Although online learning has continued to grow, limited research has investigated the perceptions of experienced online teaching faculty. The purpose of this study was to investigate how 33 faculty with 10 years or more of experience teaching online perceived the future of higher education online. Qualitative interviews were analyzed in comparison to the future trends identified in the 2015-2019 Horizon Reports. Results indicate that the future of online learning should be considered an integral part of higher education, as the future points to education delivered in multiple modalities. Instructors were optimistic that the growth of educational modalities could lead to greater access and accessibility for students, and discussed the role of “brick and mortar” institutions, as well as technology development. Instructors hoped that face-to-face campus programs would remain, but that online and remote communities could serve students who find online education a better fit for their lives. Instructors highlighted the diversity of online students, as well as the diversity of types of degree, credential, and certificate programs. Taken together, these finding suggest that professional development efforts should prepare faculty to teach using multiple modalities, and to serve students from diverse backgrounds with diverse goals.
For years, online course offerings have expanded across college campuses (Seaman, et al., 2018), and during the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education institutions with more robust online programs were more likely to thrive (Hill, 2021). Other institutions, however, may have been underprepared to make the shift to online and remote course instruction. As recently as 5-years-ago, a survey of chief academic officers conducted by Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC (Allen et al., 2016) indicated that faculty members were skeptical about the efficacy of online teaching and learning, particularly those who had never taught online. In addition, prior to the pandemic, online teaching remained a novel experience for many instructors across the United States. In a more recent Gallop® and Inside Higher Ed poll (Jaschik & Lederman, 2019), 54% of surveyed faculty members had never taught an online course prior to the pandemic. In the same poll (Jaschik & Lederman, 2019), over 50% of faculty members with online teaching experience indicated a reliance on advice from colleagues for support with online teaching, whose experiences may also have been more limited.
As online teaching and learning continues to grow, it is important to learn from professionals with years of experience in the field of online higher education. These instructors have made the transition to online teaching and have adapted their pedagogy over time. They have learned new technologies and overcome barriers to reaching students, adjusting their teaching practices to accommodate the changing needs of students and creating effective learning communities. Therefore, this qualitative study investigated perspectives from educators with over 10 years of online teaching experience. The paper focuses on online instructors’ perceptions of the future of online education because these perspectives may have implications for professional development as more faculty transition into online teaching.
Trends in Higher Education Online
Recent publications indicate that COVID-19 has transformed higher education in several ways (Pelletier et al., 2021), with increased attention to online and remote education. However, the field of higher education has anticipated trends in online education long before COVID-19. For example, the EDUCAUSE Horizon Reports® has published emerging and future trends in higher education for over 15 years (Adams Becker et al., 2017; Adams Becker et al., 2018; Alexander et al., 2019; Johnson et al., 2015; Johnson et al., 2016). These trends were identified each year by a diverse group of experts in the field of online higher education and have been used by college and university personnel to make decisions about how they could fulfill their missions (Alexander et al., 2019; see Table 1 for the trends identified by the 2015-2019 Horizon Reports®). Overall trends anticipated increased options for educational attainment (e.g. increased degree and certification options), increased options for educational modality, and increased use of educational technology to drive learning that is focused on specific student needs.
The Horizon Reports®, as well as other educational technology reports in higher education (e.g., the Digital Learning Innovation Trends® report by Every Learner Everywhere and Online Learning Consortium) have been widely read and respected by professionals in the online learning field in particular, as most of the trends identified have applied to multiple educational modalities (i.e. online and face-to-face). However, the trends identified in these reports are now more broadly relevant, as recent sources suggest that some faculty are more optimistic about online education since the onset of pandemic (Cengage, 2021), and that the pandemic might lead to faster changes in higher education (Cutri & Mena, 2020). Nevertheless, others have suggested that some faculty may resist increases in online education, or other remote modalities in the post-pandemic future (Kroger, 2020). Considering that in the past, many faculty have perceived online education to be inferior to face-to-face learning (Allen et al., 2016), it is important to understand faculty perceptions of online teaching and learning.
Faculty Perceptions of Online Education
While the field of higher education as a whole has been forecasting trends relevant to online teaching and learning, limited research has investigated faculty perceptions of the future of online higher education. To date, most research related to online teaching has focused on students’ experiences, educational technology, and online learning communities (Naylor & Nyanjom, 2020). Studying faculty perceptions is important because faculty play a critical role in student success efforts and are often left to choose which professional development opportunities they pursue (Bohan & Perrotta, 2020; Marasi et al., 2020). If institutions want to improve their online courses and programs, they need faculty support and buy-in in order to achieve their goals (Hafsa, 2019). Therefore, research that aims to better understand how to support faculty has the potential to increase positive outcomes, including educational quality and student and faculty satisfaction.
