Professors Embrace Online Courses Despite Qualms About Quality

August 31, 2009

They worry about the quality of online courses, say teaching them takes more effort, and grouse about insufficient support. Yet large numbers of professors still put in the time to teach online. And despite the broad suspicion about quality, a majority of faculty members have recommended online courses to students.

That is the complicated picture that emerges in "The Paradox of Faculty Voices: Views and Experiences With Online Learning," part of a two-volume national study released today by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities—Sloan National Commission on Online Learning.

The major survey of public colleges and universities found that 70 percent of all faculty members believe the learning outcomes of online courses to be either inferior or somewhat inferior, compared with face-to-face instruction.

Professors with online experience are less pessimistic. Among those who have taught or developed an online course, the majority rated the medium's effectiveness as being as good as or better than face to face. But in a potentially controversial finding, even among professors who have taught online, fully 48 percent feel it is either inferior or somewhat inferior.

The picture gets more complicated when it comes to what professors do, rather than only perceive. The majority of those who feel the learning outcomes of online education are somewhat inferior have recommended online courses to students.

The debate about the quality of online instruction is nothing new. But the scale of this study makes it significant. Responses came from more than 10,700 faculty members at 69 public colleges and universities across the country, a sector that accounts for much of the rapidly growing online market.

Recognition Deficit

When it comes to universities' support for online learning, the report showed broad faculty dissatisfaction. That was especially the case regarding incentives for developing and teaching courses. Also rated poor: recognition for online work in tenure and promotion.

Jack M. Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts and chairman of the commission that issued the report, described the findings about online support for such learning as "a call to action." when asked about them in a conference call with reporters.

"Institutions are going to have to do a better job of providing the support to the faculty—and, by the way, to the students as well," said Mr. Wilson.

The report also punctures the prevailing notion that older professors aren't as involved with online instruction. Veteran professors—those who have taught for more than 20 years—are teaching online at rates equivalent to less-experienced faculty members, it found.

The report raises many questions. Why do so many professors feel the online medium is inferior? And how inferior?

And why—given their quality concerns and belief that it takes more effort to develop and teach online courses—do so many do it?

More than 36 percent of faculty members have experience either teaching or developing an online course, according to the report, fresh evidence of the mainstreaming of online education. A large majority of survey respondents pointed to student needs as a "primary motivator" for teaching online.

Professors judge online education with somewhat different criteria, said Jeff Seaman, author of the report and a co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group, which carried out the survey for the commission.

"The access issues trump everything else," he said. "The ability to get somebody in a course that they would not ordinarily be able to take, to finish that degree, to pursue that career, to do whatever, is sufficient."

Tenure Issues

Even for online- learning enthusiasts, broadly held negative perceptions can have an influence. Tenured colleagues or department chairs will in some cases advise professors to give up their online teaching if they want to get on a tenure track, said Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium.

"Because the perception is that, if the online teaching is going to take more time than face to face, what they should be doing is teaching face to face and getting their research projects started," Ms. Poley said. She added, "If the incentives aren't matched up administratively, then you're going to have people who at a minimum are frustrated."

The report argues that universities will need to involve a larger share of the faculty to meet the continued demand for online programs. And to do that, it says, "they will need to find ways to address the time-and-effort issue and make it as easy—and as rewarding—as possible for faculty to engage in online learning."

One veteran distance-education researcher argued that faculty members require instructional-design help but questioned the need for financial carrots.

"I don't necessarily believe that I need additional incentives beyond strong support," said Chère Gibson, a University of Wisconsin at Madison professor emerita. "Nobody paid me the first time to develop my face-to-face class."

Thomas L. Russell maintains a Web site called The No Significant Difference Phenomenon that compiles studies comparing distance and traditional education. He chalked up professors' negative online perceptions about online learning to a different source.

"I think deep down inside they don't want it to replace them," he said. "They're fearful."