Examing perceptions of online education

Inside Higher Education (IHE) recently released a report entitled Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education, which examines the perceptions towards online education held by faculty and administrators.  The report is the culmination of two separate national studies that were conducted with faculty and administrators from various institutions of higher education.  Looking at the findings from the report, it is clear that many faculty members have great concerns about online education.  For instance, when asked if the growth of online education excited or frightened them, 58% of faculty members described themselves as being “filled more with fear than with excitement.”  When asked about the quality of online classes, 66% of faculty members felt that the learning outcomes in online classes were inferior compared to those offered in traditional, face-to-face courses.

After reading the report, I wondered about the origin of these perceptions.  Being fearful of change is a natural human reaction and online education offers a significant change in how faculty members will work and teach in the future.  Considering that many faculty members may not have encountered online courses either in their own education or in their prior teaching experiences, it is logical that some apprehension exists.  In fact, as faculty members gained experience with teaching online either in blended or fully online formats, their reported feelings of excitement and fear changed.  The IHE study reports that professors who had taught both online and blended courses held the most favorable view towards the growth of online education, with two-thirds reporting that they feel more excitement than fear.

But what about their perceptions of the lack quality of online education?  Where do these perceptions emanate?  I’m sure many faculty members have seen commercials on television where students claim to take online classes in their pajamas or obtain degrees in few months.  These commercials advertising for-profit institutions do little to help the image of online education or professors’ perceptions of for-profit institutions.  In fact, the IHE studies report that 79 percent of faculty members say they have concerns about the quality of online education at for-profit institutions.  I believe these perceptions of for-profit institutions may have an affect on how online education is perceived overall, especially by those faculty members who have no experience teaching online.  Looking at the data for the perceptions of learning outcomes, 60% of faculty members who had taught online believed that online education was comparable or superior to face-to-face instruction in terms of quality.  For those faculty who had never taught online, only 25% of respondents believed that online education was comparable or superior to face-to-face instruction.

While the IHE report on perceptions of online education is eye-opening, it also offers some guidance to institutions who are considering adding online programs or planning professional development activities to help faculty create their own online classes.  Since many faculty members may be fearful and suspicious of online education, providing authentic online experiences may help them develop more positive perceptions of online education.  Although the IHE report does not claim causality in its studies, it’s no great leap to believe that professors’ experiences with online education impacts how they perceive the field.  Having professors experience synchronous and asynchronous online learning environments that have been developed in pedagogically sound manners may do a lot to change their views of online education.

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