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Attitude Is Everything

Faculty attitude can dictate the success or failure of an online program. 

In the past 10 years, college and university administrators have been embracing online learning as the next logical step in higher education, but not all faculty have been on board. Studies conducted by the Sloan Consortium, an association that promotes online learning, suggest that faculty attitudes have become a barrier to successful online programs.

After discovering that faculty attitudes were closely connected to the success or failure of an online program, the Sloan Consortium, known as Sloan-C, took action. It teamed up with the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges to form the NASULGC- Sloan National Commission on Online Learning and encourage dialogue among chief academic officers on the potential applications of online education.

“We started the project in spring 2007,” says commission project director Bob Samors. “The best we could do was figure out what the key factors [to a successful online program] were, and, thinking it through, the best way to do that was to talk to people.”

The commission’s most recent undertaking is a first-of-its-kind cross-institutional survey of faculty attitudes and concerns with online education programs. This benchmarking study was borne out of another study, the “Key Factors Underlying Strategic Online Learning Programs,” that found faculty attitudes had become a barrier to successful programs. Researchers have conducted more than 200 faculty interviews and received more than 10,000 answered surveys from 45 institutions. Although the results are still being analyzed, the commission recently released its preliminary findings.

“What we see in the faculty survey mirrors the same thing when we looked at institutional factors,” says Jeff Seaman, survey director for Sloan-C and consultant to the commission. “The more experienced institutions [with programs] were more positive about it.” The institutional factors for successful online learning included leadership from senior administration members, accessibility to resources and the need for an online coordinator, to name a few. According to the 2007 Sloan-C study, “Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning,” 62.1 percent of chief academic officers at institutions with the most developed online education programs agree that faculty at their school accept and value the legitimacy of online education. That percentage plummets to 3.7 percent among officers at institutions that are “not interested” in online learning.

There are no numbers to explain whether enthusiastic administrators create effective online programs, or if effective online programs breed acceptance and optimism among faculty. The number of faculty teaching online at the surveyed institutions has also yet to be calculated. It is clear, however, that those who do teach online run the gamut of educators — from tenured professors who want a little extra pay, to young doctoral candidates who find it convenient.

Tammy Vaught falls into the latter category. She currently teaches “Technology Tools for Learning” at Clemson University, while completing a dissertation on educational leadership through technology. She manages two sections of the educational foundations course: one online and one in the classroom. “As a student myself, time is extremely important to me,” she says. “Online, I have the ability to do things when I have time, and I think [students] do too.” (Clemson University was represented in the study, but Vaught was not a participant.) Vaught also believes that, because online courses require instructors to prepare a course ahead of time (as opposed to day-to-day class preparation), she has more time to focus on her students’ individual needs.

Her preference for the flexibility of online courses is the primary reason surveyed faculty like this method. In the benchmarking survey’s preliminary findings, 70 percent of respondents found meeting students’ needs for flexible access to be an “important” or “very important” motivation to teach online. Sixty percent of respondents also felt that online learning’s ability to reach particular students was an important motivation.

The findings also show that most instructors feel online courses take more effort to develop and teach. They also show concern about the lack of interaction with students and a need to put more effort into connecting with them. Despite this, enrollment in online education programs has gone from about 1.5 million students in 2002 to 3.5 million in 2006, according to the aforementioned “Key Factors” study.

NASULGC and Sloan- C hope the benchmarking study and similar endeavors will create a wealth of information to benefit all institutions. “People still have so many questions,” says Dr. Sally McCarthy, one of the research consultants on the project. “This survey is so huge — it’s unprecedented. It’s given us a lot of information, and we’re just beginning to crack the surface.”

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