Editor’s Picks

Faculty Attitudes About Online Learning Are Changing…Slowly

By Cait Etherington
November 25, 2017

In late October, Inside Higher Ed released its 2017 report on faculty attitudes and uses of technology. The report, a collaboration between Inside Higher Ed and Gallup, found that while faculty are warming up to technology, change is slow in the ivory tower and that many faculty continue to express concerns about public institutions partnering too closely with educational technology companies. This article examines how faculty attitudes about online learning are finally changing.

Report Methodology

For the 2017 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology, Gallup sent invitations via email to 22,966 faculty members and 553 digital learning leaders between August 22 and September 18, 2017. Gallup collected 2,360 completed or partially completed surveys from faculty members and 102 from digital learning leaders. The overall response rate was 10 percent. Of the faculty respondents, 1,333 were full time employees and 425 were part time employees. Among the faculty, 760 were tenured, 243 were tenure track but not tenured, and 641 were in non tenure track positions. 743 of the faculty surveyed had taught an online course but 1,510 had never done so.

Major Findings from the 2017 Report

While the majority of faculty surveyed indicate that they have never taught an online course for credit, the survey suggests that this may soon change. Currently, “Forty-two percent of professors say they have taught an online course, and 36 percent have taught a blended or hybrid course,” but “A year ago, 39 percent reported teaching an online course, and in 2013, 30 percent did.” Other key findings concerned support, with the report finding that “Slightly less than half of faculty members say they have received professional development to help design or revise an online or blended course. About one in four say they have worked with instructional designers to create or revise in-person or online courses.”

While online teaching is on the rise, the report did find that skepticism remains high. Faculty were divided about whether online courses can achieve the same learning outcomes as face-to-face courses, and they still overwhelmingly perceive online instruction to be less effective than in-person classes when it comes to “interaction with students during class.” Faculty also felt that online courses may be especially ineffective when it comes to reaching at-risk students. Nevertheless, there was a strong sense that teaching online is a way to expand one’s teaching skills, with seven in 10 faculty members who have taught an online course concluding that the experience helped them “develop pedagogical skills that improved their teaching, both online and in the classroom.”  Notably, faculty did think that online courses were as effective as classroom-based courses on at least one level: “Faculty members tend to see online courses as at least as effective as in-person courses in grading and communicating about grades (66 percent), communicating with the college about logistical issues (59 percent) and their ability to reach exceptional students (47 percent).”

Notably, both faculty members and digital learning leaders continue to favor a “limited role for online program management companies and slim majorities in both groups maintain that colleges should develop and manage their own online programs rather than rely on outside vendors.” Somewhat surprisingly, the survey also discovered that faculty members primarily rely on colleagues recommendations when it comes to learning about the effectiveness of digital courseware products. The finding suggest, at the very least, that as more faculty have positive experiences teaching online, more faculty will move from face-to-face to blended or online learning environments.

Changing Faculty Attitudes about Online Learning

Moving forward, at least a few things will need to shift for faculty to fully embrace educational technologies. As suggested above, many faculty remain ambivalent about institutional relationships with vendors.  As a result, it seems likely that trust will be a key factor determining the extent to which technologies become integrated in postsecondary classrooms. What’s most promising are current trends. With more and more faculty reporting that they have taught a course online or in a blended format each year, it seems likely that by 2020, a majority of faculty will have attempted teaching online on at least one occasion. Given the high demand among students for more online and blended learning opportunities, this is no doubt good news for higher education.