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Online education arguably came of age in the last year, with the explosion of massive open online courses driving the public's (and politicians') interest in digitally delivered courses and contributing to the perception that they represent not only higher education's future, but its present.

Faculty members, by and large, still aren't buying -- and they are particularly skeptical about the value of MOOCs, Inside Higher Ed's new Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology suggests.

The survey of 2,251 professors, which, like Inside Higher Ed's other surveys, was conducted by Gallup, finds significant skepticism among faculty members about the quality of online learning, with only one in five of them agreeing that online courses can achieve learning outcomes equivalent to those of in-person courses, and majorities considering online learning to be of lower quality than in-person courses on several key measures (but not in terms of delivering content to meet learning objectives).

But, importantly, appreciation for the quality and effectiveness of online learning grows with instructors' experiences with it. The growing minority of professors who themselves had taught at least one course online (30 percent of respondents, up from 25 percent last year) were far likelier than their peers who had not done so to believe that online courses can produce learning outcomes at least equivalent to those of face-to-face courses; 50 percent of them agree or strongly agree that online courses in their own department or discipline produce equivalent learning outcomes to in-person courses, compared to just 13 percent of professors who have not taught online.

About the Survey

Inside Higher Ed's 2013 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.

On Sept. 12, Inside Higher Ed presented a free webinar to discuss the results of the survey. Editors Scott Jaschik and Doug Lederman analyzed the findings and answered readers' questions.

The Inside Higher Ed survey on faculty and technology was made possible in part by advertising from Deltak, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Pearson and Sonic Foundry.

And while even professors who have taught online are about evenly divided on whether online courses generally can produce learning outcomes equivalent to face-to-face classes (33 percent agree, 30 percent are neutral, and 37 percent disagree), instructors with online experience are likelier than not to believe that online courses can deliver equivalent outcomes at their institutions (47 percent agree vs. 28 percent disagree), in their departments (50 percent vs. 30 percent), and in the classes they teach (56 percent vs. 29 percent).

Among other key findings:

  • Asked to rate factors that contribute to quality in online education, whether an online program is offered by an accredited institution tops the list for faculty members (73 percent), and about 6 in 10 say that whether an online program is offered by an institution that also offers in-person instruction is a “very important” indicator of quality. Only 45 percent say it is very important that the online education is offered for credit, and about 3 in 10 say it is very important whether the offering institution is nonprofit. Technology administrators, by contrast, are far likelier to associate quality with academic credit, with 63 percent citing that as a “very important” indicator of quality in online education.
  • Most faculty members are skeptical of MOOCs -- and want to be sure that campus faculties control decision-making over how the courses are used and that accreditors review their quality.
  • 30 percent of faculty respondents say they have taught online. Of those who have never taught an online course, 30 percent say the main reason they haven’t is because they’ve never been asked.

The study was based on a pair of related surveys about online education, co-designed by Inside Higher Ed and administered and analyzed by Gallup. The surveys garnered responses from representative samples of 2,251 faculty members (of 21,277 who were invited to participate) and 248 academic technology administrators, from all types of institutions. The surveys asked a wide range of questions of both groups about their perceptions of online quality, MOOCs, institutional support and training in instructional technology, and use of various forms of instructional technology, among other things. The response rates for both surveys were above 10 percent.

A PDF copy of the study report can be downloaded here.

Much of the faculty consternation in the last year about how institutions (and, increasingly, state legislators) want to use online education has revolved around the perceived quality of online offerings (although there are undoubtedly undercurrents of concern about whether colleges and universities will use technology to diminish the role of, and ultimately the need for, instructors).

The survey asked faculty members and academic technology administrators several questions aimed at gauging their perceptions of the quality of online offerings vs. their face-to-face counterparts. Just 7 percent of all professors strongly agree and another 14 percent agree that "online courses can achieve student learning outcomes that are at least equivalent to those of in-person courses" generally, compared to nearly 60 percent of technology administrators. Conversely, 48 percent of instructors disagree or strongly disagree, compared to just 13 percent of administrators.

Faculty skepticism about the equivalency of online learning outcomes actually grow the closer the programs get to their own situations. Fifty percent of professors disagree or strongly disagree that online and in-person learning outcomes can be equivalent at their own institutions, 60 percent disagree or strongly disagree about courses in their departments or disciplines, and 62 percent disagree about equivalency "in the classes that I teach."

Some differences emerge based on which faculty members are being asked. In general, on this question and others, nontenured faculty are much more open to (or at least much less skeptical about) the potential of online learning; about a quarter of part-time and nontenured instructors agree that digital courses can produce equivalent learning outcomes, compared to 17 percent of tenured faculty members.

