Blog Post Author: Bryan Blakeley
Date: March 2017
Title: Two Tough Questions for Online Education
Online higher education has been on a rapid rise in the United States. According to NCES data, the proportion of undergraduate students who took at least one online course during the 2011-2012 academic year more than doubled from just eight years prior (from 15.6% in 2003-2004 to 32% in 2011-2012). Proponents who view online courses as democratizing force in higher education applaud this trend, as do the many institutions that have ramped up production capacity and created new institutional structures through which to deliver online education (e.g., Penn State World Campus or Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America). While the increasing prevalence of online education leads to all sorts of important questions, this article focuses on two specific questions related to the teaching and learning process: Are students succeeding in online courses? How does online teaching change faculty work? While some research exists on these questions – a subset of which is explored below – they are both in need of much more thorough investigation by the higher education research community.
Are students succeeding in online courses? Much of the initial research on student outcomes in online courses compared them directly with face-to-face courses, finding “no significant difference” on average. There is significant nuance hiding behind these averages, however. Certain populations actually perform worse in online courses than in face-to-face courses, particularly male students and students from racially minoritized groups, and the reasons for these outcomes are not well understood. Making this question even more difficult is the fact that online courses are no more monolithic than face-to-face courses, meaning that researchers have found markedly different results in student outcomes depending on the instructional techniques utilized in online courses or the instructional techniques utilized in the face-to-face courses to which they are being compared. What seems possible to generalize from these results is that students can learn as well in online courses as in face-to-face courses, but the ascertaining the reasons for success will require additional research.
Online education significantly changes faculty work. Instructors in face-to-face courses typically incorporate some mix of direct instruction (e.g., lecture) and class activities (e.g., class discussion) on a flexible basis. They receive a steady stream of oral and non-verbal feedback from students and can clear up misconceptions on the spot. In the online context, instructors may still provide direct instruction, but it is more likely to be in pre-recorded video form without the same built-in feedback mechanisms. Class discussions often shift from oral to textual and from immediate to time-dispersed, significantly changing the nature of interaction that instructors have with students. Synchronous video sessions can overcome some of these challenges, but instructors face a learning curve in this environment as well. Producing online courses is a significant time investment for faculty members and must be done months in advance of the term in which the course will be offered. While these changes are not necessarily negative, they still significant change the nature of faculty work.
Perhaps more significantly, many institutions have fundamentally restructured the nature of faculty work in the production of online courses. In typical face-to-face courses, faculty members have substantial autonomy in decisions about methods and content, exercising their professional judgment about how best to instruct students and communicate subject matter. To develop online courses, however, it is common for institutions to hire one instructor to develop the course – usually called a Subject Matter Expert – and then hire a separate instructor to teach the course. Both instructors are typically hired on an adjunct basis and paid accordingly, with all rights to the course held by the institution. While this disaggregation of the instructional role may reduce costs to the institution and ensure that the resulting course can be reused nearly ad infinitum, it also depersonalizes the course and deprofessionalizes the instructor teaching it. Rather than making judgments about the best way to teach a given subject, the instructor uses the pre-built template as a script and takes on a role not dissimilar from a teaching assistant or grader. Understood alongside the increasing prevalence of online education, this approach may exacerbate the continuing decline in the proportion of tenure-line faculty positions in higher education, further weakening the professoriate.
Considering the continued growth of online education, it is even more important to understand its impact on students and faculty members, not to mention American higher education more generally. Researchers need to reckon with the nuances of online education and attempt to understand the structures that promote student and faculty well-being. Perhaps through applying this research online education can become what its proponents hope for: a true democratizing force in American higher education.