Too Little Help for Professors Teaching Online

Survey of public college provosts finds many forms of training and support for those who teach online is lacking, even as institutions' expectations grow.

February 13, 2019
 
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More students are taking online courses and more professors are teaching online, as recent federal data on enrollments and surveys of faculty interactions with technology have shown.

But a new survey of public college provosts reinforces the troubling reality that even as more institutions count on online learning to reach students, they are often not training faculty members in advance or giving them the support they might need to be effective and to continue to develop their skills.

The survey -- conducted by Learning House, which helps colleges manage their online education programs, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities -- represents the views of 95 chief academic officers from the 375-member association of regional comprehensive universities.

The study documents the importance of online education at AASCU member institutions. Nearly four in 10 courses offered by the universities are in either an online (25 percent) or blended (13 percent) format, according to the provosts, who report that about two-thirds of the online courses (67 percent) are taught by full-time instructors and the other third by adjunct professors (31 percent). Those full-time professors who teach online do so in part as a portion of their regular teaching load and in part for extra pay as overload courses.

Most of the survey focuses on the extent to which instructors are encouraged to engage in, and are prepared and rewarded for, online teaching.

Almost two-thirds of academic officers (62 percent) said their institutions offer incentives for developing online courses; another 14 percent said they used to provide incentives but no longer do, while 21 percent said they offer no incentive. About half as many, 30 percent, said their university offers incentives for teaching online.

Andrew Magda, manager of market research at Learning House (which was recently purchased by Wiley Education Services) and author of the study, said the institutions that "no longer" offer incentives have taken that approach "because they have met a level of acceptance to online learning that these incentives are no longer needed."

In terms of preparation, chief academic officers overwhelmingly say they make a range of support services available to online instructors, although the formality of it varies. Almost eight in 10 (79 percent), for instance, say they "fully" provide training on usage of the learning management system (19 percent say they provide a "version" of such training); by contrast, 56 percent say they fully provide instruction in online pedagogy, while 34 percent say they offer an informal or optional version of this.

More than a third say they do not offer online instructors a 24-7 help desk.

Institutions are far less likely to require training than to offer it. Almost a quarter of institutions (23 percent) don't require professors to do any of a list of eight activities, and the proportion of CAOs saying they required participation in individual activities ranged from a high of 45 percent for self-paced training on the institution's online education technology (learning management system, etc.) to about three in 10 for training on online course design. Thirty-seven percent require instructor-led training on effective online teaching methods.

The survey also asked provosts how (and how frequently) they evaluate their faculty members who teach online. As seen below, student evaluations are regular and frequent for almost all institutions; reviews by supervisors also common, and typically annual; and reviews by fellow instructors far less common.

Provosts also answered a set of questions about their use of adjunct instructors for online courses.

Asked why they use adjunct faculty members in online settings, academic officers most frequently cited flexibility in dealing with enrollment fluctuations (73 percent), followed by filling temporary vacancies (61 percent), cost-effectiveness (58 percent) and the value of employing practitioners in relevant fields of study (54 percent). When asked to choose one reason, 37 percent said flexibility for enrollment variations and 19 percent cited cost-effectiveness.

When asked how they identify relevant adjuncts, 82 percent cited their websites or other institutional publications, 68 percent said word of mouth and 41 percent cited advertising in national publications.

And provosts said they were likeliest to use adjuncts in undergraduate general education courses (55 percent), followed by undergraduate core courses (23 percent) and graduate courses (20 percent).

Learning House offered recommendations based on the study's findings. They include:

  • mandatory or incentivized training for instructors who have not taught online.
  • a regular feedback cycle for continuous professional development.
  • a regular feedback cycle for instructor evaluation, including peer feedback.
  • a uniform learning experience for standard components of an online course.

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