Wallflowers at the Revolution: Evolving Faculty Perspectives on Online Education

For the past decade, we have been mired in generalizations in debating online education. Broad, often anecdotal and generally unsubstantiated comparisons have been made about the virtual and physical classroom–often taking the worst of one in contrast to the best of the other. But the range of what falls under the rubric of online distance learning is now far too vast to support simple and sweeping generalizations.
Most education conducted online is not necessarily for students at a distance—but an option for traditional, on-campus students. These students are mixing and matching, opting in and out of various learning modalities—and, in effect, voting for variety in their choice of how and when to learn. Still other institutions have developed programs offered fully at a distance to a national and increasingly global audience—which poses far different challenges.

Some institutions encourage faculty to build homespun online courses on their own, with little or no support, and of dramatically variable quality. Others provide sophisticated assistance and tools that help develop educational products with what Hollywood would call high production values. Some institutions target older, post-traditional students, who have the maturity and motivation to participate in asynchronous learning.

As with online courses, in-person classes reveal remarkable disparity, and those who know something about both have great difficulty comparing the average of one with the average of the other. Reducing so much variation into a glib opinion can be tone-deaf to the rich nuances and diversity of what is taking place. The academic landscape is vast and complex—and this complexity is humbling for those trying to understand our era or forecast its future.

But this is what survey research attempts to measure and help us better understand. The 2013 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology, jointly administered by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup, is the second annual attempt to gauge academic opinion on technology and teaching. Often, faculty opinion is based on little direct experience or familiarity, or biased based on their own plunge into online learning. Regardless, the evolving subjective perceptions of e-learning are fascinating to see unfold. Even when experiences are anecdotal or uniformed, this survey shows how, in aggregate, educational technology is gradually becoming a fixture within academe. But not without its nagging controversies. We are in the midst of something between an evolution and a revolution—a modification of business-as-usual and a major transformation. These findings provide a snapshot of our changing times, which will likely look dated and even naive a few years from now.

Lack of familiarity breeds contempt

More than one-fifth of America’s faculty—regardless of rank, institution and first-hand experience—agrees that online education can produce learning outcomes comparable to the traditional classroom. While 21% of all faculty respondents agree or strongly agree that “Online courses can achieve student learning outcomes that are at least equivalent to those in-person courses,” this ranges from 17% of tenured faculty to 25% of part-time faculty and 59% of Technology Administrators. (I would predict lower results had the word “can” not appeared in this question.). All faculty, though, tend to think more highly of their own institution’s capability for quality online courses, with agreement growing to 26%. And those who themselves have taught online are twice as positive as those who only teach in-person. In short, the closer professors are to the actual experience, the most favorable they are. Faculty engaged early and often in online learning become the true believers—and enthusiasts for innovative teaching that seeps into all of their instruction. The key is to make the initial experience positive—by providing adequate support, reward, and respect for the time commitment this takes.

Context matters. The faculty surveyed are more prone to be positive for any one of a number of factors: if an online course is credit-bearing, part of a full degree or certificate program, or offered by an accredited not-for-profit institution, particularly those that offer both online and classroom-based courses and has a proven track record in technology-enhanced education. The institution’s halo establishes confidence in its course offerings, including those online. Online distance learning needs to be woven into the mainstream to seem credible.

The Inside Higher Ed survey substantiates the important role that accreditation plays as gatekeepers in distance learning, even if regional accreditors are just beginning to construct their capability to assess online quality. And those who have taught online value the institution’s track record more so (91%) than those without first-hand experience (79%). Faculty with online experience place a greater emphasis on that experience in determining institutional credibility. These professors perhaps appreciate the important collective element in introducing fully online programs—that it takes a village to deliver a quality distance-learning program. Quality distance-learning programs envelop faculty with the tangible resources to succeed. Institutions with reputations at stake will not leave faculty adrift to create quality online courses.

Drilling down to the components of the learning process, faculty generally believe that the online classroom is most effective at conveying content, but less so in addressing individual student needs (such as interaction in and out of class, especially in reaching students at risk).

Across this survey, tenured faculty emerge as those most leery of the quality of the online classroom. Is this because of their relatively older age? Their conservatism, cautiousness or protective concern for the institution’s reputation? Or simply their relative lack of first-hand familiarity with the online experience? Across this survey, those who have experienced online teaching are more likely to find it equal or superior to in-person teaching especially in conveying content, responding to individual students, grading and communicating to the class. The best way to convert faculty to the cause of online teaching is to have them participate, and ideally more than once. Engagement seems to correlate with support. If skepticism dissipates with experience, what will happen as more and more faculty engage in online teaching themselves?

Just a few years ago, we saw a knee-jerk negativity toward distance learning—both as pedagogy and as relevant to the academic mission. There was a casual association of online and for-profit education, and a tendency to hold upstart alternative means of course delivery to an even higher standard than the conventional classroom. Online was vilified and the traditional classroom glorified. The skeptical spotlight was on new modalities and rarely on the mixed success of prevailing modes of teaching.