Of the research on faculty perceptions and experiences, most of the existing research has focused on the transition from face-to-face to online teaching, or on early experiences of online teaching (Hafsa, 2019; Mansbach & Austin, 2018; Saunders et al., 2020). While this could be because online education is relatively new at many institutions, it could also be because more research has focused on graduate education and early career faculty members compared to mid-career faculty members (Baker & Manning, 2020). It is important to study the perspectives of faculty members with more experience (mid-career and later), because mid-career faculty are the largest group of faculty and are the most likely to hold leadership positions (Baker & Manning, 2020). It is also important to study faculty at all stages of their careers, as results can shed light on growth trajectories, and on what faculty need at different stages of their professional development. Therefore, the current study focuses exclusively on faculty with 10 years or more experience teaching online.
Faculty Perceptions of the Future of Online Education
While limited, some research has investigated how higher education faculty perceive the future of online education (e.g. Naylor & Nyanjom, 2020; Shearer et al., 2020), and more specifically, how faculty feel about the future of online teaching and learning. For example, Naylor and Nyanjom (2020) interviewed 20 online educators with 3 - 21 years of online teaching experience, and studied participants’ emotional responses to teaching online (positive or negative emotions), as well as their perceived institutional support (higher or lower perceived support). The educators with positive emotions about online teaching combined with high perceived institutional support were labeled as “futuristic” by the authors, and these instructors reported higher self-efficacy, enthusiasm, and motivation about teaching online. Shearer et al. (2020) also investigated an “ideal” future for online education, with a focus on the thoughts and feelings of students and faculty with online education experience. Shearer et al. (2020) recruited 11 tenure track faculty from an institution with strong online programs. Faculty participants were asked to bring two images that represented their emotions regarding an ideal future of online education to focus groups. The researchers analyzed participants’ behavior in the focus groups (observational data), as well as transcriptions of the focus groups. Findings suggest that the faculty thought that an “eclectic” pedagogical approach should be used for online education in the future, which included but was not limited to personalization of content, transformative learning experiences, and collaborative learning. These themes overlapped with themes identified by the 2015-2019 Horizon Reports® (see Table 1), suggesting that the faculty in this study might have received professional development related to online pedagogy. These studies suggest that an ideal future for faculty includes positive emotions about online education combined with institutional support that provides pedagogical training.
The Current Study
While previous studies recruited some faculty that were mid-career or later (Naylor & Nyanjom, 2020; Shearer et al., 2020), perceptions of the future of higher education online with seasoned online instructors remains limited. In particular, experienced online instructors can offer a unique perspective on the development of online education because they have been teaching online long enough to have experienced changes in technology, pedagogy, and attitudes toward online teaching. Therefore, the current study fills a gap in the extant literature by: a) focusing specifically on the experiences of faculty who are mid-career or later; b) focusing on the perceptions of faculty who have also taught online for at least 10 years or more; and c) focusing on faculty’s perspectives of the future of online teaching and learning.
The faculty in this study were employed by a public 4-year institution in the United States with high quality online asynchronous programs. Faculty were asked, “What do you think is the future of online learning?” at the end of a series of three interviews. Responses were analyzed through two qualitative methods and implications for future faculty development were considered. It is important to note that these data were collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the participants may have different predictions for the future if the data were collected today. However, since the participants had been teaching online for 10 years or more at the time they were interviewed, they had been teaching long enough to identify important trends.
This study was part of a larger qualitative project that examined experiences and motivations of 33 instructors who reported teaching online in higher education for at least 10 years. The current study investigated responses to the question, “What do you think is the future of online learning?”
