Why Online Courses Are Still Unpopular Among Professors

By Henry Kronk
November 01, 2017

eLearning and online education at the university level has proven to be a solution to countless barriers separating willing students from much-needed knowledge. But while access grows, and education technology continues to develop at a rapid pace, there’s one issue that has yet to be solved: professors.

Instructors may be fond of reminding their students that the right attitude leads to success. But their attitudes towards eLearning has, by and large, remained downright icy.

This week, a study published by Inside Higher Ed and Gallup found that only 33% of professors believe that for-credit online courses could match an in-person learning environment. For every professor willing to bring their course online, there’s another who remains ambivalent and another who opposes doing so.

The good news, however, is that the tides are changing. Just one year ago, the number of teachers who disagreed that an online setting could ever match in-person tutelage sat at 55%. This year that number dropped to 35%, while the numbers of those who both agreed and remained neutral rose.

One thing that seems to have a big impact is whether or not a teacher has ever taught an online course. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of teachers who brought their class online rose from 30% to 42%. Tellingly, 7 in 10 of teachers who have taught online say that their remote class helped them develop new teaching strategies and skills.

Other metrics are more promising, such as teachers who support the inclusion of new technology in the classroom (62%), and the amount of instructors who believe that textbooks are too expensive and that more emphasis should be placed on open resources (90%).

But in general, professor ambivalence to eLearning remains strong

One big reason for this is that preparing an online course takes a lot of work. A recent study by an Australian team found that it takes teachers longer to prepare online classes compared to in-person lectures.

And yet, according to the authors, administrators believe online courses should take less work.

“In our experience,” writes Professor John Kenny of the University of Tasmania, “ the prevailing pressure from administrators is that online students take less staff time to teach, [but] staff indicate that the materials take longer to prepare.”

It is well-known that academic work is complex and difficult to quantify [but] with the lack of clear time-based standards to work with, we have noticed a managerial tendency to pile more duties, particularly compliance duties, on to the desks of academics without assessing the associated workload impact,” Kenny said.

The two studies cited above suggest that there may be some friction between teachers and administrators in general. Inside Higher Ed and Gallup found that two-thirds of professors believe that both administrators and vendors “exaggerate the potential financial benefits,” of education technology and “play down the risks to quality.”

What’s more, taking a course online has serious implications over ownership. As you might guess, it’s not favorable for teachers.

In 2014, Jeff Hoyt, assistant vice dean at Middle Tennessee State University, surveyed 110 higher education institutions about their policy regarding ownership of online courses. He found that 30% of those schools had no policy at all. Only 1 in 10 institutions let their professors maintain sole ownership over their online courses. 41% allowed for joint ownership and about a third of universities claimed outright possession.

Going above and beyond

Professor Al Filreis. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This might explain why academics who eagerly offer their course in MOOC form are few and far between. Al Filreis, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, goes above and beyond to teach his Modern and Contemporary American Poetry MOOC. He re-films his lectures every semester and makes sure that every comment is answered within a few hours.

Professor Charles Severance from the University of Michigan was one of the first at his school to give MOOCs a try. Amazingly, he offers office hours to his remote students when he travels to new cities.

These are the efforts of academic rock stars, and it’s unreasonable to expect the average professor to voluntarily take on more work that won’t have much of a benefit for them, they may not own their online courses, and it will take more time away from their research.