Online courses may be gaining a foothold in higher education, but substantial skepticism over their effectiveness remains, according to results of two recent surveys. The surveys, conducted by the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, also found "widespread concern" that budget cuts would hamper distance-learning programs.
The preliminary results of the surveys, which polled faculty members and administrators separately about their opinions of distance-learning programs, were unveiled here Monday at the American Council on Education's conference.
The survey of faculty members found that while a majority of faculty members acknowledge that distance instruction offers students increased accessibility and flexibility, developing and teaching online courses can be burdensome.
"What faculty tell us is, 'It takes me more time; it takes me more effort,'" said Jeff Seaman, chief information officer for the Sloan Consortium, who is helping Nasulgc oversee the faculty survey. The consortium works with institutions to improve online education.
Instructors' extra time and effort aren't being rewarded financially or professionally, and what's more, online education doesn't translate into better learning outcomes, said respondents in the faculty survey. More than 10,000 faculty members at 67 public campuses responded to the survey.
While 30 percent of faculty members surveyed felt that online courses provided superior or equivalent learning outcomes when compared with face-to-face classes, 70 percent felt that learning outcomes were inferior. Among faculty members who have taught online courses, that figure drops to 48 percent, but that still represents a "substantial minority" holding a negative view, Mr. Seaman said.
The survey also found that a majority of faculty members felt that institutions provided inadequate compensation for those taking on the additional responsibility of teaching online courses. And many respondents said that students needed more discipline before they could benefit from online instruction. Low retention rates among students and the lack of consideration of online teaching experience in tenure-and-promotion decisions were also cited as barriers to faculty interest in online teaching.
The survey of administrators, which received responses from officials at 45 public institutions, found concerns about how budget cuts and economic uncertainty may affect distance-learning programs.
"People would say, 'This is what we're doing now, but my hunch or my gut fear is that six weeks from now … we can't say that we'll be on the same path or trajectory,'" said Sally McCarthy, a research consultant for Nasulgc.
Administrators surveyed also cited the need for institutions to incorporate online learning into their mission statements, create a single office to oversee online-learning programs, and bring people from across the institution in on discussions about online learning.
Full survey results are scheduled for release in April.