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Why I teach online courses

By George P. Schell / September 2004

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Why should college faculty teach online courses when there's substantial evidence that it's probably detrimental to their promotion and tenure? That said, I have to admit that I teach online courses. By the time you've finished reading this column I hope that you will become an advocate for online courses. In order to explain why I teach online courses, I first need to tell you a little about myself.

I'm a professor who teaches information systems in a business school. After eight years in industry I resigned when I was offered an IBM Fellowship to attend the doctoral program at Purdue University. My boss thought I was crazy because my position and salary would never be met in the world of academics. I keep remembering the line Debra Winger expressed in the movie Terms of Endearment when her husband achieved tenure: "Great, now we'll be poor forever."

College faculty choose to teach for different reasons. It can be for research, teaching, mentoring, or something else. At some point it comes down to imparting knowledge to others. We teach because we want students to learn. I teach because I want students to understand how information technology impacts businesses and other organizations.

We also want to succeed in our profession. For most college faculty that means achieving tenure and promotion; not achieving tenure results in being dismissed from the university. Efforts towards research, teaching, and service are the mantra for achieving tenure. The effort to develop online courses is not viewed as having much academic value and actually distracts attention from the research, traditional teaching, and service that are required to succeed.

Even worse, it's widely known that the effort required to teach online courses is greater than teaching traditional, face-to-face courses. Many universities offered incentives (monetary stipends, a reduction in the number of courses taught, etc.) to jump-start online course initiatives. As the novelty of online courses faded, so did the incentives. Legislators and administrators came to realize that developing online course materials was not a way to transform a single faculty member into a teacher for thousands of students each semester. The costs of teaching online courses are usually greater than teaching face-to-face courses.

Student demand for online courses is lower than the initial, rosy estimates. Most agree that, given the chance, between 10 percent to 25 percent of college students will take an online course during their college career. Few will take more than a single class unless circumstances, such as a job, prevent them from coming to a college campus. There are relatively few accredited online college degrees offered and that reflects the niche market of online degrees.

So why would anyone teach an online course?

Students learn the subject better and retain knowledge longer when they actively experience the subject. Technology, especially information technology, is a concept woven through a great deal of daily life. It's taught in specific college courses but mainly it is a concept woven into the fabric of many courses. The English assignment transmitted to the professor via e-mail. The Web page containing resources for the class, sometimes even audio and video for the course. Bulletin boards and chat rooms where students "discuss" ideas. Spreadsheets and databases for collecting and analyzing facts. Students learn pieces of information technology simply because they are as ubiquitous in college as in society.

Online courses force a deeper understanding of information technology simply because they require immersion in the technology that supports the subject being taught. If students fail to master the technology skills required by the course they ultimately fail the course itself. We've long understood that immersion, such as learning a foreign language by living where the language is spoken, is a very effective method for quickly and deeply learning a subject.

Every student needs that deeper understanding of information technology in order to be a productive member of society. Online courses force students to develop that understanding. Allowing students to graduate from college without taking at least one online course means the college has not confirmed the student's ability to function in an environment where information technology was the medium used to master the subject matter. Would you want your child to graduate from college still wondering if he or she has this skill so necessary for today's workforce?

The impediments to online courses can be overcome. Charge an additional fee for an online course similar to the additional fee charged for a lab course in chemistry. Articulate the academic value of developing online courses in the teaching section of tenure and promotion guidelines for faculty. Require students to complete at least one online course during their four years of college. Colleges can implement these changes.

So why do I teach online courses? I understand the crucial role played by information technology in business and in society. I want my students to learn the skills, concepts, and importance of information technology. I want my students to do more than compete, I want them to succeed.


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