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«Finally I Can Be with my Students 24/7, Individually and In Group: A Survey of Faculty Teaching Online Athanase Gahungu, Ed.D. Chicago State ...»

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Journal of Interactive Online Learning Volume 5, Number 2, Summer 2006

www.ncolr.org/jiol ISSN: 1541-4914

Finally I Can Be with my Students 24/7, Individually and In Group: A Survey of

Faculty Teaching Online

Athanase Gahungu, Ed.D.

Chicago State University

Mary I. Dereshiwsky, Ph. D.

Northern Arizona University

Eugene Moan, Ed. D.

Northern Arizona University


Teaching online is relatively new at Chicago State University (CSU). In this paper, twenty-four instructors who taught web-based, or web-enhanced courses during the spring and fall 2003 semesters CSU were surveyed about issues that they and their students had experienced in online communication. It was found that online learning was quickly developing into an effective mode of instruction. However, faculty and students appeared to have more or less “jumped into” the online classroom without being adequately prepared, and creation of effective, online, learning communities was still a work in progress.

Introduction The Office of Distance Learning (ODL) at Chicago State University (CSU) was created in 1999 to provide credit and non-credit courses to students in need of "learning from a distance" (http://www.csu.edu/DistLearn/). These courses are offered by utilizing four modes of instruction: a) internet-based courses (CSU Online), b) interactive television courses using videoconferencing networks, c) computer-instructed courses, and

d) satellite downlinks in partnership with PBS and U.S. Department of Education. The researchers attempted to explore whether or not faculty and students at CSU have mastered online communications during this short history. Specifically, the text-based environment of online communications does not allow for nuances of verbal communication, tone of voice and body language. As a result, the risk of misunderstanding is higher than in the traditional face-to-face instructional environment.

Along with this risk comes the challenge of enhancing an open climate among online students and instructors, and maintaining ‘netiquette:’ courteous tone and content of the written message. Therefore, the focus of this study was instructor perceptions regarding issues of civility in the online instructional communication environment: challenges as well as successes with the various modalities (email, course room posting, and chat room, among others). Cases of disagreement about such perceptions between undergraduate and graduate faculty were noted.

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Review of Related Literature Online instruction has substantially effected changes both in the way teachers teach and in the way students learn. Of special importance is the impact online instruction has had on the role of the instructor, from authority figure to facilitator (Ryan, Carlton & Ali, 2004). In turn, this role of facilitator has altered, positively and negatively, communication processes between teachers and students. According to Ryan, Carlton and Ali (2004), communications processes have not only changed, but gained depth, as they are “based on well thought out responses” (p. 80), rather than spontaneous comments on which traditional teaching relies. Asynchronous communication is a prevalent privileged means of communicating feedback between or among students and with teachers, even in classes using chat room conversations (Curtis, 2004).

One of the challenges that instructors must face is how to deal with the somewhat uncontrollable climate that the lack of face-to-face contact allows (Laird, 2003). The asynchronous, cyberspace, participation could create an allusion of anonymity, after the first few weeks of calculated, polite, exchanges. Often “private conversations fuse with academic discussion” (Laird, p. 44). Under that illusion of anonymity, academic exchanges may become tainted with unanticipated “racist, sexist, and otherwise offensive comments” (p. 44). Overall, however, online teaching can help create, through group email or listserv, a greater sense of community than traditional instruction does (Monroe, 2003). The instructor has the latitude of providing feedback to students privately or publicly. Similarly, students can choose to communicate with the teacher and the rest of the class in the same manner, and as often as they desire.

Nonetheless, the success of online instruction will be achieved when instructors know how to make students aware of time requirements, explain assignments expectations clearly, and respond to students’ e-mail on a daily basis (Doutrich, Hoeskel, Wykoff & Thiele, 2005). Only then will a learning community be created. However, have universities and colleges prepared instructors for faculty’s added responsibility of monitoring students at a distance as opposed to the traditional, face-to-face format? In their study of factors related to instructors’ willingness to participate in distance education, Lee and Busch (2005) concluded that “universities interested in enlisting more faculty members in Distance Education instruction should provide adequate training opportunities” (p. 114).

One of the remaining questions in creating learning communities seems to be whether communication at a distance can effectively replace the social interaction that happens in a traditional, face-to-face, classroom. Researchers such as Yelon (2006) discuss whether or not online teaching is better than traditional, face-to-face, teaching.

Others such as McInnerney and Roberts (2004) argue that online teachers could still build learning communities if they included some form of synchronous communication in their lessons through forums such as chat-rooms. Whether one chooses to engage in the debate or not may have little impact on policy makers who seem to have already been won by the appeal of online learning. The push may come from high schools, as states such as Michigan, are setting the tone by approving a new high school graduation requirement that would make all students take at least one online course (Carnevale, 2006). If the new requirement is implemented, and when other states follow suite, one

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should wonder how universities will be adequately prepared to capitalize on the online communication and learning skills students bring from their homes and high schools.

Methods and Procedures During the spring and fall 2003 semesters, all faculty members at Chicago State University (CSU) who taught web-based and web-enhanced, asynchronous, courses were electronically sent a questionnaire about issues that they and their students had experienced in online communication. The list was obtained directly from CSU’s Office of Distance Learning (ODL). According to the Office, there were 58 such faculty members in Spring and/or Fall 2003.

