The Discrepancy of Expectations for Online Faculty between Students and InstitutionsOnline education has seen steady growth over the past few decades (Allen & Seaman, 2013). However, institutional leaders are challenged to identify and uphold instructional best practices that meet the expectations and needs of students without being overly arduous for faculty, who often serve many institutions simultaneously (Coalition on the Academic Workforce, 2012). With student retention closely tied to student satisfaction, studying online faculty practices that enhance the student experience, engagement, and enjoyment in the online academic setting can have important consequences for better understanding student retention.
Online faculty uphold expectations set by the institution for their performance. Typically, online institutions have specific guidelines for faculty-to-student interactions; yet, student expectations of faculty may not necessarily align with institutional requirements. To ensure standards of faculty performance, many institutions dictate expectations that faculty must execute on a regular basis such as grading timelines, online course engagement, and student communication practices. Online faculty members are often expected to comply with these expectations as a condition of continued employment. What remains unclear is if the expectations of the institution regarding faculty-to-student engagement align with what students expect or want from faculty.
Closing the Skills Gap among Faculty
While higher education leaders are expected to produce and administer policies that increase student success (Johnsrud & Banaria, 2004), instructors are typically responsible for conveying instructional content, engaging students, and evaluating student work. In distance education environments, students rely on faculty engagement in either written, audio, or video formats to guide them toward improvement. Often, faculty must develop new skills and practices to effectively engage students (Gallien & Oomen-Early, 2008). Faculty members are presented with unique challenges to teaching in online settings (Anderson et al. 2011) including ensuring faculty-to-student communication supports learning outcomes and student satisfaction.
Faculty interaction and student satisfaction are key predictors of student achievement and success (Astin, 1984; Kuh & Hu, 2001; Tinto, 2010). Faculty members can have a critical influence on the students’ academic experience (Gibson & Blackwell, 2011). Faculty have described the online environment as positive with regard to faculty-to-student communication, which is a key indicator of student satisfaction (Bolliger, 2004); yet, many felt underprepared to teach online (Johnson et al., 2015). Some institutions offering online courses may provide training for faculty, and most offer a set of faculty expectations to be followed regarding faculty-to-student engagement. Institutions must work to integrate faculty into the broader academic culture through training and support to ensure instructional quality (Fagan-Wilen et al., 2006). Faculty who are well trained per university norms perform better over time (Green et al. 2009). For distance education faculty, universities that focused on professional development, effective communication, fostering balance, and forming relationships tended to have higher student retention and satisfaction (McIntyre Jazzar, 2010).
A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
Student satisfaction has become a high priority among college administrators (Noel-Levitz, 2014). Students who report high satisfaction, defined in large part by their opinions of faculty teaching, tend to persist to graduation, which improves institutional outcomes and contributes to student satisfaction (Noel-Levitz, 2014). Faculty characteristics and behaviors, particularly faculty actions that engage students in distance environments, can directly contribute to student satisfaction (Kuh & Hu, 2001). Because student satisfaction is correlated with several outcome measures—such as persistence (Tinto, 2010), course quality (Moore & Kearsley, 2011), and student success (Noel-Levitz, 2014)—taking steps to improve how faculty engage with students in their online courses has a clear and direct benefit to the institution.
Student perceptions of effective instructor engagement are an important consideration for educators. Student satisfaction is positively correlated with instructor communication, responsiveness, encouragement, accessibility, and professionalism (Bolliger, 2004; Kauffman, 2015). In a study of student perceptions of effective instructor engagement, researchers found that gentle guidance, positive, constructive comments, timeliness, and future orientation were important feedback considerations (Getzlaf et al., 2009). Further, Garrison et al. (2000) developed a community of inquiry framework, linking student engagement to cognitive, social, and teacher presence. Effective faculty feedback and engagement is correlated to positive outcomes for students. Students have shown greater levels of satisfaction with the instructor and performed better academically when they received personalized interactions from the instructor on assignments (Gallien & Oomen-Early, 2008).
Identifying the Misalignment
A recent study conducted by the authors of this article (Shaw, Clowes, & Burrus, 2017) found that after institutional and student expectations were compared, some substantive differences were noted. Specifically, students identified additional areas of importance for faculty engagement. Students commented more frequently on consistency, feedback types, and the desire to engage with faculty on their areas of expertise above the content of the course. While institutions had specific requirements for faculty engagement, students were less concerned with specific prescriptive approaches to timelines, feedback, and course expectations as they were with consistency, personalization, and faculty adherence to policies.
What does all of this information mean? While typically online institutions have specific guidelines for faculty-to-student interactions, it appears that student expectations of faculty may not necessarily align with institutional requirements. This potential gap can have serious consequences for mission fulfillment in terms of achieving effective faculty engagement and successful student outcomes.
As institutions continue to differentiate themselves in the increasingly competitive landscape of online education, those institutions that prioritize meaningful faculty-student engagement, as defined by their students, may have a unique position in the future of online higher education.
Written by Scott WM Burrus, PhD--Lead Faculty, University of the Rockies; Melanie Shaw, PhD and Meena Clowes, PhD--Adjunct Faculty, University of the Rockies
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