Participants and Measures
Participants were recruited at a large public university in the United States. Following Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, a list of instructors who had taught online and were employed for 10 years or more was used for recruitment. Prospective participants were recruited via an anonymous Qualtrics XM Software pre-survey that took 5-10 minutes to complete (Qualtrics XM, Provo, UT). The survey measured demographic information, their teaching experience (e.g., online and in other modalities), and their interest in participating in three qualitative interviews with a member of the research team. If pre-survey respondents (N = 39) indicated their interest in participating in the qualitative interviews, they were provided a separate link to schedule interviews (see Procedure below). Of those surveyed, 33 (85% of pre-survey respondents; 59% female and 41% male) chose to participate in the interviews. Forty-five percent of participants were 55 – 64-years-old and 18% of participants were 35 – 44-years-old. The majority (85%) reported doctoral level degrees as the highest level of education, and 67% were employed full time. Nine (23%) were in tenure track positions, and 12 (32%) had achieved tenure at their current institution(s). The average number of years they had taught online at their current institution was 14 years (SD = 4.6 years; Range 10 - 31 years). Participants were from a range of disciplines (e.g., Chemistry, Computer Science, Education, Food Science and Home Economics, Fisheries and Wildlife, Philosophy, Public Health and Sociology), and therefore taught diverse content online. Most participants had experience teaching in multiple modalities (see Table 2 for the number of courses participants had taught in the year prior to the interview in an asynchronous online format, as well as in face-to-face and blended courses). While all of the participants had over 10 years of online teaching experience, they varied in their experience in online course design.
Prospective participants were sent up to three recruitment emails that described the general purposes of the study and contained a link to the Qualtrics pre-survey. Instructors who chose to participate in the pre-survey were provided a link to the survey from the recruitment email. The end of the pre-survey redirected participants to an online scheduling tool, Acuity Scheduling (2006), which allowed participants to sign up for the three interviews with a member of the study team.
Two members of the research team completed all participant interviews. With a couple of exceptions, participants completed all three of their interviews with the same research team member in order to build rapport and to encourage consistency. All interviews were conducted using Zoom, an online video conferencing software in the Fall and Winter of the 2018 - 2019 academic year. Each of the interviews were structured, with 15 questions in Interview 1, 16 questions in Interview 2, and 13 questions in Interview 3. Once interviews were complete, audio files were used to transcribe the interviews in preparation for data analysis. Participants received $300 gift cards for their participation in the interviews.
Qualitative Coding and Data Analysis
Responses to the question, “What do you think is the future of online learning?” were analyzed sequentially using two different methodologies (Saldaña, 2016; p. 73), both of which are described in what follows.
Round 1 Coding
The first round of coding examined major themes in participants’ responses utilizing a combination of “in vivo coding” (Saldaña, 2016; p. 105), “holistic coding” (Saldaña, 2016; p. 166) and “concept coding” (Saldaña, 2016; p. 119). These methodologies were selected because in vivo coding identifies themes using participants’ language (e.g. “brick and mortar” institutions), while both holistic coding and concept coding interprets data by reading larger passages, as opposed to line by line. In combination, these approaches gauge meanings and the “bigger picture” behind participant responses.
The lead researcher completed the first round of coding and developed a codebook that provided a code name, description, and inclusion/exclusion criteria (see Table 3). Another research team member then double coded the data using the codebook. Disagreements and discrepancies were resolved by discussion until the researchers reached consensus.
Round 2 Coding
The second round of coding utilized “provisional coding” (Saldaña, 2016; p. 168), investigating the extent to which participants’ responses aligned with the future themes identified in the Horizon Reports. Five years of Horizon Reports (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019) were used to generate “Key Trends” for “Accelerating Technology Adoption in Higher Education” provided in each year of the Horizon Report up to 2019 (Alexander et al., 2019; p. 6). All of the “Key Trends” identified in the Horizon Reports for the 5 years studied (2015 - 2019) were included as codes in this round of the analysis. The lead researcher used the descriptions provided in the Horizon Reports to generate a codebook for each of these “Key Trends” that provided a code name, description, inclusion/exclusion criteria, and an example passage for each code (see Table 1).
After one researcher coded the instructor responses using the Horizon Report codebook, the other researcher double coded the data. Disagreements were again resolved by discussion until both researchers reached a consensus. Additionally, the two researchers discussed any overlaps between the Round 1 and Round 2 coding, and discussed which themes would be important to include in this report. Themes from both rounds of coding are included in Tables 1 and 3.
Results and Discussion
The following is a summary of long-term instructors’ responses to the question, “What do you think is the future of online learning?” The “Round 1: Coding Themes” are presented as four major sections (see Table 4), with the “Round 2: Horizon Report Themes” woven within the four sections of the Round 1 themes. Of the 11 trends discussed in the five years of the Horizon Reports, five of those trends were found frequently in instructors’ responses (i.e. by six or more instructors). Those five trends are described in detail below. Quotation marks are used to indicate both code names (e.g. “increased access and accessibility”) and the language that the participants used in the interviews (e.g. “global demands”). The descriptions of the results are further combined with discussions of the implications for faculty development, as institutions prepare faculty to teach a diverse population of students in multiple modalities.