As on other questions, though, the biggest gap occurs between those who have taught online and those who have not. A full third of those who have taught online believe that online courses can produce equivalent outcomes to in-person courses, compared to 15 percent of those who have not taught online, as seen in the graphic below.

And those gaps widen the closer the professors get to their own courses. Forty-seven percent of professors who have taught online agree that digital courses at their colleges can achieve learning outcomes equivalent to those of face-to-face classes, compared to 17 percent of their peers who have never taught online. The gaps are 50 percent vs. 13 percent for courses in an instructor's department or disciplines, and 56 percent vs. 12 percent for "the classes I teach."

Click here to view a survey summary

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The survey sought to dig deeper on the quality question, asking respondents which aspects of credit-bearing online courses they think can be better than, or at least equal to, those of in-person courses.

Faculty members say they think online courses are the same quality as or better than face-to-face classes in terms of grading and communicating about grading, and in communicating with the college about logistical and other issues. And professors were split 50/50 (the same or better vs. lower quality) on online courses' "ability to deliver the necessary content to meet learning objectives."

But online courses fared less well on the other four course elements, with 85 percent of faculty members saying online courses were of lower quality than in-person courses with respect to interaction with students during class, 78 percent rating them lower on the ability to reach “at risk” students, 67 percent scoring them lower on the ability to answer students’ questions, and 62 percent marking them lower on interaction with students outside of class.

Again in this realm, the differences are huge between those who have and have not taught online, as seen in the table below. A majority of professors who have online teaching experience believe for-credit digital courses are better than or equal to in-person courses in terms of the ability to deliver the necessary content to meet learning objectives (64 percent), answer student questions (55 percent), grade and communicate about grading (79 percent) and communicate about logistics (68 percent). And nearly half say that about the ability to interact with students outside class.   

Professors Who Believe Quality of Online Courses Is Better Than
or Equal to Face-to-Face in Various Ways

Aspect of Course DeliveryInstructors Who've Taught OnlineInstructors Who Have Not Taught Online
Ability to deliver necessary content to meet learning objectives.64%43%
Ability to answer student questions55%24%
Interaction with students during class29%8%
Interaction with students outside class48%34%
Grading and communicating about grading79%59%
Communication with the college about logistics and other issues68%51%
Ability to reach "at risk" students33%17%

What contributes to quality in online courses? The survey asked respondents to rate a set of indicators of a quality online education, and the answers provided some surprises. Faculty members and administrators alike emphasize the importance of courses' being provided by an accredited institution (73 percent of instructors and 83 percent of academic technology administrators say that is "very important"), but beyond that they focus on somewhat different things, as seen in the table below. Among other things, faculty members especially value that the courses are taught by an institution that also offers in-person instruction, and academic technology administrators emphasize whether the courses are offered for academic credit.

Percentage Viewing Indicators of Quality Online Course as "Very Important"

Indicator of Quality% All Faculty% Technology Administrators
Offered by an accredited institution73%83%
Offered by institution that also offers in-person instruction59%32%
Offered by institution that only offers online instruction10%5%
Offered by a nonprofit institution30%18%
Offered by an institution with significant experience with online education46%51%
Offered by an institution with a strong reputation for in-person instruction48%28%
Online course/program has been independently certified for quality66%53%
Same faculty teach both the online and in-person course/program46%27%
Offered as part of a degree or certificate program36%52%
Leads to academic credit45%64%

Michael Feldstein, a distance learning consultant who blogs at e-Literate, said that he was surprised -- and a little concerned -- to see relatively little growth in the proportion of professors who believe in the equivalency of outcomes from online learning.

"I don't think anyone serious is going to argue that online learning is inherently better than face-to-face learning, nor do I think that anyone is going to argue that online learning is always as good," he said. "But until we see 50 percent of faculty at least say that online learning can be as effective as face-to-face, I don't think we can say that we're seeing the cultural change necessary for institutions to fully embrace the value of technology."

Cathy Davidson, co-founder of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory at Duke University, said via e-mail that she worries about faculty members or administrators framing the debate as being about whether online is equivalent or better to in-person instruction. The reality, she said, is that both forms must change.

"We should all be thinking of more interactive, human, creative, student-centered ways of teaching that help prepare students for the current world where, since April 22, 1993, anyone with a connection to the Internet has the capacity to think an idea and then communicate it to anyone else with a connection to the Internet," she said. "That is, for the first time in human history, we have a power of connection and a responsibility of connection that is instantaneous and global. Yet we are still teaching students as if that power did not exist, we are doing little to train them (or ourselves) for the harrowing and inspiring (both) powers of this world. Having a 'doc on a laptop' (my phrase for the video equivalent of the 'sage on the stage') yap at you from a computer screen does not prepare you for a digital world any more than a lecture course. BOTH need new paradigms, new thinking of everything from what we mean by teaching, what we mean by learning, how we help students integrate subjects that have been separated by our educational system for the last 150 years, and how we move away from standardization to iterative, customized, collaborative, and creative thinking."

