Colleges Are Warming Up to Online Learning (Teachers Are Not)

If U.S. colleges and universities are ever going to bring down their costs, it means that one day they're going to have to buck up and embrace online learning as regular tool for teaching undergrads. And in order for that to happen, it means their faculty members will have to get on board with the idea. 

Unfortunately, we're still pretty far off from that point. Babson Survey Research Group has released its latest poll tracking attitudes about online education within academia, and as in past years, it's evidence of a big split between administrators, a large portion of whom see the web as key to the future, and professors, who are mostly suspicious. 

Babson surveyed the chief academic officers at 2,800 institutions, including everything from for-profit schools to community colleges to full research universities. On the whole, 69 percent of the academic leaders who were interviewed agreed that online learning would be "critical" the long-term plans of the school, up from around half a decade ago.  

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And from an administrator's perspective, it's pretty clear why that might be the case: the students are asking for it. The survey reports that online courses now make up more than 30 percent of total college enrollment. 

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Whereas administrators are growing more enthusiastic about the web--or at least coming to terms with its importance--professors still seem to be on the fence. Only 32 percent of the academic officers polled said their faculty "accepted the value and legitimacy of online education." That figure hasn't changed much in eight years. The vast majority are still "neutral" on the issue.

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This doesn't give us a direct window into what faculty at these schools think--it's just a secondhand report. But given that more than 65 percent of the administrators polled said faculty objections were getting in the way of expanding online instruction, it seems safe to say that the professoriate isn't sold.

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This brings us to the hottest topic in online learning: MOOCs, or massive online open courses. MOOCs had a breakout year in 2012, with dozens of of elite universities from Harvard on down producing free courses for platforms such as EdX and Coursera capable of broadcasting lectures and course materials online to thousands of students world over at time. I've argued before that these classes are important not because they're necessarily the future of higher ed, but because they're providing a way for top schools to experiment with teaching online, and perhaps win institutional support for the idea. Turns out, that's how administrators seem to view them as well.* At research universities, which tend to be the most MOOC friendly, only 30 percent of administrators takers told Babson they thought MOOCs were a "sustainable" way to offer courses. But sixty percent agreed they were an important way for colleges to explore web-based teaching. 

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Hopefully, as MOOCs catch on and improve, they break down resistance from inside the schools, and colleges can start moving at full speed toward a more online-savvy future. 

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*There also appears to be some truth to the idea that, as Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost has put it, MOOCs are just marketing for elite colleges. In total, 43 percent of administrators said they thought the courses could attract new students. Around 60 percent thought so at the largest schools. 


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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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