Academic Computing Committee
Annual Report (04-16-13), 2012-13

Assessment of Faculty Sentiment Regarding Online Teaching and Learning

Over the course of this semester, the Academic Computing Committee (ACC) has sought to assess the opinion of the faculty in regards to online teaching and learning (in general) and the Semester Online affiliate program (in particular). The committee collected data from a wide variety of academic departments via a number of formats (an open forum, individual telephone interviews, and notes from a meeting of department chairs).

A description of the Semester Online program, the questions asked by our committee, and the full list of participants can be found at the end of this document.

The primary findings of our project are as follows:

In general, Furman faculty members are confused about the intended purpose, feasibility, and benefits of online teaching and learning. While almost all faculty members are enthusiastic and supportive about the idea of incorporating some online content into their courses (delivered either synchronously and asynchronously), faculty sentiment changes drastically when they consider courses taught entirely online without any required face-to-face interaction whatsoever. While some faculty members (roughly 20% of our sample) can envision how a limited number of courses offered online can offer a high-quality (but different) experience for our students, the vast majority (roughly 80%) cannot imagine how such a form of instruction can achieve learning objectives that meet Furman’s standards. Despite Furman’s relatively high quality video conferencing capacity and technological infrastructure, these concerns become even more pronounced when faculty members consider courses that require extensive tactile or “hands-on” activities (e.g., manipulating lab equipment, handling instruments, and fabricating objects).

Most faculty members believe strongly that some learning objectives cannot be achieved when teacher and student never have the opportunity to grapple over difficult content “knee to knee.” To many, channeling interactions between faculty, students, and staff via online portals seems inconsistent with the image we advertise to current and prospective students. The vast majority of faculty members we talked to see face-to-face interaction as what makes a residential liberal arts experience special. In addition, they are concerned that the current consideration of online options today are an ominous sign of things to come—namely, an increasing reliance on cost-effective teaching strategies at the expense of our long term institutional reputation.

Despite the general concerns expressed by most faculty members outlined above, a minority shares a different view; they see online teaching and learning as worthy of consideration and experimentation. So long as class sizes are kept small and the course material is well suited for online delivery (e.g., text, graphs, figures, and images), these faculty members see online instruction as an interesting puzzle worth trying to solve—possibly via a limited pilot program. Although more quiet in their views than skeptics of online options, these few faculty members can identify particular courses within their departmental curricula that might be suitable for online modes of instruction. They highlight the benefits of including students and guest lecturers into their courses who might not otherwise be able to participate. One faculty member has even developed an entire non-credit bearing introductory course online for incoming students. Thus, although most faculty members are highly cautious and concerned about the prospect of online teaching and learning, there are small pockets of support throughout the campus that believe Furman should explore these options in a limited fashion.

Furman faculty members understand that some students may welcome the idea of online courses. They are aware that students may want to take these kinds of courses because of the variety and flexibility they offer. However, many faculty members worry that using online teaching and learning as a means to expand the curriculum for expansion’s sake can come at a cost. They see the limited contours of our current curriculum as a strength, not a weakness. While faculty members are generally aware that students are already taking online courses taught at other institutions and transferring those credits to fulfill their general education requirements here at Furman, they would like to know more about how often this takes place. They believe that there should be a broader discussion about the type and number of online courses that Furman students can take. As a small liberal arts institution, our course offerings are not infinite. This is by design. Students may want to take more and different courses, but all of the faculty members we studied are concerned that without setting limits on the number of online courses students can take, we may be diluting our curricular core principles and inadvertently sending the message that our traditional (face-to-face) offerings are no better than what can be consumed online.

Discussions about the pedagogical challenges and opportunities posed by online teaching and learning continue to be hampered by a series of practical questions that impede more substantive deliberations. These questions include: how will offering online courses somehow bring in revenue and/or reduce costs at Furman. Who will teach these courses? How will faculty members be compensated for the preparation and administration of these courses? Will these courses invite increased reliance on adjunct and otherwise contingent faculty? Will their implementation involve increasing class sizes and/or faculty teaching loads? Until these questions can be effectively answered in concise and clear terms, the committee believes that current sentiment (as outlined above) will persist.