Given the relationship revealed in the survey between favorable views of online learning and personal experience with online teaching, Feldstein said, the 50 percent goal will be attainable only if the proportion of those with online teaching experience grows more sharply than it seems to be right now.

Feldstein's fellow blogger, Phil Hill, pointed out that faculty respondents to the Inside Higher Ed survey came disproportionately from humanities and social science fields that are underrepresented in online programs -- and that the disciplines that have taken off most online -- business and information technology -- are significantly underrepresented among survey respondents.

Tracy Mitrano, director of information technology policy at Cornell University and an Inside Higher Ed blogger, cautioned that the survey results very much needed to be seen as a snapshot from a particular moment in time -- one that, she suggested, could look very different in a flash.

"I would say, 'watch for the movie!' " Mitrano said via e-mail. "If the term 'moving target' was ever a metaphor, it is one that fits this situation perfectly."

The Other Online: MOOCs

For all the hype about massive open online courses (or in part perhaps because of the hype), the Inside Higher Ed survey found skepticism among both faculty members and technology administrators about many aspects of MOOCs. Relatively small percentages of faculty members and technology administrators appear to believe the hype or agree with some of the statements made by MOOC proponents. And while faculty members and administrators may be aligned over all, professors are more skeptical than are administrators.

Two questions may be good barometers of how those surveyed responded to the hype. One question asked if respondents believed that the press coverage of MOOCs has overstated, understated or fairly reflected the value of these new courses. And the press didn't get good grades. Seventy-six percent of faculty members and 71 percent of technology administrators said that the press coverage has overstated their value. (Hardly any thought the press had understated things.)

Another question (and one on which faculty-administrator divisions were evident) asked whether MOOCs made respondents excited about the future of academe -- and while administrators were mixed, faculty members were decidedly not excited.

Response to: MOOCs make me excited about the future of academe

 FacultyTechnology Administrators
Strongly agree4%7%
Strongly disagree46%22%

Among different kinds of faculty members, the most excited about MOOCs were the groups with the least job security.  Twenty-two percent of part-time faculty members agreed or strongly agreed that MOOCs made them excited about academe's future, while the figure was 17 percent for nontenured faculty, and 10 percent for tenured faculty. The highest share of "strongly disagree" was among tenured faculty (54 percent) while that figure for part-timers and nontenured faculty members was 37 and 39 percent, respectively.

While many college leaders are singing the praise of MOOCs (as is President Obama), Inside Higher Ed surveys of presidents and provosts found both those groups also skeptical of the impact of MOOCs to solve many of the problems facing higher education.

The new faculty survey shows many faculty members (even if a minority) engaged with MOOCs. Eleven percent have enrolled in a MOOC as a student and 15 percent have recommended a MOOC to a student -- numbers that may understate interest given the relatively short time frame in which MOOCs have existed.

But on matters related to credit, quality and solving problems in higher education, faculty members are skeptical, though they do see the potential to save money and provide access to more students.

Responses of Faculty Members to Statements About MOOCs

StatementFaculty Who Agree/ Strongly AgreeFaculty Who Disagree/ Strongly Disagree
MOOCs offered by elite colleges are better than other forms of online learning.19%53%
Higher education should award credit for MOOCs.22%49%
MOOCs can help accommodate for lack of space at public institutions.40%31%
MOOCs can serve students at all ability levels.19%62%
Course completion rates of 5-10 percent are acceptable in MOOCs.10%74%
MOOCs could lower the costs of higher education for some students/families48%25%

The answers on other questions provide evidence of a faculty-administrator divide on the key questions about MOOCs related to quality control: Who should authorize their creation? Who should evaluate their quality? In many cases, faculty members have been startled by the speed with which their institutions have announced that they are creating MOOCs -- frequently with consultation of some faculty, but not with the full review typically accorded to new academic programs. Likewise, many of the institutions offering MOOCs (but not themselves awarding credits) have asserted that that accreditors need not review the offerings since no credit is provided.

The issues have been playing out in different ways at different campuses -- even those with the same MOOC provider. Harvard University faculty members have been pushing for more of a role in oversight of edX, which the university helped to create. The president of the University of Texas at Austin (another member of edX) this month released a statement of principles about online education asserting the faculty must have control of the curriculum.

In this survey, 62 percent of faculty members (and 25 percent of technology administrators) strongly agreed that institutions should start MOOCs only with faculty approval. Another 20 percent of faculty members and 23 percent of technology administrators agreed, but not strongly. Faculty members also feel more strongly than do technology administrators (81 percent vs. 71 percent agreeing or strongly agreeing) that MOOCs should be evaluated by accreditors.

