Professors brace for the impact of online learning

College professors impact of online learning

Since the birth of the Internet, the development of online education became an inevitable, unavoidable certainty. In a lot of ways, it's been a godsend. Because of online learning, students around the globe now have access to Ivy-league quality education for a fraction of the typical cost, or even for free. Because of the educational barriers that online education has broken down, many schools are doubling down and offering better, higher-quality online courses in an effort to compete.

But that doesn't mean that everyone in academia is thrilled with the direction they're being forced to take. For instance, college professors, as a group, have exhibited a mix of excitement and fear as they notice subtle changes to the way they're asked to perform their duties. To say that professors are conflicted would be an epic understatement. Many don't know whether to be excited or scared, and the rapid growth of online learning has prompted a swarm of legitimate concerns about the quality of online education, as well as the motives of the many for-profit entities helping to promote it.

A mix of excitement and terror

A 2012 study conducted by Inside Higher Education and the Babson Research Group shows just how torn college professors are when it comes to their changing profession. According to the survey, nearly half of the 4,564 college faculty members agreed that online education excites them more than it scares them. That's good news, right? But wait. The same survey also revealed that more than two-thirds of professors feel that online learning outcomes were substandard, and that students actually learn more in a brick-and-mortar setting.

When broken down further, however, the survey results proved that the majority of fears about online education are exhibited by professors who are not currently teaching in the online realm. For instance, 80 percent of professionals who describe themselves as "individuals with responsibility for some aspect of academic technology at their institutions" agree that they are more excited than fearful of the online boom. Likewise, nearly 70 percent of professors who teach in the classroom only are more fearful than excited about online learning. Out of the professors who teach both online and in the classroom, 67 percent feel more excited than fearful.

Faculty members voice legitimate concerns

A lot of controversy surrounding online learning doesn't stem from the growing number of courses that schools have begun offering online, but from the rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. MOOCs, which are taught using a combination of recorded lectures, online quizzes and tests, and user forums, can be accessed by tens of thousands of students at once. This wholesaling of higher education has college professors concerned for good reason, especially since much of the growth in MOOCs has been promoted by for-profit companies such as Udacity and Coursera. Not surprisingly, some college professors are concerned about the arrangement.

"Many of us feel more comfortable building our own infrastructure, rather than relying on a for-profit company," said Karen Hanson, provost of the University of Minnesota, to The New York Times. "We think we want to remain in control of our own intellectual property."

In addition to concerns over intellectual property, many college professors fear that the rise of MOOCs will make their jobs obsolete. In 2013, the staff and faculty at San Jose State University wrote an open letter to Harvard professor Michael Sandel after refusing to use one of his online courses.

"Let's not kid ourselves," the letter said, "administrators at CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education."

Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University-Pueblo and outspoken opponent of the MOOC movement, also shared his concerns over the quality of online higher education, arguing that the courses "will be disastrous for students -- and most professors."

"How do you teach tens of thousands of people anything at once?" Rees asks. "You don't. What you can do over the Internet this way is deliver information, but that's not education. Education, as any real teacher will tell you, involves more than just transmitting facts. It means teaching students what to do with those facts, as well as the skills they need to go out and learn new information themselves," he wrote.

Online learning: No end in sight

Just as online education became an inevitable part of the educational landscape with the birth of the Internet, MOOCs have become an integral part of higher learning as well. As David Wheeler, journalism professor at Asbury University, recently put it in an article shared by CNN, "The logic seems to be: 'Why hire your own Ph.D. when you can show pre-recorded lectures to students hundreds of miles away, and then have their tests graded by a computer?' "

As colleges and universities get squeezed under the pressure of higher costs, and possibly fewer students, it's inevitable that they'll search for additional ways to cut costs. Therefore, the likelihood of online education, and MOOCs, going the way of the dinosaur becomes increasingly unlikely with each passing year.

Like it or not, when it comes to online education, the train has already left the station. Those who get left behind may just be the ones who choose not to get on the online higher-ed bandwagon, or those who choose to remain fearful.


"Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education, 2012," Inside Higher Ed, June 21, 2012, Steve Kolowich, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/survey/conflicted-faculty-and-online-education-2012

"Online Classes Fuel a Campus Debate," New York Times, June 19, 2013, Tamar Lewin, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/20/education/online-classes-fuel-a-campus-debate.html?_r=1&

"The MOOC Racket," Slate.com, July 25, 2013, Jonathan Rees, http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/07/moocs_could_be_disastrous_for_students_and_professors.html

"Will online classes make professors extinct?" CNN, November 25, 2013, David R. Wheeler, http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/25/opinion/wheeler-tenured-professors/