Strong Faculty Engagement in Online Learning APLU Reports

Abstract: 

Unprecedented Study Offers Institutions Guidance for Continued Growth of Online Learning
More than one-third of public university faculty have taught an online course while more than one-half have recommended an online course to students, according to an unprecedented study of administrative and faculty views toward online learning released today by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities-Sloan National Commission on Online Learning.

Unprecedented Study Offers Institutions Guidance for Continued Growth of Online Learning

August 31, 2009 – More than one-third of public university faculty have taught an online course while more than one-half have recommended an online course to students, according to an unprecedented study of administrative and faculty views toward online learning released today by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities-Sloan National Commission on Online Learning.

In addition, nearly 64 percent of faculty said it takes “somewhat more” or “a lot more” effort to teach online compared to a face-to-face course. However, a large majority of faculty cited student needs as a primary motivator for teaching online, most commonly citing “meet student needs for flexible access” or the “best way to reach particular students” as the reason they choose to teach online courses.

The two-volume report, Online Learning as a Strategic Asset, contains the results of 231 interviews conducted with administrators, faculty, and students at 45 public institutions across the country and more than 10,700 responses from faculty across the spectrum of teaching positions – tenure/non-tenure track; full- and part-time; and both those who have and those who have not taught online. The report was underwritten by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

While faculty engagement in online learning is solid, faculty expressed dissatisfaction with the support services provided and the incentives offered by public universities. Faculty ranked seven of eight support dimensions as “below average,” including support for online course development, course delivery, and students; policies on intellectual property; recognition in tenure and promotion; and incentives for developing and delivering online courses. Only technology infrastructure was rated average. Faculty gave the lowest ranking to their institution’s incentives for developing and for delivering online courses.

“During the past decade, online learning has begun to weave into the fabric of higher education and has become the fastest growing segment,” said Peter McPherson, president of Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU). “All indications are that this growth will continue. The work of the APLU-Sloan Commission—through this in-depth study—will help inform higher education leaders trying to meet current demand for online learning while preparing for future growth.”

Online enrollment has more than doubled from an estimated 1.6 million students in fall 2002 to 3.94 million students in fall 2007 and grew by 12.9 percent from fall 2006 to fall 2007, according to the annual Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) survey of online learning. The Commission believes the leadership of presidents and provosts is one of the key elements to successfully integrating online learning into every campus.

“We’re hopeful that the Benchmarking Study will provide fresh insights and guidance to campus leaders and senior administrators striving to establish, sustain and grow strategic online learning programs,” Jack M. Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts and chair of the APLU-Sloan National Commission on Online Learning. “We also hope the observations will lead to an increase in the number of strategic online learning initiatives at public colleges and universities across the nation.”

The faculty survey data indicate growing acceptance of online learning among faculty but highlight a number challenges, including campus support services and faculty incentives.

“Faculty from across the university are participating, many feel the quality is as good as or better than face-to-face instruction, and an overwhelming majority have recommended online courses to students,” said Bruce R. Magid, dean of the International Business School at Brandies University, and co-chair, APLU-Sloan National Commission on Online Learning.

During the past two years, the Commission has been focused on encouraging higher education leaders to become more involved in online learning.

“Online education fundamentally rests on a firm foundation that includes robust growth, faculty engagement, student demand, and the recognition of quality,” said Frank Mayadas, program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Now the challenge is to engage more of the faculty to meet the continuing growth in demand for online learning opportunities.”

Volume I: A Resource for Campus Leaders outlines a set of key factors contributing to successful development and management of online learning programs, while Volume II: The Paradox of Faculty Voices: Views and Experiences with Online Learning, provides insight into faculty views, perceptions and behaviors relative to online learning.

A Campus Leader Resource

In Volume 1: A Resource for Campus Leaders, the Commission reports the results of 231 interviews conducted with administrators, faculty, and students at 45 public institutions across the country. The observations include the following:

  • Online learning programs have the capacity to change campus culture and become fully integrated if presidents, chancellors, chief academic officers, and other senior campus leaders are fully engaged in the delivery of “messages” that tie online education to fundamental institutional missions and priorities.
  • Online learning programs may work most effectively as a core component of institutional strategic planning and implementation.
  • Online learning initiatives benefit from ongoing institutional assessment and review due to their evolving and dynamic nature.
  • Online learning activities are strengthened by the centralization of some organizational structures and administrative functions that support and sustain the programs.
  • Online learning programs overseen by academic affairs units may be more readily accepted and may be more easily integrated into the fabric of the institution.
  • Online learning programs need reliable financing mechanisms for sustainability and growth.
  • Online learning programs succeed with consistent and adequate academic, administrative, and technological resources for faculty and students.

