they disagreeing with the idea that other institutions have lower-quality online offerings?

Extending on the prior question, faculty members were asked if they had concerns about the quality of online education offered by for-profit institutions. Over 75% of faculty members either agreed or strongly agreed that they were concerned. Fewer than 10% of faculty members disagreed with the statement.

This is interesting to me because it says a lot about how faculty members seem to view education. It is also interesting to note that some of the faculty members surveyed were associated with for-profit institutions, and though we don’t know how many, it seems probable that at least a portion of those faculty members probably had some concerns about the online offerings from their own institution. I think it’s likely that this might be an area that highlights why administrators and faculty don’t see eye to eye when it comes to online education. Faculty members are more likely to be concerned solely with the quality of education offered, whereas administrators must take other issues, like finances, into account. Administrators may see online learning as a way to either reduce costs or increase the number of students their institution can accommodate, leading to higher profits. Thus, it makes sense that administrators would be more willing to stand up for online education.

The authors of the report state that, “a consistent finding in a number of previous Babson Survey Research Group reports is that teaching an online course takes more time and effort than does teaching face to face.” This led to a survey question to determine whether or not administrators and faculty felt that a fair reward system for online educators exists. The faculty split into thirds, some agreeing, some disagreeing, and some feeling neutral. Almost 60% of administrators felt that a fair rewards system exists.

When asked if they felt that their institution had a fair system of rewarding contributions made to online learning, faculty again split into rough thirds, with most feeling neutral and disagreement slightly higher than agreement. Almost half of faculty members felt that their institution respects teaching with technology in tenure and promotion considerations. Less than a quarter disagreed.

It is interesting to note that teaching an online course takes more time and effort than teaching in a classroom setting. To me, this seems unintuitive. A big part of online learning’s selling point is that it makes the job of the educator easier. Why is it that teaching an online course is being reported as requiring more time and effort? My thought is that either faculty members are being forced to develop their own material for each online course they teach and/or faculty members are being asked to deal with larger online “class sizes.” Regardless, it sounds as though online learning hasn’t yet been practiced enough to have a solid base to build upon. Once online learning materials are more widely available, perhaps opinions would shift and it would actually be seen as easier to teach an online course.

Because rewarding contributors to the online learning system seems to be a “thing” in higher learning institutions, I think it’s safe to assume there is currently an effort underway to develop some core material that can be reused with ease. Consequently, it strikes me as imperative that faculty members are appropriately encouraged and rewarded when it comes to involvement in developing online learning material. Until online learning starts being perceived as being as easy as teaching face-to-face, selling online learning to faculty members will likely be a difficult matter.

Meeting the New Needs of Teachers: Data Use

Posted on Jul 30, 2012

One of the main draws of online learning is that teachers can make good use of the data gathered by electronic learning systems in order to better address student needs and provide a more individualized learning experience. In order for this to work out, teachers must be well-versed in data use, but a report from the U.S. Department of Education revealed that teachers may not be properly equipped to make full use of the data that could be available to them.

The report states that, “teachers’  likelihood of using data in decision making is affected by how confident they feel about their knowledge and skills in data analysis and data interpretation,” and that “teacher training programs generally have not addressed data skill and data-informed decision-making processes.” These statements make it clear that because teachers are not typically taught how to work with data, they are not liable to use data as much as they could. Consequently, one of the key benefits of online learning may be largely unavailable to a great number of teachers.

Two key areas that case studies highlighted as requiring attention were data comprehension and data interpretation. In the case of the former, teachers sometimes had trouble working with complex data displays, and in the latter, teachers were observed as needing support in order to understand summaries of larger data sets. In sum, the issue seems to largely be that, currently, teachers do not have a sufficiently strong background in statistics that would be needed to use data as online learning advocates might expect.

Addressing this problem may not be difficult, in the sense that because the problem is clearly identified, solutions seem more obvious. Teachers are clearly developing a need for instruction in data use, so it would make sense to incorporate some primers into professional development time. Additionally, teacher education programs could be altered to include a focus on statistics, so that new teachers bring something fresh to the table. Ideally, an environment could emerge in which new teachers are able to support other teachers in data use, while the more experienced teachers could advise and support new teachers in instructional techniques.

Means, B., Chen, E., DeBarger, A., & Padilla, C. (2011). Teachers Ability to Use Data to Inform Instruction: Challenges and Supports. U.S. Department of Education Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. Retrieved from

Using technology to enhance learning and forming links between schools and homes

Posted on Jul 30, 2012

If primary and secondary students could design their own school, more than 70% would require ubiquitous Internet access and about 45% would provide access to online classes. Administrators feel the same way about internet access, but less than 20% would design a school with access to online courses.