But when experience conflicts with beliefs, cognitive dissonance sets in, and those beliefs are forced to adjust. And that is what has been occurring across academe—as professors alter their attitudes toward online education to match the evidence from their own teaching and among colleagues and institutions they respect. A surprising 29% of the faculty respond that they have taken at least one credit-bearing online course—and 49% of those who teach online indicate they had had also been a student in an online course. Fundamental assumptions and beliefs about teaching and learning are slowly being questioned, re-examined and debated. All students—both those who learn at their computer as well as those who attend courses on campuses—will benefit as a result.

Prejudice against the virtual classroom is evolving towards a more balanced view. Academic DNA inevitably generates a healthy skeptical perspective—but faculty minds are now opening up to new possibilities.

Tempered view toward MOOC-mania

America’s faculty, according to this Inside Higher Ed survey, are not swayed by MOOC hoopla. MOOCs are so remote to their world, involve only a tiny fraction of faculty at a still very small number of institutions, and, thus far, do not represent an enviable or desirable form of academic delivery. Only 14% of faculty respondents say MOOCs are offered on their campuses, and 17% say their institutions are planning to offer MOOCs. More than three-quarters of the respondents accuse the news media of overstating the value and importance of MOOCs, and only one-quarter believe MOOCs have great potential for positive impact. The fact that elite universities are offering some MOOCs has done little to improve online learning, according to all but 19% of the respondents. They are simply not persuaded that this is a development that matters much, or at least as much as pundits claim. Those who champion this revolution might very well be underestimating the counter-revolution it likely could generate.

Only 22% are inclined to believe MOOCs are creditworthy, and 67% fault the offering institution for not granting credit to its own students who enroll in MOOCs produced by their own faculty. Only 10% find MOOC completion rates acceptable. However, about half feel that MOOCs have some potential to address the high cost of higher education for students and their families. Only 13% say that MOOCs make them excited for the future of academia. Perhaps this is because any potential impact of MOOCs would be a double-edged sword. To address the challenges of tuition cost and student access, online education would need to become so scalable (with a much higher student-teacher ratio) that fundamental changes in teaching would occur. While adaptive learning, competency-based curricula and sophisticated analytics are very promising, faculty are likely to be concerned that any new structural model that addresses cost inevitably disrupts their roles, independence, satisfaction, and even job security—and likely to be questioning whether MOOCs, pedagogically, are a step forward or backward.

Those elite schools offering MOOCs have done so often outside their own internal and external processes. This skunk-works approach helped launch these efforts, but faculty believe they must now be drawn back in to justify the institution’s brand. Indeed, 81% of those surveyed believe that the accrediting bodies should be evaluating MOOCs, and 82% believe that these first need to be reviewed internally by the institution’s faculty.

Disrupting the advocates of disruption

Despite its spotlight, online teaching is still nascent. Almost three-quarters of all faculty have never taught online, and a surprising 30% of those say they have never been asked to. Robust distance-learning programs are still a minority activity across the vast array of American academe. From this survey, we learn that only 27% of the schools where these faculty teach even have degree programs offered at a distance, and only another 23% of these institutions provide random online courses. (This likely understates reality since faculty might not be aware of particular online efforts at their institution. This also raises the definitional question of what constitutes an “online” course or program.) Thus, half of America’s institutions might not even be in the business of online education—yet. Though the prophets of disruption are either premature or perhaps sublimating their own hopes, they may yet prove correct as elearning evolves gradually over the decade ahead. But we should not underestimate the resilience and openness to managed change within America’s faculties. Professors may tinker with the technology and integrate it over time into being better teachers—but perhaps with a speed and subtlety that frustrates those calling for quick and comprehensive solutions.

Thus far, the evidence does not suggest that a significant portion of the student population—especially those in the traditional years of college—want to abandon the on-campus experience altogether in favor of distance learning. The excitement of our times is that students at each successive stage of their higher learning now have choices. Opting for newer modes or opportunities does not mean relinquishing traditional ones. The menu simply has grown.

We are still at an early phase—and the Cassandras will need to be a little more patient for patterns to emerge. Responsible academic leaders, observers and writers will need to temper their enthusiasm that online learning will be the panacea for all that ails academe. The overwhelming majority of America’s faculty have little first- or second-hand familiarity with online teaching. And, until they do, they are less likely to fully recognize its value and virtues. Online teaching is still a minority and marginal component of higher education—though rapidly seeping into the mainstream. As it does, we are likely to see its growing acceptance, along with a more discerning view of the benefits and rich diversity that digital technology provides in reaching and educating an ever-growing segment of the population. When that happens we are also likely to hear far fewer generalizations, even in opinion surveys. We could also see a renewed appreciation of the traditional classroom and residential campus.

Jay A. Halfond is former dean of Boston University’s Metropolitan College, on sabbatical before returning as a full-time faculty member at Boston University, and currently the UPCEA Innovation Fellow and Wiley Deltak Faculty Fellow.

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