Faculty members must own the online learning process (essay)

The results are in. Inside Higher Ed recently released its third annual survey of college and university faculty members, focusing on perceptions of online learning. It showed that faculty:

  • Remain highly skeptical about the efficacy of online education
  • Consider the instructor-student relationship essential for learning
  • Believe that ownership of online courses belongs with them
  • Feel there is too little support for online course development
  • Don’t want outside companies to create their courses or curriculum

I suppose these results could be taken as bad news for those of us in the online education world. But to me, they all make perfect sense.

I shared faculty skepticism about online education for many years. True, my mind has been changed in recent years by online courses I’ve encountered that are easily as rich and meaningful as face-to-face courses. But caution is still warranted. Without careful and creative design, online courses can – and often do – amount to a stale collection of materials with little power to motivate or inspire.

By the same token, the most well-designed course can fizzle when the digital tools it relies on don’t work as they should. Moreover, it’s increasingly clear that online courses aren’t the right modality for all students or, for that matter, all instructors. So I not only understand faculty skepticism; I appreciate it. It’s to instructors’ credit that they want proof before they jump on this bandwagon: not only the evidence that online education works but also when, how, and with whom.

I also agree wholeheartedly that instructor-student (and student-student) connection is critical for effective online learning. Online courses require more, not less, from instructors: more communication, more engagement, and more feedback. If online courses are to serve students well, they will likely be strenuous both to build and to teach.

That having been said, when faculty build online courses that foster meaningful engagement, they often find the experience deeply satisfying. I’ve worked with faculty who feel more connected to their students in online courses than in their face-to-face courses. And I’ve heard students say the same. The trick is creating these connections over geographical distance. And that requires excellent tools, excellent pedagogy, and institutional incentives that make it worthwhile for faculty to invest the necessary time and energy.

Of all the results from the survey, the one that strikes home most for me is instructors’ conviction that they should develop and own the courses they teach. Amen to that! I recently spoke with an administrator at a university that has steered hard in the direction of publisher-created online courses. He sneered at my company’s faculty-driven approach to course creation, maintaining that faculty ownership of courses is a thing of the past.

I respectfully disagree. If meaningful education were just about content, we never would have needed universities, just libraries. But it isn’t. Education is about apprenticeship and mentoring: about putting disciplinary experts and students together, where the passion of the teacher for his or her field brings the subject to life and influences the students’ desire to learn more.

That relationship can’t be replaced by mass-produced courseware, nor can faculty bring the same passion to their teaching if they are merely facilitating a course someone else created. Teaching your own course your own way allows you to show students what you yourself love and find meaningful about your discipline. It’s central, not peripheral, to effective teaching. So I am in complete agreement with faculty that they and no one else should control the process (as well as the product) of online course creation, just as they do with residential course creation.

At the same time, I don’t see how faculty can possibly own the process of online course creation when the institutional support they receive for creating these courses is so often inadequate.

Online courses are a different animal than residential courses. They have to be designed extremely carefully for clear, intuitive navigation, coherence, and reusability. They require far more construction in advance of the semester than residential courses and thus a significant investment of time upfront. And they demand technical acumen that not all faculty members possess.

Instructors need help to do the job well. And not just casual, intermittent help: intensive help. Sometimes the necessary resources are available in-house through campus teaching and educational technology centers, but not nearly often enough, as the survey makes abundantly clear. It’s little wonder that faculty lose their taste for developing and teaching online courses if the support they need – never mind recognition for their efforts in the promotion and tenure process! – is missing.

And that brings me to the final point from the survey: faculty members don’t want outsiders developing or marketing their programs. Again, I can’t disagree. While I think there is a reasonable role outside partners can play in helping universities develop online courses and programs, it’s clear to me that we need a different model than the one currently offered by the big online enablers.

For one thing, rather than combining marketing, course development, and student retention services into one monolithic – and expensive – package, these services need to be disaggregated, so universities can pick and choose what they want and need from outsiders. Moreover, outside partners have to be flexible. Instead of providing one-size-fits-all solutions, they need to help universities identify the problems they’re trying to solve (e.g., linking remote campuses, increasing active learning, offering continuing education courses, generating incremental revenue, expanding access…) and work with universities to accomplish their particular goals.

Finally, the relationship must be collaborative. Universities have valuable expertise at their own teaching and educational technology centers. Outside partners should work closely with these units to fill in gaps, expand resources, and increase the institution’s capabilities. The goal should always be capacity building and empowerment, not long-term dependence.

So, yes, the results of Inside Higher Ed’s survey seem at first to paint a bleak picture for online education, but to me the results are encouraging. They confirm my sense that we can’t let outside companies take over the process of online course and program development and reduce faculty to mere subject matter experts.

At the same time, we can’t leave faculty on their own to sink or swim, without adequate resources or support. If we want to produce challenging, engaging online courses and programs we need to provide faculty with top-notch tools and ample pedagogical and technical support and put them back where they belong: in the driver’s seat.

Marie Norman is senior director of educational excellence at Acatar, a Carnegie Mellon-based company that helps faculty develop effective online courses. She has taught anthropology for over 20 years and is co-author of How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.

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