College Professors Fearful of Online Education Growth

A recent study reflects faculty members' anxieties and doubts about online courses.

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A recent survey shows that a majority of college faculty are frightened by the growth of online education.

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Online education continues its meteoric rise on college campuses, and many faculty members are frightened by its growth and prevalence, notes a recent study by Inside Higher Ed and the Babson Survey Research Group, which has spent more than a decade studying online education.

The report, which surveyed 4,564 faculty members, reveals that 58 percent of respondents "described themselves as filled more with fear than with excitement" over the growth of online courses within higher education.

The fears of college faculty are sustained by the consistent rise in popularity of online education during the past decade. The number of college students enrolled in at least one online course increased for the ninth straight year, with more than 6.1 million students taking an online course during fall 2010—a 10.1 percent increase over fall 2009, according to a separate Babson report.

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While some of these fears could be attributed to professors not seeing the benefits of digital education, others may worry that instructors could be replaced altogether by online courses, says Dan Johnson, a senior lecturer at Wake Forest University.

"It's the idea of being able to do with technology what has been done with people in the past," Johnson says. "There is a very real fear that this will be cutting into the education system and actually not just supplementing instructors but replacing them."

Although opinions differ between professors who have worked with an online component and those who have not, 66 percent of all faculty members surveyed say that the learning outcomes of online courses are inferior, compared to traditional courses. Among faculty members who teach online courses exclusively, 39 percent note that online courses produce inferior learning outcomes.

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But instead of making comparisons on learning outcomes between online courses and classroom courses, educators should base opinions on the actual course design, says Diane Johnson, assistant director of faculty services at the Center for Online Learning at St. Leo University.

"It's all based on how the course is designed," she says. "You can't compare one course with another without looking at instructional design, whether it's face to face or online."

Wake Forest's Johnson agrees, noting that educators are making judgments and comparisons between traditional courses and online courses, when each requires "different assessments and evaluations."

"I could easily put together a series of assessments that would look at online [courses] versus brick-and-mortar [courses], and you would see much better outcomes for online," he says. "I could also create a different set of evaluations, and we would clearly see better benefits in a brick-and-mortar environment. We just don't know what we're looking for."

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The future of online education looks bright, though, according to some full-time professors—which accounted for roughly three-fourths of all faculty surveyed. Forty percent reported that online courses have the potential to match in-class instruction for learning outcomes.

But, much like in face-to-face learning environments, the success of the course is dependent on the quality of the instructor, notes Julanna Gilbert, executive director of the Office of Teaching and Learning at the University of Denver.

"For the future, it's about getting enough people enough professional development so they can also teach high-quality online courses," Gilbert says. "You still need a faculty member because you still need feedback."

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In order for faculty members to fully embrace online education in traditional settings, though, they must stop resisting these changes in technology, Wake Forest's Johnson says.

"We can argue against it all we want," he says. "But if we're spending all our time arguing … we lose the ability to help shape it so that it goes in the direction that's helpful for the students. We can turn online learning into a marvel of the 21st century, or we can turn it into a horrible mistake."