Going For Distance

August 31, 2009

Online education is no longer a peripheral phenomenon at public universities, but many academic administrators are still treating it that way.

So says a comprehensive study released today by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU) and the Sloan National Commission on Online Learning, which gathered survey responses from more than 10,700 faculty members and 231 interviews with administrators, professors, and students at APLU institutions.

“I think it’s a call to action,” said Jack Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts and chair of the Sloan online learning commission. “The leadership of universities has been trying to understand exactly how [online education] fits into their strategic plans, and what this shows is that faculty are ahead of the institutions in these online goals.”

According to the study, professors are open to teaching online courses (defined in the study as courses where at least 80 percent of the course is administered on the Web), but do not believe they are receiving adequate support from their bosses. On the whole, respondents to the faculty survey rated public universities “below average” in seven of eight categories related to online education, including support for online course development and delivery, protection of intellectual property, incentives for developing and delivering online courses, and consideration of online teaching activity in promotion and tenure decisions.

Still, more than a third of the faculty respondents had developed and taught an online course.

“The urban legend out there was that many faculty out there don’t want to participate” in online education, said Wilson. “Contrary to popular myths, faculty at all ages and levels are participating.”

Indeed, neither seniority nor tenure status held a significant bearing on whether a professor had ever developed or taught an online course. At the time the survey was administered, there were more professors with at least 20 years’ experience teaching an online course than professors with five years’ experience or less.

This despite the fact that developing and teaching a course online is more taxing than doing the same in a classroom -- according to the survey respondents, teaching online isn’t easy. “Faculty who get involved in online teaching have to be more reflective about their teaching,” Wilson said. Professors need to organize lecture notes and other materials with more care. They get more feedback from students. It’s more apparent when a student is falling behind and needs special attention.

Almost two-thirds of the faculty said it takes more effort to teach a course online than in a classroom, while 85 percent said more effort is required to develop one. While younger professors seem to have an easier time teaching online than older ones, more than half of respondents from the youngest faculty group agreed it was more time-consuming. Nearly 70 percent of all professors cited the extra effort necessary to develop Web courses as a crucial barrier to teaching online.

So if teaching an online course is a ton of work and support from administrators is lacking, why bother doing it? Most professors said they are motivated by their students’ need for flexible access to course materials, and a belief that the Web allows them to reach certain types of student more effectively.

“As a faculty member, when you’re teaching online, suddenly you have to be teaching 24/7,” said Samuel Smith, president emeritus of Washington State University. “…It’s more difficult, but the students get more contact.”

Given the extra work, more than 60 percent of faculty see inadequate compensation as a barrier to the further development of online courses. “If these rates of participation among faculty are going to continue to grow, institutions will have do a better job acknowledging the additional time and effort on the part of the faculty member,” said Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group and the survey’s lead researcher. For some, that might mean that their online work should figure into tenure and promotion decisions. For others, “acknowledgment” might equate to some extra cash in their paycheck.

This is not a new request -- nor is the fact that it takes longer to develop and administer a college course online a new revelation. The American Federation of Teachers report on guidelines for good practice in distance education acknowledges that it takes “anywhere from 66 to 500 percent longer” to prepare an online course than a face-to-face one, and “additional compensation should be provided to faculty to meet the extensive time commitments of distance education.” The report noted that only half of the faculty it surveyed reported receiving extra compensation. That was in 2000.

The authors of today's APLU study conclude by recommending that public universities not only institute policies that “acknowledge and recognize” professors’ online education efforts, but also work develop “mechanisms that effectively incorporate online learning into the fabric and missions of the institutions.”

“It’s now a factual statement that online learning is woven into the fabric of higher education,” Wilson said. “It has grown faster over the last six years than any other sector of higher education … and it will keep growing.”

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