First, the questionnaire asked faculty members to describe their experience in online teaching, specifically: a) the level of students (undergraduate, graduate, or both) they taught, b) the number of semesters they had taught online, c) the number of courses they had taught online, and d) the tools they used to communicate with students. The second set of questions dealt with the faculty members’ attitudes (Strongly Agree, Moderately Agree, Moderately Disagree, Disagree) and behaviors (Always, Frequently, Sometimes, Never) in online communication. Finally, respondents were asked to elaborate, in an unstructured format, on areas in which their online teaching needed improvement, as well as on areas where they did well.

The accompanying e-mail cover note provided assurances of confidentiality and anonymity as per Chicago State University’s Institutional Review Board guidelines for research with human subjects. The recipients were asked to word-process their survey responses directly onto the file and to return them to the researchers as an e-mail file attachment. A follow-up e-mailing was conducted after two weeks with those study subjects who had not yet returned the completed survey.

Initially, 16 faculty members, or 28% of the available population returned the questionnaire. Nine others returned the questionnaire at the second mailing, thus totaling 25 study subjects, or 43% of faculty members that the Office of Distance Learning had identified. One of the 25 did not provide information related to courses s/he taught online, or the number of semesters s/he had taught. Therefore, only the responses of 24 participants were included in this report. Table 1 displays the number of semesters that 24 respondents had taught online. The largest number of respondents (n =6) had only taught online one semester.

Finally, a year and half later, three of the faculty members who returned questionnaire were asked to elaborate on their responses by telephone. Did the responses they gave still hold true? Their confirmation of initial responses or added nuances were included in the discussion section.

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Table 1: Total Number of Semesters Faculty Have Taught Web-Based or Blackboard-Enhanced Courses # Semesters # Faculty 12 semesters 1 7 semesters 3 5 semesters 1 4 semesters 3 3 semesters 5 2 semesters 5 1 semester 6 The number of web-based or Blackboard-enhanced courses taught by each of the 24 respondents ranged from one to five (Table 2). The majority of respondents (n = 8) had only taught one course.

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Table 3 represents the breakdown of online faculty by academic levels taught. Four respondents were graduate-level faculty members; 10 were undergraduate faculty; and 10 were both graduate and undergraduate faculty.

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Tools that respondents reported using in communicating with students were summarized in Table 4. All respondents used e-mail to communicate with students. The use of tools such as electronic bulletin boards, group features on the Blackboard, or chat rooms was reported in rather insignificant frequencies.

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Summary descriptive statistics were computed for each demographic item and all fixed-choice survey items. These statistics consisted of the total number of subjects who selected each response choice per survey item. In addition, the total number of “don’t know” values was tallied for each survey item.

Findings and Results

Table 5 displays the absolute response frequencies for faculty “Attitudes” contained in the “Attitudes and Behaviors in Online Communication” section of the

survey. Response frequencies were recorded by grade level that faculty members taught:

undergraduate (U), graduate (G), and both levels (B). The most frequently selected response category is starred for each item and sub-group of respondents.

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For instance, six out of the 10 faculty members who taught at both the graduate and undergraduate levels “strongly agree” that “online classrooms may not be an adequate substitute for face-to-face communication in some subject areas” (item #20).

The majority of undergraduate faculty members (six out of 10) and the majority of graduate faculty members (three out four) “strongly disagreed” that it would be “too inhibiting to express candid emotions online” (item #19).

Likewise, undergraduate faculty members “strongly disagreed” that it may be “more tempting to respond with anger to online messages” (item (#18). Except for these three items where respondents clearly took extreme positions (“strongly agree” or “strongly disagree”), no clear preference was expressed for items #1 though #17.

Respondents stayed on the safe side of issues by checking the “mildly disagree” or “mildly agree” options. For instance, the largest number of undergraduate faculty members (six out of 10) and faculty members who were both undergraduate and graduate (eight out of 10) “mildly agreed” that it was “more challenging to express emotions online” (item #1), and that “students are comfortable sharing private communication with online instructor” (item #15).

Taken together, the faculty members who answered the survey questions at CSU

had the following perceptions of online teaching:

• It is more challenging to express emotions online than it is in other formats;

• It is not easier to misinterpret written communication online;

• Instructors felt adequately prepared for online classroom communication;

• Except for graduate faculty members, respondents thought that standards of communication should be identical regardless of the classroom format;

• New online students need help with communication;

• It is not easier for easier for shy students to withdraw online than it is in other formats;

• Students are comfortable sharing private communication with online instructor;

• It is not easier to misinterpret directions online;

• Lack of visual cues makes it harder to “read” one’s online students;

• It is not more tempting to respond with anger to online messages than it is in other formats;

• It is not too inhibiting to express candid emotions online; and

• Online classroom is not an adequate substitute for face-to-face communication in some subject areas.

Table 6 represents the absolute response frequency for “Behaviors” that respondents observed in their online students. The most frequently selected response category is starred for each item and sub-group as in Table 5. The group of graduate faculty members seemed to be aware that students “have never typed in all caps” (item #6). The same faculty members never had to “stop flame wars among students” (item #10). Undergraduate faculty members, on their side, thought that their students “frequently” focused on issues in expressing disagreement (item #7). However, many faculty members conceded that students “seldom” used features such as emoticons appropriately (item # 11).

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