Posted by: Ellie Kutz | October 15, 2012

New Studies: Digital Faculty

How do you feel about the challenges created when the digital teaching environment at UMass Boston keeps changing so rapidly—when you’ve finally become comfortable with using Blackboard Vista course environment and must now change to Blackboard Learn, or you see iPads being used in others’ classes when you haven’t even decided whether to purchase a tablet for your own use?  If your feelings about these changes are mixed, you are not alone.

Inside Higher Ed recently issued a two-part report on its survey of faculty attitudes about the digital teaching environment that is reshaping much of our work. The first part, Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education, published in June 2012, asked the overarching question: “On balance, does the prospect of online education excite or frighten you?” Nearly 60% of the over 4500 faculty surveyed were more fearful than excited.  But it’s not surprising that a majority of those faculty who were actually teaching in an online or blended environment felt more excitement than fear.

Here at UMass Boston, where Blackboard is being used for a majority of our courses, while many others use wikis and blogs, it seems that our faculty have been more comfortable about teaching online or supporting their face-to-face courses with online platforms.  But two concerns raised by faculty in the study, the assessing the quality of courses and of students’ online learning, are very much alive here: the first was the focus of a 2009 Faculty Council Task Force report on the quality of e-learning, and concerns about assessing students’ learning are reflected in the current discussions of the Academic Technology Committee.

The second installment of the Inside Higher Ed report, Digital Faculty: Professors and Technology (published in September), drew on the same survey to report on faculty views of a number of other aspects of the digital teaching and learning environment:

  • etextbooks (finding that more faculty are using books that have ebook versions available but few use content that’s exclusively available in a digital format and those who do tend to be in computer science, in other sciences and math, and to a more limited extent, in social sciences),
  • simulations and videos (finding that all faculty are using more of these—that they are becoming a normal part of classroom instruction)
  • digital scholarship (finding that attitudes toward it are evolving among faculty, with largely positive attitudes about the quality of work in online journals, with a majority believing that publication in online peer-reviewed journals should have same respect as other publication for tenure and promotion, but with few faculty publishing online content that goes beyond just an online version of what is or could be presented in print)

In general, faculty in the study felt that the digital communication environment increases productivity, creativity, their connection to a scholarly community, their ability to find new ideas and collaborators, and their communication with students.  But it also adds to the demands of faculty work and to their level of stress (and does so even more strongly for women).

Finally there were significant differences in the responses of faculty and of technology administrators in their sense both of how much and how effectively faculty are using online teaching platforms and of how well colleges and universities are rewarding faculty for the effort involved in this work—in the incentives for innovation.

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