A new survey of college faculty and has more troubling news for online education and the businesses that rely on it.
The online survey of 1,967 faculty members and 178 administrative leaders of digital learning was done for Inside Higher Ed (IHE) with Gallup and funded or underwritten by a few digital learning and resource companies. So, there’s that.
Nonetheless, the results show three key, sobering takeaways – teachers remain unconvinced that online classes even match the quality of in-person ones, that no one believes online classes are less expensive or should be priced lower than on-campus ones, and that faculty strongly oppose the use of outside businesses to run online classes and programs.
From the dawn of online college, advocates insisted that teaching online could be just as good as teaching in actual classrooms. There’s never been any proof of that and the new survey found, according to the news summary, “professors remain deeply divided about whether online learning can produce student learning outcomes equivalent to face-to-face instruction.”
“Deeply divided” may be generous. Divided, yes. But the consensus was that online classes did not measure up. Specifically, the survey found that a plurality of teachers (36%) did not think “that online courses can achieve student learning outcomes equivalent to those of in-person courses.” Thirty-two percent thought they could.
That may feel like a close spread but when asked about online outcomes in subject areas or classes they personally teach, the results were worse. Forty-four percent of faculty disagreed that online courses yielded the same outcomes as in-person ones in the classes they themselves taught. Thirty-eight percent said they did.
The survey did show that teachers who taught online classes thought more highly of them than those who didn’t. But that’s probably not too surprising – people are probably unlikely to admit that what they do is substandard, even if they suspect it is. Even then though, a majority of teachers who taught online classes (56%) declined to agree that they “achieve student learning outcomes that are at least equivalent to those of in-person courses.”
Remember, the goalpost here was just equivalency, and that pluralities of teachers across the board doubt that online classes are even just “as good as” the traditional alternatives.
The survey found that 89% of administrators leading online programs thought online was just as good as in-person options. Keeping in mind that just 32% of faculty share that view, that’s its own problem.
Advocates of teaching online also said it would be cheaper. And according to this survey, a plurality of teachers does not think online classes cost less to run and a majority of administrators (55%) agreed. They probably think they are not less expensive because they are not.
Both teachers and administrators also agreed that online programs should not be priced lower than in-person ones. They also agree, “that online courses can be less expensive only if colleges reduce spending on faculty members, student support or other factors.” Unfortunately cutting spending on faculty or support is what many online programs do, which may feed into why teachers and others remain skeptical of their quality.
The IHE also survey wisely asks about the private companies many colleges hire to manage their online programs, OPMs as they are known. From the IHE reporting, “Majorities of faculty members and of digital learning leaders oppose the use of external companies to provide a range of functions, including instructional design, offering student support, developing educational content or training the faculty.”
Even marketing to students, where OPMs are thought to have the best impact and provide the best value, the pushback was blinding. Among faculty, just 8% said external vendors should do “a great deal” of marketing whereas 25% said they should do that, “not at all.” A majority of faculty thought outside companies should do nothing or very little in every single category asked. And when the survey asked teachers why they were not using more technology in and around their classes, 47% said, “there is too much corporate influence.” It was the second-most popular answer.
But the even more gloomy news for OMP and related businesses is that, with the exception of marketing, the online administrators agree with the teachers that external providers should be doing very little or nothing in online program design, construction or delivery.
It’s clear that even though faculty may still be skeptical or resistant to the quality of online programs, they are downright hostile to the companies that make want to profit from them. And although the IHE survey did not ask, it’s possible those two are related.
These findings are problematic for companies that sell online programs or program supports to colleges. Questions remain about their quality and value and skepticism about the role of business management and intervention in these programs persists, even, in places, among the administrators who have a far more favorable view overall. If the customer does not think your product is better, and it’s not cheaper, the sales pitch probably gets a bit complicated.