Faculty versus Students on What Is Important in an Online Course

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It is no surprise that students and faculty have different perspectives on what makes for a quality online class. What is surprising is how little research there is on this difference. Steele, Dyer, and Mandernach (2023) recently began filling this void with a survey that asked 413 online faculty and 2,386 online students questions about what is important in an online class, with results that will astonish many faculty.

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It is no surprise that students and faculty have different perspectives on what makes for a quality online class. What is surprising is how little research there is on this difference. Steele, Dyer, and Mandernach (2023) recently began filling this void with a survey that asked 413 online faculty and 2,386 online students questions about what is important in an online class, with results that will astonish many faculty.

Interaction over content

The most important finding is that faculty and students have a fundamentally different view of what matters to an online class. Faculty tend to focus on course content, whereas students tend to focus on how faculty interact with them. The study goes on to identify the types of interactions that students prefer: faculty feedback on their work and faculty involvement in discussions. They do not prefer live, online meetings or group work and peer reviews.

The focus on feedback should come as no surprise as feedback has been shown to be an important, if not the most important, influence on learning, and studies have repeatedly shown that students are generally starved for good feedback. The student interest in discussion might surprise some faculty, however. Many faculty and students report dissatisfaction with online discussion, which often leads researchers to question the practice itself. But Martin and Bollinger (2018) found that 90 percent of students believed online discussion was the most useful instructor interaction, and Steele et al. also found high support for discussion.

The discrepancy can be explained by the distinction between the concept of online discussion and its implementation, something that studies often miss. Students have only their own experience of class activities as a basis for rating them, and if the implementation of the activity is bad, they will rate it poorly. This is often taken as evidence against the activity in principle, when in reality it is evidence against the particular way it was used. I recently worked with a group of online administrators who insisted that students hate asynchronous discussion. Yet they proclaimed this fact using an asynchronous discussion system (MS Teams)! In truth, that group loved asynchronous discussion; they practically lived on Teams during work, and asynchronous discussion was the best part of their day. What they were really disparaging was asynchronous discussion as usually implemented in online courses.

The problem is that the vast majority of online instructors do not seem to understand online discussion. They treat it not as a discussion in the everyday sense of the term (think a lively conversation in a café or tavern) but as a mini essay assignment because they are used to writing assignment prompts and so use them as discussion prompts. “What are two arguments from the readings for equal pay for equal work?” is an assignment prompt because it is measuring how well each student understood the reading. This requires that student work be independent of one another, which is done with private assignments. By contrast, “Should NBA players be required to give half of their salary to WMBA (women’s professional basketball) players to equalize pay?” is a discussion prompt because it measures what students believe and how well they can defend that belief to others. Students who have suffered through assignment prompts for online discussion come to hate it because they are forced to just repeat one another, but those who have been given real discussion prompts tend to love the opportunity to think deeply about issues.

Online content

Steele et al. also identify differences in how faculty and students view online course content. Faculty tend to regard the material they create (e.g., lectures) as secondary to outside course content, whether assigned readings or commercially produced YouTube videos. Perhaps as academics they have been conditioned to view academic, peer-reviewed resources as more important than the non-peer-reviewed information they create for their courses.

Students, by contrast, don’t view academic resources as more important than course content created by the instructor, perhaps because they assume that the instructor will view their own content as the most important and test them on it. It might also be that they have an easier time reading instructor content than academic content because instructor content is written for them, whereas academic content is often written for other experts in the field.

Although students do not have a general preference for outside content over instructor-made content, when asked to rank the value of different online features on a scale of 1 to 5, students did show a preference for content format within the categories of outside content and instructor made content. The mean student score for text-based content from the instructor was 3.70, compared to a score of 2.92 for instructor video content—a healthy 78-point difference. Meanwhile, the mean student score for internet-based text content was 3.77, compared to 3.45 for internet-based video content—a difference of just 32 points. Thus, when the instructor makes content, the students have a fairly strong preference for it to be in text format, whereas they have much less of a preference for text-based content for outside sources.

Here again I wonder whether these preferences stem more from the quality of the actual content that they have encountered rather than the content format itself. Faculty are used to writing as their primary form of communication, not multimedia, and so are just plain better at communicating with words than video. I have seen that most academic video content is just plain poor compared to commercial educational content. YouTube channels such as PBS Space Time, National Geographic, and others are producing exceptional videos that are highly informative and engaging. Unfortunately, higher education–produced videos tend to be death by PowerPoint in a “covering content” mentality rather than the mentality of communicating with the viewer found in professional videos.

Students might also prefer text content because they can read it at their own pace, whereas a video requires the viewer to follow at the speaker’s pace. This can be an important distinction when the subject matter is new to students and a bit hard to follow.

The major takeaway is that students and instructors have different views of what is important in online education. Instructors tend to focus on content, whereas students tend to focus on contact with the instructor. As online instructors, we need to remember that online teaching is just like face-to-face teaching in that it is about connecting with students through feedback and discussion. The center of an online course is not the content but rather the relationship developed between instructor and student. Cultivating that relationship is the primary job of the instructor.

References

Martin, F., & Bolliger, D. U. (2018). Engagement matters: Student perceptions on the importance of engagement strategies in the online learning environment. Online Learning, 22(1), 205–222. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v22i1.1092

Steele, J., Dyer, T., & Mandernach, B. (2023). You can’t have it all: Faculty and student priorities in the online classroom. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 17(1), Article 8. https://doi.org/10.20429/ijsotl.2023.17108