US academics open to online switch but seeking more support

Survey of 4,000 faculty shows first-timers struggling with student engagement

July 14, 2020
Online lecture
Source: iStock

Nearly three times as many US university lecturers gained confidence in online teaching this spring as lost confidence in it, a receptivity to change that their institutions may not yet be reciprocating, a conference heard.

A survey covering more than 4,000 faculty at 1,500 campuses, conducted by the consulting firm Tyton Partners, found that 45 per cent had gained a favourable attitude towards remote teaching, compared with 17 per cent who had soured on the idea.

“This represents a significant opportunity for openness to change,” Gates Bryant, a partner at Tyton, told Remote, a conference on online learning hosted by Arizona State University.

At the same time, the coronavirus outbreak that forced the move to online teaching has shown that many universities have been slow to provide the guidance and tools to make a success of it, the event heard.

ASU’s president, Michael Crow, observed that the historical higher education model of “close-knit faculty clusters with students physically clustered around them” had been successful for centuries. But, he continued, “as profound and as significant as that model has been, it’s not adequate for the future sociologically, it’s not adequate for the future technologically, [and] it’s not adequate for the future relative to adaptability”.

Even among faculty who largely welcomed the sudden online transition this spring, the Tyton survey found, many struggled to keep their students engaged. Three-fifths of the academics surveyed had trouble maintaining participation and enrolments, and almost three-quarters called that a problem that urgently needed fixing in the autumn.

Yet the lecturers already know some of the solutions, even if they might lack the resources or ability to implement them. The survey outlined 10 practices for improving online teaching, and the one that had the greatest success – small group assignments – was the least used.

Another effective tool – personal messages to students – was the most implemented. But overall, only 20 per cent of academics used at least seven of the 10 practices. The lecturers in that small group were more likely to have had prior experience with online teaching, and they also reported the greatest satisfaction with outcomes, the Tyton survey found.

Other leading faculty concerns identified in the survey include the loss of lab time and its disproportionately heavy effect on low-income and minority students; uncertainty about how to fairly and accurately assess student performance; and the consequent inability to gauge students’ success in prerequisite courses

Dr Crow described the unmet need for such change in higher education as part of a bigger social shortcoming reflecting failures to address climate change, racial inequality and major challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic.

In important ways, Dr Crow said, US universities are “actually empowering the social inequities”, by becoming elitist and separatist institutions.

The pandemic was “driving us to deeply understand the limits and the potential of our institutions”, he said.

The conference on online learning conference hosted by ASU involves more than 25,000 participating faculty from 2,000 colleges in 60 countries. Times Higher Education is among its partners.

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