Project Tomorrow at Speak Up has collected information from students, parents, and educators on technology and education since 2003. Along with the previously cited information, much can be culled from their reports.

Their five-year retrospective on the growth of online learning shows that growth in online learning experiences for teachers (i.e., online professional development) directly affects the value they place on online learning for their students, including their support of learning through the use of mobile devices. Since 2007, there has been an 80% increase in parents’ support of online learning for their children. Students and parents alike now have higher expectations for individualized teacher attention through online courses and see the top two benefits of online education to include the ability to work at the student’s own pace (57% of parents believe this is a top benefit) and the ability to review material as many time as the student wishes (54% of parents). Both of these benefits resemble accommodations made for students with disabilities on their individualized education programs (IEPs).

Project Tomorrow is interested in monitoring the annual trends in provision and expectations of online learning and how these trends will affect policies. The Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities shares this interest in these trends with a special focus on how the changing climate regarding the provision of online learning will affect policy for students with disabilities and how changing policy regarding online learning and students with disabilities will affect practices.

Interested in giving input on online learning trends? Speak Up 2012 will be taking input submissions from October 3rd to December 14th, 2012. If you are school or district administrator, you may register here.

Paula Burdette is a Co-Principal Investigator for the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas.

A quick guide to accessible products in education

Posted on Jul 23, 2012

It is important that all students are equipped with accessible products, but it is often hard to tell which products are accessible. For this reason, the Center has launched a new table that provides at-a-glance information on common products used by students in online environments. We’ve designed the table to provide details on available VPATs or accessibility information from a variety of vendors. You can sort through the information by category, vendor, or color-coded system of how readily available VPATs are. What’s a VPAT? One way that companies can reveal the accessibility of their products is by creating a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT). A VPAT details how the product complies with key regulation criteria listed in Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. If you are interested in accessibility, section 508, and how VPATs are becoming a standardized practice, make sure to read our current white paper.

We are the 85 percent! Those who still read print books over digital

Posted on Jul 20, 2012

Allyson Palmer The Rise of E-Reading is a report on the reading habits of Americans’ since the emergence of e-books.  The Pew Internet Project conducted surveys of 2,986 people over the age of 16.  The surveys asked questions about book reading and e-reader ownership, including why people like to read and whether they prefer print or e-books . The results indicate there is an increasing shift from printed books to e-book reading devices. This report was especially interesting to me, as I am currently waging an internal debate on whether to purchase a Kindle.  When e-book readers first emerged, I was one of those people vehemently opposed to letting go of my print books.  I like displaying my books on the bookshelf when I am finished reading them.  I like folding back the pages to mark my spot.  I like sharing good books with my friends.  I did not like the idea of reading my books on yet another technological device.  As one by one, my friends and family started carrying around their Kindles, Nooks, and IPads, I argued that I would not get sucked into the latest fad by purchasing an e-reading device.  Even when my 70-year-old father purchased a Kindle, and I began to worry that I may be the last one holding out in the e-reader war, I still refused to give in. Then, as I read this report I found myself reluctantly admitting that maybe there is something appealing about e-readers.   The survey sought to uncover which purposes of reading are better with e-books versus printed books.  Overwhelmingly, people reported printed books are better for reading with a child or sharing with other people, but e-books are better for travel and quick access.  I started to wonder which held more value.  Although, I like sharing my printed books and saving them on my bookshelf, my carry on luggage would be easier to fit in the overhead bin with one e-reader as opposed to several books.  And, there are times I want to start a book right away, without having to make a trip to the bookstore or wait for Amazon to deliver.  I was beginning to realize why “the number of adults reading e-books on any given day has jumped dramatically” from 4% in June 2010 reading e-books to 15% in December 2011. The survey also found e-book readers read more books than non e-book consumers. “91% of device owners had read a book in the year prior to the survey, compared with 78% of all Americans 16 and older.” I found these results surprising, considering my love of reading and my reluctance to switch to e-readers.  However, it is only logical that consumers who buy e-book reading devices for instant accessibility to books would find themselves reading more. The truth is, as much as I like the idea of my print books, I understand why the prevalence of e-readers is growing so rapidly and why 36% of the sample surveyed preferred e-books compared to 24% who preferred printed books.  The portability and instant book accessibility that comes with e-books does make the switch to an e-reading device tempting.  Perhaps the next time I go to order a print book from Amazon, I may find myself ordering a Kindle instead.  Rainie, L., Zickuhr, K., Purcell, K., Madden, M., & Brenner, J. (2012). The rise of e-reading. Washington D.C.: Pew Research Center.