And faculty members seem skeptical of the trend in which MOOC providers are offering courses for credit elsewhere but would not award credit for those courses at their own institutions. Two-thirds of faculty members believe that colleges should not offer MOOCs for which they themselves would not award credit (a standard that would eliminate most MOOCs).

Professors involved in the debate over MOOCs say that they are not surprised by the skepticism of many faculty members. "I think the hype machine hasn't spent enough time looking at the direct day-to-day mechanics of MOOCs and of teaching," said Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University at Pueblo who has enrolled in a MOOC and who writes critically about the courses with some regularity on his blog.  "Anybody who is teaching on a regular basis will immediately see that it shouldn't be the way to teach students."

Rees said that he understands the excitement of those who envision MOOCs as a tool for "flipping the classroom." He said that he believes at institutions that offer MOOCs (generally elite, wealthy institutions), such choices can improve the classroom experience. But most faculty members are at institutions that are "MOOC consumers, not MOOC providers," he said. "And they aren't making the decisions about how MOOCs are going to be used." Rather, those decisions are being made by administrators who view MOOCs as "a way to get new eyeballs, some of whom will pay money," and who don't provide the money to allow for small sections and the professor-student interaction that flipped classrooms promise.

Many professors thus see MOOCs as a tool "to get rid of faculty," through classes that are much larger than can be fit into even a large auditorium, Rees said, so it's to be expected that they view the movement dubiously. The true potential for technology in the classroom, he said, "is in a professor-centered technological universe," and that's not MOOCs.

Anne Balsamo, dean of the School of Media Studies at the New School, said she believes the are some elements in MOOCs (open to all, creative use of technology) that have great interest to faculty members. But she said there is skepticism about the value of "massive," and about the economic models. Balsamo is among those organizing a distributed open collaborative course or DOCC (pronounced "dock") this fall. The DOCC will feature some shared lectures and online tools, but will also involve in-person, small courses at participating institutions -- in which professors will lead seminar-sized courses, and grade work for credit. In this setting, she said, she and her fellow instructors are excited about the technology but also about their continued role as professors.

"The skepticism [of MOOCs] comes form a suspicion that these efforts are about cost savings, and are being driven by economic discussions, and not learning discussions," she said.

Too much discussion of MOOCs, she said, has "been burdened by questions of business plans," and those plans are in turn influenced by "massiveness." And "we really don't know if massive is good," she said. Skepticism of MOOCs, she said, doesn't have to mean skepticism of sharing, of collaborating across institutional lines, or of using shared content.

Adaptive Learning, Lecture Capture, LMS Use

Survey results show strong interest in (but more modest use of) adaptive learning and lecture capture -- two technologies that have received considerable attention in the last few years.

One-third of faculty members report that they have used adaptive learning -- technology in which students are constantly given exercises and questions based on their demonstrated mastery (or lack of mastery) of previous material. But 61 percent of faculty members agree or strongly agree that adaptive learning has "great potential to make a positive impact on higher education."

A smaller share of faculty members (19 percent) reported using lecture capture (in which lectures are recorded and available for use out of class, or strictly viewed out of class, sometimes annotated). There may be a relationship with age, as nontenured faculty members had a higher level of use (22 percent) than did tenured faculty (17 percent). But fully 50 percent of faculty overall said that they believed lecture capture has great potential for a positive impact on higher education, with that figure highest among part-time faculty (58 percent) and nontenured faculty (55 percent) and lowest among tenured faculty (43 percent).

Learning management systems are of course a technology used on just about every campus. But this year's survey (largely mirroring results from last year) showed that many faculty members use their LMS for relatively straightforward tasks and may not be using all features available.

Frequency With Which Faculty Use LMS Features

Share syllabus with students76%10%8%7%
Track student attendance24%10%16%50%
Record grades53%13%12%22%
Provide e-textbooks and related materials36%22%22%19%
Integrate lecture capture11%7%13%69%
Communicate with students53%21%16%9%
Identify students who may need extra help24%15%27%34%

LMS use tends to vary by faculty rank, with tenured faculty members generally less likely to use certain features than are nontenured professors (typically younger) and part-timers. Consider the following table, which notes the percentage of faculty in different categories who answered "always" to the questions about using various LMS features.

Faculty Who Say They "Always" Use Various LMS Features

Share syllabus with students72%71%80%
Track student attendance17%34%28%
Record grades42%62%60%
Provide etextbooks and related materials33%38%41%
Integrate lecture capture8%12%14%
Communicate with students49%58%57%
Identify students who may need extra help19%32%27%