The report also includes special sidebars on California State University, Fresno; Clemson University (SC); Tennessee State University; University of Central Florida; and University of Montana.

The Faculty Paradox

In Volume II: The Paradox of Faculty Voices: Views and Experiences with Online Learning, the Commission reports on the results of the Faculty Survey. Conducted in fall 2008 and winter 2009, the survey was sent to approximately 50,000 faculty members at 69 public institutions. More than 10,700 faculty responded including individuals across the spectrum of teaching positions – tenure/non-tenure track; full- and part-time; and both those who have and those who have not taught online.

Participating institutions included a range of missions and type, from research and doctoral-granting to master’s and associate degrees, and from land-grants to historically black colleges and universities and Hispanic serving institutions. All together, the campuses represented in the Faculty Survey account for the higher education of almost one million students nationwide and include approximately 100,000 online course registrations.

The views of the faculty suggest that significant challenges must be resolved before online learning is universally accepted across the academy. However, the paradoxes evidenced by the survey results also suggest considerable opportunity for campus leaders to engage the faculty in constructive dialogue about the quality, support, and overall role of online at their respective institutions. Among the specific findings:

Who teaches online?

  • More than one-third (34.4 percent) of faculty have taught online. At the time of the survey, nearly one-quarter of all faculty responding (23.6 percent) were teaching at least one online course.
  • Online teaching experience is dispersed throughout the faculty with the most experienced faculty, those with more than 20 years of teaching experience, teaching online at rates equivalent to those with less teaching experience.
  • Current online courses are more likely to be taught by non-tenure track faculty (27.6 percent) than tenured faculty (21.1 percent). However, overall tenure track faculty (36.1 percent) are more likely to have online teaching experience than non-tenured faculty (35.7 percent) or tenured faculty (32.6 percent).

Online course quality: Learning outcomes and course recommendations

  • Among faculty with online teaching or development experience a majority believe that the learning outcomes are as good as or better than face-to-face instruction.

What is the relative effort to develop or to teach an online course as measured against a comparable face-to-face course?

  • Nearly 64 percent of faculty said it takes “somewhat more” or “a lot more” effort to teach online compared to a face-to-face course.
  • The results for online course development are even more striking: More than 85 percent of the faculty with online course development experience said it takes “somewhat more” or “a lot more” effort.

What motivates faculty to teach online?

  • A large majority of survey participants cite student needs as a primary motivator for teaching online, most commonly citing “meet student needs for flexible access” or the “best way to reach particular students” as the reason they choose to teach online courses.
  • Faculty with more than 20 years of teaching experience are less likely to cite additional income or pedagogical advantages as motivations than are faculty with less teaching experience.

What barriers do faculty see to teaching online?

  • Faculty consistently rate the additional effort to develop and teach online courses as the greatest barrier to engaging in online learning.
  • Concerns about the acceptance of online education by potential employers are rare.

How good are campus support structures (in the eyes of the faculty)?

  • Faculty ranked seven of eight support dimensions as “below average,” including support for online course development, course delivery, and students; policies on intellectual property; recognition in tenure and promotion; and incentives for developing and delivering online courses. Only technology infrastructure was rated average.
  • Faculty give the lowest ranking to their institution’s incentives for developing and for delivering online courses.

Observations

Using the data, the Commission identified a number of key leadership and policy issues for campus presidents, chancellors and chief academic officers to consider, including:

  • Campus leaders need to better understand the characteristics of the online teaching populations on their campus and use communication strategies that target and engage all faculty members.
  • Campus leaders should maintain consistent communication with all faculty and administrators regarding the role and purpose of online learning programs as they relate to academic mission and academic quality. Further, campus leaders, administrators, and faculty must all work together to improve the quality – or perceived quality – of online learning outcomes.
  • Campus leaders have the potential to expand faculty engagement by better understanding what motivates faculty to teach online.
  • Campus leaders and faculty governing bodies need to regularly re-examine institutional policies regarding faculty incentives, especially in this era of declining financial resources. Perhaps most importantly, campus leaders need to identify strategies to acknowledge and recognize the additional time and effort faculty invest in online as compared to face-to-face teaching and learning.

The Commission recognizes that some of these observations and recommendations may appear rudimentary for some campuses, especially those institutions that are further along in implementing or supporting more “mature” online learning programs. However, the institutional participants and faculty respondents reported that many of these fundamental issues of structure, finance, and faculty support and engagement have resurfaced or emerged in new ways as programs have matured over the years.