Description of Semester Online program

According to its website: “Semester Online is the first-of-its-kind program to offer rigorous, online, for-credit undergraduate courses through a consortium of top-tier colleges and universities. The program will be delivered through a virtual classroom environment and interactive platform developed by, formerly known as 2tor.

 Semester Online courses will feature primarily the same faculty and curricula as their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Students will experience a state-of-the-art virtual classroom, including live class sessions that connect students and renowned professors; compelling, richly produced, self-paced course materials; and a strong social network that allows students to collaborate and build relationships online

Students will have the chance to take advantage of unique course offerings from some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, courses they would not otherwise have access to. They will be able to work, travel, participate in off-campus research programs or manage personal commitments that in the past would have meant putting their studies on hold.”

Relevant articles
New York Times: University Consortium to Offer Small Online Courses for Credit
US News and World Report: Top Universities Partner With Online Provider to Create For-Credit Courses

Project participants: To collect data, two members of the ACC (Ken Kolb, Sociology; Eiho Baba, Philosophy) served as moderators of an open forum on the topic.

Attendees included
Marian Strobel  (History)
Lon Knight  (Chemistry)
Brett Barclay (Continuing Education)
Brian Siegel  ( Religion / Anthropology)
Helen Lee Turner  (Religion)
Lynn Shackelford   (English)
Jane Love  (CTL)
Greg Springsteen  (Chemistry)
Karen Buchmueller  (Chemistry)
Christy Allen  (Library)
David Gandolfo  (Philosophy) (Poverty Studies)
Jeff Yankow  (Economics)
Jason Jones  (Economics)
Mike Winiski  (CTL)
Kailash Khandke   (Study Away, Economics, Asian Studies)

In addition, to the open forum, notes were taken during and after a presentation from representatives of the Semester Online consortium. These notes captured the questions and comments of department chairs who spoke during that meeting. These faculty members include:
Troy Terry (Graduate Studies)
Gil Einstein  (Psychology)
Ken Peterson (Economics)

To increase the breadth of constituencies represented in the report, phone interviews were also conducted with select members of other departments. These faculty members include:
Carolyn Watson  (Art)
Lorraine Dejong  (Education)
Silas Pearman  (Health Sciences)

In addition to these formal means of data collection, this document also reflects ideas described in emails sent to the committee from:
Wade Worthen  (Biology)
Jenny Colvin   (Library)

Open Forum guiding questions:

Online Teaching/Learning Forum What Do Faculty Think?
Furman is exploring a number of options to supplement our current academic program with online courses. How Furman takes advantage of these opportunities is still an open question. To contribute to the conversation, the academic computing committee has decided to collect data on what faculty think about online teaching/learning in general, including one option currently under consideration, the Semester Online consortium.

In this forum, we would like to discuss the Semester Online option for about 15-20 minutes. Then, we would like to move on to a broader discussion about the pedagogical implications of teaching/learning online for the following 30 minutes.

Semester Online option (in particular):
What questions do you have about the Semester Online option?
What are your concerns?
What are the strengths of this option?
How could it be improved?

Online teaching/learning (in general):
Note: The academic computing committee wants to learn more about what faculty think about instruction that occurs entirely online. The questions below are not referring to the incorporation of some online material or discussion. We are referring to courses that do not require any in-person interaction.

Is it possible to offer students a rich and engaging academic experience that is conducted entirely online?

If not, what elements could be added to online courses to offer an academic experience comparable to a traditional—in-person—course?

Should there be a limit to the number of courses Furman students can take online? If so, how many?

What role should faculty play in the decision-making process about the number and type of online courses offered to Furman students in the future?

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