Faculty are Increasingly Skeptical about MOOCs

Rachelle Peterson

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on November 4, 2014.

Two years after MOOCs grabbed higher-ed headlines and recession-battered students began calling for cheaper college options, what do professors think of online education?

According to Inside Higher Ed’s 2014 survey of faculty attitudes on technology, they’re cautiously becoming more hopeful about its success, if education consists in conveying information. But they’re increasingly skeptical about its worth, if the heart of education is something more than bestowing credentials and transmitting facts.

This year, 26% of faculty agree or strongly agree that online courses can produce student learning outcomes on par with in-person counterparts, up from last year’s 21%. Another 44% disagree or strongly disagree about online education’s potential (down from 48% last year), with approximately another third neutral or unsure. Professors who have taught online show slightly more optimism: 41% look favorably on online learning outcomes, versus 30% who cast doubt on the Internet’s efficacy. Technology administrators, though, teem with temerity: 67% believe online education replicates or outpaces face-to-face instruction. (Last year, 59% thought as much.)

Despite those modest upticks in optimism, professors remain intensely opposed to online courses. Partly that’s due to provincialism. No one wants his job outsourced to a video. Indeed, non-tenured professors who face the brunt of the high-tech competition dislike MOOCs and other build-your-own education models more than tenured professors do. (Seventy-four percent of non-tenured faculty felt it was important for online courses to be offered within the bounds of an accredited degree-granting institution, versus 71% of tenured professors.) And professors of all ranks are deeply opposed to third-party MOOC platforms such as Coursera and Udacity. A full 96% of professors believe that if colleges and universities develop online programs, they should keep the production in-house, rather than outsource. Meanwhile 92% believed that whether a course was offered by an accredited institution (as opposed to an independent platform) was an important indicator of the course’s quality.

Why disfavor online education? Overwhelmingly, professors responded that online courses failed to provide sufficient interaction between students and professors. Eighty-three percent believe that online courses offer lower-quality interaction with students during class, 57% scanted the Internet’s ability to foster interaction outside of class, and 61% doubted online education’s ability to answer student questions. They were especially skeptical (77%) of the benefit to at-risk students—one of the primary demographics that early MOOCs and other online programs initially targeted. Those with online teaching experience offered a slightly less dismal picture, but still overwhelmingly distrusted the efficacy of online interaction: 71% thought their online courses diminished the quality of student interactions, while only 8% thought the interaction improved.

Perhaps these deficiencies explain why more than a third (38%) believe online courses should cost less tuition than face-to-face classes. But cost-savings alone couldn’t persuade these professors that going online was a good idea.  Only 9% thought saving their institutions money was a “very important” factor in the decision to convert face-to-face classes to online, while 36% found it “not at all important.”

What does it all mean? Professorial pushback against third-party online courses indicates a growing skepticism towards private MOOCs, which may need to start recruiting independent scholars rather than full-time professors to teach for them. And while professors may support an uptick in online courses for technical fields that largely revolve around information and skills, they’re holding the line on the humanities and other dialogue-rich disciplines. Don’t expect that Internet-borne tsunami to crash too hard yet.

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