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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.

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