Built for Distance

Online faculty burnout may have more to do with a professor's personality than with the medium itself.
May 16, 2011

Online education demolishes borders: borders between regulatory jurisdictions, between traditional and nontraditional learners, and between for-profit and nonprofit higher education.

But one pattern of erosion that has been less thoroughly documented has been the crumbling of the borders that define the work lives of college professors. Some experts fear that the boom in online education could lead to higher rates of burnout among faculty, especially those whose emotional satisfaction depends on face-to-face interactions with students and colleagues. At the same time, some suggest that technological advances in online learning environments, specifically tools that aim to make virtual interactions more rewarding, could reduce the risk of alienation for online instructors.

Does teaching online increase the risk of burnout? Scholarly research devoted to the topic is thin and offers no definitive answers. One study, based on 2005 survey data from 76 online instructors from a mix of institutions, found that the online instructors tended to feel less competent and successful in their work than the average college professor or K-12 instructor. They also tended to depersonalize their students and colleagues more. But the authors acknowledged the weakness of the sample size, and the study ultimately raised more questions than it answered.

“We’ve had an immense amount of interest in this research,” recalled Mark A. McKnight, an assistant professor of business at the University of Southern Indiana and one of the study’s authors, in an interview Wednesday, "which was interesting, given that we didn’t have any real significant findings.”

Despite all that interest, a scan of national databases only turns up one paper published since then that directly addresses the issue: a 2009 Journal of Distance Education study conducted by two other researchers who used the same procedures. But the new study actually ended up with a smaller sample size, and the results suggested an opposite effect. “In fact, it appears as though the online instructor is less stressed than his/her face-to-face counterpart,” the authors wrote.

In the absence of authoritative research, anecdotes abound. Kathleen Ives, associate executive director of the nonprofit Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) and an online instructor in her own right, has co-led workshops in staving off online teacher burnout for Sloan since 2007. Ives says the workshops are well-attended and have given her reason to think that online teaching puts a unique strain on professors.

“It is a lot more work, because you’re doing a lot more writing and a lot more reading,” says Ives. Many online courses are held “asynchronously” — not in real time — so as to give students the flexibility to complete coursework at their convenience. That means faculty members have to answer questions and moderate class discussions by critiquing and producing text rather than holding forth extemporaneously. “You can’t wing it in an online classroom,” Ives says.

Others have also found online teaching to be more time-consuming and labor-intensive than the classroom kind. Two-thirds of respondents in a 2009 study of public-sector professors said teaching online takes more effort than it does in a face-to-face setting. And the fact that class is never out of session — one of the main selling points of online programs for students — means that some professors can feel as though they are never off the clock.

“Without a high level of instructor and social presence, learners can feel isolated and disengaged because of a lack of communication intimacy and immediacy,” wrote Joanna C. Dunlap, an associate professor of education and human development at the University of Colorado at Denver, in a 2005 essay. As a result, some online professors might feel the need to overcompensate. “One way for an instructor to achieve presence is to be online constantly.”

This is a well-intentioned but ultimately self-defeating approach, argues Dunlap in her paper. The key to teaching successfully online, she says, is setting clear expectations for how long students should expect to wait before getting back graded work or answers to questions, then having the discipline and organizational skills to stick to that schedule. That way, professors can maintain positive relationships with students while enjoying a modicum of work-life balance, Dunlap says.

In this light, burnout risk for online instructors seems less about the medium and more about personality. Some professors might be charismatic at the lectern and dull and unpunctual at the keyboard. “There are things about the environment in which you work that can cause some real problems in terms of there being a mismatch between the person and the job,” says Christine Maslach, a professor of psychology at University of California at Berkeley who studies the concept of job-related burnout. “It needs to be a good fit.”

The meteoric rise of online learning over the past decade has led, naturally, to a rise in the number of instructors who teach fully online courses, often several at a time. The 2009 Journal of Distance Education study re-examining the issue of online faculty burnout conservatively put the number of college instructors teaching online at around 30,000. The number of students taking an online course has grown by at least a million since then, according to Sloan-C. This has no doubt led to an accompanying rise in online instructors — a number of whom, Ives points out, are teaching online not by choice. Some institutions do a good job of vetting professors for compatibility with the online medium, she says, but many do not.

Still, the experts interviewed by Inside Higher Ed agree that advances in technology should continue to close the gap between online and classroom teaching, especially when it comes to enabling more intimate human interactions among instructors and their students. Social media tools — especially synchronous video chat, which provides a preferable option to professors who thrive on face-to-face interaction — have become more sophisticated in recent years. And with the proliferation of social media tools in their lives outside of class, some professors might find it less strange to communicate which students primarily through such channels.

“It was so much about the discussion thread,” says Dunlap, recalling the days before social media and synchronous tools had become commonplace in online learning platforms. “I was really struggling with the extra time and energy it takes to make up for the lack of face-to-face interaction.”

Since then, yet another border has blurred, says McKnight, the Southern Indiana professor who co-authored the first study on the unique burnout risks of online teaching: comparing online and classroom teaching is, in some measure, a false distinction. True, campus-based instructors might address their students in person for several hours each week, McKnight says; but those instructors are also likely to maintain a parallel online learning environment where they post assignments and give feedback, and their students will probably expect a near-instant reply to an e-mail — or even a text message.

“I think some of those demands have bled over and become a little more universal,” McKnight says, “both in terms of frequency of interaction and depth.”

For the latest technology news and opinion from Inside Higher Ed, follow @IHEtech on Twitter.

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