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The massive open online course craze may have subsided, but the debate about the role of online courses in higher education persists. Even as more faculty members experiment with online education, they continue to fear that the record-high number of students taking those classes are receiving an inferior experience to what can be delivered in the classroom, Inside Higher Ed’s new Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology suggests. 

Gallup surveyed 2,799 faculty members and 288 academic technology administrators this August and September on issues identified by Inside Higher Ed. A copy of the report can be downloaded here.

Highlights include:

  • Virtually all faculty members and technology administrators say meaningful student-teacher interaction is a hallmark of a quality online education, and that it is missing from most online courses.
  • A majority of faculty members with online teaching experience still say those courses produce results inferior to in-person courses.

    Inside Higher Ed's 2014 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology was conducted in conjunction with researchers from Gallup. 

    Inside Higher Ed regularly surveys key higher ed professionals on a range of topics. A copy of the report can be downloaded here.

    On Nov. 18, Inside Higher Ed's Scott Jaschik and Carl Straumsheim will conduct a free webinar analyzing the survey's findings and answering readers' questions. To register for the webinar, please click here.

    The survey was made possible in part by financial support from Blackboard, Pearson and Sonic Foundry.

  • Faculty members are overwhelmingly opposed to their institutions hiring outside "enablers" to manage any part of online course operation, even for marketing purposes.
  • Humanities instructors are most likely to say they have benefited from the digital humanities -- but also that those digital techniques have been oversold.

Only about one-quarter of faculty respondents (26 percent) say online courses can produce results equal to in-person courses. While that represents a slight increase from last year’s survey, when only one in five said so, that top-line number fails to communicate that most faculty members maintain serious doubts about being able to interact or indeed teach students in online courses.

The doubt extends across age groups and most academic disciplines. Tenured faculty members may be the most critical of online courses, with an outright majority (52 percent) saying online courses produce results inferior to in-person courses, but that does not necessarily mean opposition rises steadily with age. Faculty respondents younger than 40, for example, are more critical of online courses (38 percent) than are those between the ages of 50 and 59 (34 percent).




Though humanities instructors are generally the most negative toward online courses (54 percent), a majority of faculty members in the social sciences (51 percent) also say online courses do not produce outcomes equal to in-person courses. A plurality of respondents in engineering and biological and physical sciences (46 percent) are also negative, while computer and information sciences instructors (36 percent negative, 24 percent neutral, 37 percent positive) are more evenly divided. Faculty members at professional schools are the least negative, though a plurality of those respondents are neutral (36.1 percent).

Those negative outlooks persisted no matter if respondents were asked to consider online courses at their own institutions, in their departments or disciplines, or in the classes they taught themselves.

Meanwhile, administrators who oversee academic technology see online courses in a much more positive light. Two-thirds of those surveyed say those courses can produce results equal to in-person courses, but they stopped short of saying online is a superior form of delivery.

What’s missing from the online courses, according to administrators and faculty members? In past surveys, faculty members have said independent accreditation is the most important indicator of an institution that offers quality online courses. That response ranks high this year as well -- 89 percent of respondents say it is important -- but it is no longer the top response.

Instead, 93 percent of faculty respondents and 98 percent of technology administrators say high-quality online courses provide meaningful interaction between instructors and students. Among both groups, at least four in five respondents rated it very important. This year marks the first time the response has been featured in the survey, and it may provide insight into why most faculty members still prefer to teach in a physical classroom.

Professors Who Believe Quality of Online Courses Is Worse Than to Face-to-Face in Various Ways
 Have Not Taught OnlineHave Taught Online
Ability to deliver the necessary content to meet learning objectives.54%31%
Ability to answer student questions.71%42%
Interaction with students during class.89%71%
Interaction with students outside of class.63%47%
Grading and communication about grading.33%17%
Communication with the college about logistical and other issues.41%32%
Ability to reach "at-risk" students.81%68%
Ability to reach "exceptional" students.58%33%

Ronald Legon, executive director of the Quality Matters Program, said that finding was one of the most surprising in the survey.

"In an online class, every student is expected to respond to discussion questions every week," Legon said in an email. "This can hardly be said to be true of face-to-face courses, unless they are really blended or hybrid and make extensive use of online discussions. "

The importance of interaction is reflected in the aspects of online courses faculty respondents say are inferior to in-person courses: in-class interaction (83 percent), reaching at-risk students (77 percent), answering student questions (61 percent), out-of-class interaction (57 percent), reaching exceptional students (49 percent), meeting learning objectives (46 percent), communicating with the colleges about logistical and other issues (37 percent) and grading (28 percent).

Across all eight points of comparison -- from meeting learning objectives to grading -- no more than 13 percent of faculty members say online courses offer higher quality than in-person courses.

Perhaps because of their poor evaluations, 38 percent of faculty respondents say online courses should cost less than in-person courses, while only 7 percent say they should cost more. Faculty members who haven’t taught online are split on the issue (48 percent less, 48 percent the same), but two-thirds (or 68 percent) of those who have say students should pay just as much for them as they would for face-to-face instruction.

As in previous years, taking or teaching an online course softens the opposition, but it is still not enough to make faculty members zealous online education evangelists. No more than 18 percent of faculty respondents with online teaching experience say online courses outperform in-person courses on any of the points listed above, and as many as 71 percent of them say online courses still offer lower quality in-class interaction.

Legon said the negative responses seemed to be "reflecting fear of the unknown."

“My general reaction is that the data show that the more exposure a faculty member has had to online or blended learning, the more positive their view,” Legon wrote. “But, clearly, not all faculty have seen the potential of online learning to match and even exceed the effectiveness of face-to-face learning, because they have not had the opportunity to become familiar with best practices and research-driven course design and delivery.”

