Caution is only one explanation for why some colleges and universities are reluctant to broaden their online education offerings. According to a recent study by Inside Higher Ed, another stumbling block would be the resistance of the schools’ instructional staff. A full fifty percent of college professors, surveyed by IHE, expressed fear, rather than excitement, at the growing popularity of online learning in higher ed.
Although institutions of higher education have been slow to experiment with internet-based education, especially when compared to K-12 schools around the country, the popularity of the new medium for delivering instruction has grown substantially over the past few years. An increasing number of traditional schools are now offering online courses in addition to the brick-and-mortar variety, and several schools now offer full degree programs online.
Overall, more than 6.1 million students around the US have taken at least one online college course in 2010, which represents a 10% increase over 2009.
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.”
The study also found that 66% of professors judge online courses to be inferior to the traditional teaching paradigm, although the numbers differ greatly between those who have taught online courses in the past and those who have not. Among professors who had been involved with an internet-based course on a full-time basis before, less than 40% thought that they produced poorer outcomes.
But by rigidly focusing on the online vs. traditional dichotomy, professors are looking at the wrong thing, says Diane Johnson of St. Leo University, where she works for the Center for Online Learning. Instead, academics should be trying to figure out the course’s overall quality of design when they are trying to decide which one is better. Dan Johnson of Wake Forest University agrees:
“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.”