What Makes Faculty Members Participate in Distance Learning?

Encouraging faculty to participate in distance learning has been a concern since the very first days of online delivery methods, and probably before. A look through the Distance Education Report archives will show the evolving concerns about pedagogical quality, academic rigor, reputation, and other factors that faculty members have expressed concerns about.

Adding to the discussion about what factors motivate faculty to participate in distance learning is a new study by Fay Lesht of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and Deborah L. Windes of Trinity Christian College. In an article in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration titled “Administrators’ Views on Factors Influencing Full-Time Faculty Members’ Participation in Online Education,” the pair detail their research on what motivates faculty to teach online.

Background research
Lesht and Windes draw on a body of past research that sets the stage for their study, including that which looks at the processes behind education. The pair write:

As is well known by scholars of the pedagogical process, quality education has to do with instructor expertise, course content, teaching methods, student engagement, and related supports. Delivery modes are important to the extent they are used properly and their complexities and flexibility are not taken for granted….

Faculty reward structure, intellectual property, and administrative support are among the factors that research in this area suggest influence faculty members’ participation in online education….The early research seems to indicate that while faculty are motivated by increased stipends and release time, the lure of a more flexible schedule, the ability to reach a wider audience, and self-satisfaction can be more significant motivators.

Interestingly, one of the earlier studies found that one of the most important motivational factors for teaching online was faculty’s desire to use the flexibility to meet student needs.

Sustaining or disruptive?
Lesht and Windes also discuss “disruptive innovation theory” as it applies to the idea of online education. This theory talks about two types of innovation or change: “A sustaining innovation is an improvement of a product or service that grows out of the needs and desires of existing customers. Such innovations may enhance a product, but will not lead to major changes in the market or its audience. In contrast, a disruptive innovation is one that replaces the original product with something that is more easily accessible to a new population of customers, enabling new companies to emerge and then dominate the industry.”

When viewing online delivery of education as a sustaining innovation, the authors point to examples in which traditional institutions are entering the online market to effectively complete with early adopters, thereby competing for the existing market and absorbing the distance learning endeavors into the structure of the university. An example is the community college. “These colleges have traditionally reached out to students who need flexibility and lower-cost options, so the population they serve with online education may not be radically different than the one they serve in the classroom. Online education has helped them extend their reach, but not radically alter their mission,” the authors write.

The study
To learn more about what motivates faculty to participate in online learning, the authors surveyed faculty in two public universities, one private university, and two community colleges, all located in one Midwestern state. They divided responses into facilitating factors and inhibiting factors.

Facilitating factors were divided into institutional, department, and personal categories:

  1. Institutional – “Survival was noted as a facilitating factor for engagement in online education—campus enrollments in some cases are on the decline and in order to thrive, some institutions are now required to offer degree programs online.” … “Furthermore, a number of administrators noted the relevance of online education to core missions of their institutions.”
  2. Departmental – “At the departmental level, facilitating factors included financial incentives and competitive necessity. An increase in tuition revenue would help them survive in the midst of cutbacks at the institutional level.”
  3. Personal – “On the personal level, stipends provided by the institution were a motivating factor for participating faculty, as well as the ability to teach their online courses on-load. In addition, the flexible schedules that appeal to students, also appeal to faculty. Faculty have more time for research and deeper discussions with students through online learning and so flexibility and access emerged as facilitating factors for faculty participation. Faculty themselves have demonstrated increased interest in technology.” … “Faculty often wish to use online education to do what they aren’t able to do in the classroom in terms of strengthening instructional options.”

Inhibitors were divided into pedagogy, perceptions, and support:

  1. Pedagogy – “Pedagogical concerns included the devotion of time required to adapt courses to high-quality online formats and the need to ensure a good fit between online education and the curriculum.”
  2. Perceptions – “Some faculty members miss students’ energy and interactivity, more easily found in the classroom than online.” … “There emerged in this sample a sense that some faculty still consider online education not as high quality as residential instruction.”
  3. Support – “Support issues that emerged as limiting factors pertained to technical and instructional design support. Support for online education in terms of providing technical expertise as well as instructional design assistance varied within and across institutions in this sample. In some cases, there was a lack of assistance provided to faculty to adapt their course material to a high-quality online format. In other cases, the institution provided some initial support (such as an initial workshop), but expected faculty members to do most of the course design themselves. There was also the question of ‘Who helps when the technology doesn’t work?’”

Overall, the authors have conducted an intriguing piece of research that contributes to the on-going discussion of what motivates faculty to teach online. The authors conclude: “There is a dynamic interaction between faculty and administrators in terms of online education. While this study revealed generic themes related to facilitating and inhibiting factors for teaching online from an administrative perspective, faculty members’ perspectives should also be explored. In this way, leaders in higher education can shape future directions in online education based on multiple points of view.”

Excerpted from What Makes Faculty Members Participate in DL? Distance Education Report, 16.17 (2012): 1,2,6.