Thirty-three percent of faculty respondents say they have taught an online course for credit, a slight increase from last year’s 30 percent. Another 32 percent say they have taken an online course for credit.

Among the faculty members who have not taught online, 28 percent say they were simply never asked to, and 24 percent say they are not interested. Another 19 percent, however, say online courses do not offer strong educational value; humanities scholars (29 percent) are almost three times as likely as computer and information sciences instructors (10 percent) to say so.

More than two-thirds of instructors (68 percent) say their institutions are planning to expand their online offerings, but they are split on whether or not this is a good idea (36 percent positive, 38 percent negative, 26 percent neutral). Faculty also say they feel a little more left out (39 percent) than included (37 percent) in those discussions.

If they were included, many faculty members say they would advocate for a budget hike for their IT offices -- though not necessarily to boost online initiatives. Half of all instructors say spending levels on digital initiatives, including instructional technology and training, are too low, and only 7 percent say institutions are spending too much on those efforts. Nearly half of all faculty respondents (48 percent) say they also want to see more funds invested in improving the IT infrastructure at their institutions.

The new investments should also come with more recognition of what faculty members do with digital pedagogy. At the moment, most faculty (42 percent) say institutions don’t properly take teaching with technology into account during tenure and promotion decisions, compensate fairly for developing an online course (52 percent) or acknowledge the time commitment (54 percent). Yet faculty say they are mostly satisfied (51 percent) with development and training, which continues to be a popular topic at many ed-tech conferences.

The Why of Hybridization

Blended or hybrid classes aren’t nearly as divisive as fully online courses, the survey finds, suggested that as long as a course is grounded in a face-to-face session, faculty are interested in using online content to support their lectures. In a hybrid biology course, for example, an instructor may assign students to watch lectures before class, making more room for in-depth discussions or hands-on activities.

Half of the faculty respondents say they have taught at least one such class, in which some parts of the instruction is delivered remotely, and about half (52 percent) say it is important to convert traditional courses.

Getting students involved in “active learning” is one of the main reasons why faculty members converted their traditional courses into hybrid courses. Eighty percent of respondents say incorporating more active learning techniques is an important reason to convert a course (which is often a time-consuming process), beating out using online content (75 percent) and lowering costs by reducing class time (37 percent). And as 66 percent reported that their use of active learning increased after converting the course, 53 percent say their time spent lecturing decreased.

Outside Partners Not Welcome

As more nonprofit institutions have ventured into the online education market, many have tapped into the expertise of for-profit companies such as 2U, Academic Partnerships and Pearson Embanet to kickstart their programs. The use of such online “enablers,” however, is highly controversial among faculty members.

Virtually every faculty respondent (96 percent) says institutions should produce their own online degree programs. The number rises to 98 percent among those who have taught online. Even marketing, which is a more commonly outsourced service, should be handled in-house, 85 percent of respondents say. Again, faculty members with online teaching experience are slightly more opposed (87 percent) to outsourcing.

"It is quite telling -- really quite a condemnation of the industry -- that 96 percent of faculty believe that if an institution is going to offer online courses, the faculty at that institution should develop the curriculum, and only 4 percent think it should be outsourced," said Craig R. Vasey, chair of the American Association of University Professors committee on teaching, research and publication. "The reason for this opinion? Faculty know that their motivation in creating courses is educational -- and they are concerned about the quality of the experience for the student -- whereas the motivation of the industry is to make money."

The overwhelming opposition to outsourcing has materialized at a number of institutions that have debated whether or not to make a push into online education. In the past year alone, faculty at various institutions have staged a school-by-school boycott of an institution’s partnership with Pearson, effectively dismantled a multi-university collaboration to share courses and refused to contribute to a centralized online education portal.

Concerns about a for-profit company interfering with their work is on the whole not an important reason why faculty members stay away from online education. Only 2 percent of faculty respondents say intellectual property rights issues are holding them back from teaching online.

As massive open online courses grew in popularity over the last few years, some institutions wondered what would happened if an instructor moved from one institution to another -- MOOCs, after all, can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop.

In faculty members’ opinion, the broader issue about intellectual property rights and online education has already been solved. Seventy-four percent of all faculty respondents say they should be free to bring courses they developed and taught online with them if they move to a different institution. Faculty who have taught online agree, though not as decisively (67 percent). Less than 1 percent of instructors say another party owns the rights to their courses.

Divided on the Digital Humanities

The survey also asked faculty members to share their thoughts on the digital humanities -- the all-encompassing term for using technology to assist (and hopefully improve) teaching and research.

Faculty members in the humanities, who made up 29 percent of the survey takers, say the digital humanities have been most successful at improving their research. Slightly more than half of them (53 percent) say digital techniques have benefited their research, compared to the 38 percent who say it has improved their teaching. At the same time, humanities scholars are more likely to say the digital humanities have been oversold (55 percent) than their colleagues in other fields -- a topic that was debated earlier this year.

The support was somewhat lower among instructors in other fields. About one-third of faculty members in the social sciences say the digital humanities have benefited them -- as did about one-quarter of those in engineering and biological and physical sciences. Surprisingly, faculty members in the computer and information sciences were the most enthusiastic about the digital humanities, with about half of them agreeing, though those numbers may be explained by the fact that those respondents only made up 5 percent of the survey-takers.

Even though faculty members outside the humanities and social sciences are less likely to say they have personally benefited from the digital humanities, some recognize the impact they have had on their colleagues: About one-third of faculty members (37 percent) say the digital humanities have improved their institutions.