Free Speech Currently Trumps Online Learning for U.S. Academic Leaders

By Cait Etherington
February 01, 2018

The writing appears to be on the wall: Students are no longer willing to go into debt for an education that offers no clear return on investment. As a result, a growing number of students are now looking for viable alternatives, including increased access to online courses and programs. Despite the growing demand, however, a recent Inside Higher Ed study suggests that online learning currently remains a much lower priority for most postsecondary leaders than free speech and politics.

Highlights from the 2018 Inside Higher Ed Survey 

The 2018 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers  was conducted by Gallup and answered by 516 provosts or chief academic officers (CAOs). While one might expect technology, virtual learning, eLearning, MOOCs, and AI to be key concerns, the survey found that politics rather than tech is currently the greatest preoccupation among U.S. university leaders. As reported by Insider Higher Ed on January 24, “The survey comes at a time of intense debate in higher education and in American society over whether colleges and their students respect the principles of free speech.”

Among the study’s other key findings is a clear sense that while postsecondary leaders by and large remain strong supporters of the liberal arts, many are pessimistic about the future of liberal arts programs and liberal arts colleges. Many surveyed leaders are also currently concerned about how to promote civic engagement and civic discourse on their campuses, given the nation’s current political conflicts. The Inside Higher Ed survey also found that compared to past years, more provosts now recognize the value of competency-based education but public institution provosts were more likely to be supportive than those in private institutions.

What the 2018 Survey Reveals About Leaders and Online Learning

While online learning and ed tech are not a key focus of the 2018 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers, the survey does hold some notable findings about online learning and technology-based assessment:

  • Eight in 10 Chief Academic Officers (CAOs) say their college will expand its online course offerings over the next year.
  • Public research universities are most likely to say they will expand their online programs over the next year (between 92% and 95%); private non-profit baccalaureate institutions are least likely to say they have plans to do so (59%).
  • A slim majority of CAOs, 52 percent, strongly agree or agree that they expect major allocation of funds for online programs, but only 35 percent expect that to occur for arts and sciences programs in 2018.
  • The percentage of CAOs expecting major investments in online programs has increased in recent years, up from 46 percent in 2014 and 2015.

Other key survey findings concern faculty readiness to embrace digital learning and assessment tools:

  • More than 90%of CAOs say their institution offers professional development for professors in teaching with technology, promoting student success, and promoting active teaching techniques.
  • Slightly less, 87%, say their college offers professional development in using assessment systems.
  • 60% of CAOs say their college offers faculty professional development in measuring the effectiveness of digital tools.

Disconnect Between Students and Leaders

While many students certainly share academic leaders’ concerns about politics, free speech, and the current campus climate, they are also concerned about gaining increased access to online learning platforms that can expand how, when, and where they pursue their degrees. The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technologyreleased in fall 2017, found that for four years running, the number of students preferring a blended learning environment that includes “some to mostly online components” had increased while students preferring a face-to-face only learning environment had continued to decline. What the recently released Inside Higher Ed study appears to suggest is that as university leaders scramble to keep the peace on their campuses and anticipate potential federal cuts to higher education, online learning seems to be at risk of getting pushed down the priority list.