Online and Blended Learning Will Continue to Grow
The majority of instructors (22 out of the 33 participants; 66.7%) suggested that they expect online learning in higher education to become more prevalent in the future. Participants expected online learning to grow for a variety of reasons, many of which overlapped with themes such as “increased access and accessibility,” and “modularized and disaggregated degrees.” Several instructors also suggested that online learning will grow due to expectations of continual education from employers, or “global demands” as the “world progresses so quickly.” In particular, participants suggested that online learning will be commonly used by adult learners who want or need to earn degrees or credentials while they maintain other life responsibilities.
Horizon Report Theme: Blended Learning Designs
Although the instructors were asked about the future of “online learning,” a few instructors (21.2%, n = 7) also discussed hybrid or blended learning in their responses. Blended Learning Designs was included as a “Key Theme” in four of the five issues of the Horizon Report (2015 - 2019), which describes the growth combining face-to-face instruction with online instruction, as well as integrating technology into face-to-face courses. Most of these instructors predicted that elements of online education will be used more frequently in what have traditionally been face-to-face classes. For example, one instructor said, “you get the best of both of those [online and face-to-face] environments.” Some instructors described blended learning designs as foundations for an “ideal course;” for example, one participant said,
“I like to fantasize about what I would do with a face-to-face class, and I think for me, a hybrid class would be just optimal. Get together once a week… flexible. Once a week, make maximal use of the students physically being in a space, and the rest of the time they're working individually.”
Overall, instructors’ responses related to growth align with data suggesting that higher education is progressively offering more educational modality options (Fong & Cook, 2020), and that a variety of online components can be added to courses in order to increase quality. For example, both synchronous and asynchronous online components can be added to face-to-face as well as blended courses. This suggests that training for instructors should prepare them to teach using multiple modalities, and should focus heavily on pedagogical training, as good pedagogy can be applied across modalities. For example, active learning strategies such as think-pair-share ask students to comprehend the information presented in a course well enough to discuss and share with other students (Riggs & Linder, 2016). As online and blended learning become more common, it is important for instructor resources, such as those provided by Centers for Teaching and Learning (CTL), to work on providing pedagogical training that can be applied across modalities. Institutions can also work to increase the number of faculty who can teach using multiple modalities (both new faculty as well as continuing), and provide funding, resources, and other support systems for faculty to do so. Continually improving the options for instructor trainings are especially important considering that the “futuristic” instructors in Naylor and Nyanjom’s (2020) study perceived support from their institutions regarding online teaching and learning.
Online Learning Will Increase Access and Accessibility
Eighteen instructors (54.5%) predicted that online learning will increase access to education, with most of the comments focusing on access to higher education specifically. Within this theme, instructors discussed accessibility through location flexibility (i.e. online courses can be taken from anywhere), time flexibility (online courses can be accessed during times students are available), and financial access.
Location Flexibility Will Increase Access
Several instructors emphasized the “global” nature of online learning, implying that individuals can access online courses from various areas of the world. This can make courses formerly not accessible in certain areas accessible, which can broaden students’ options for educational quality, as well as educational content (i.e. if an area of study isn’t offered locally, students can take online courses). For example, one participant said, “So for international students who would like to access… the U.S. university system, this online kind of experience, I think, would be really helpful.”
Within this code, there was some overlap with the theme, “technology development will increase”, as some instructors implied that future technology will continue to make it easier for students to access online course content from different areas of the world. For example, another participant said,
“There's going to come some point at which we have machine translation that's able to actually let us communicate with people in other languages. That's going to change our world radically… a truly global environment where we're not partitioned from one another.”
This implies that as online courses become more available globally, technology development will aid in the process to make courses accessible to a higher number of people. Other instructors suggested that students “in rural areas versus the urban areas where they can easily make it to college physically” can benefit from the “global” nature of online learning.
This theme suggests that increased opportunities for online learning have the potential to increase educational access for certain students. This is particularly timely and relevant, as the COVID-19 pandemic shifted higher education’s focus to remote and online teaching. It is important for online courses to be designed in a way that allows these diverse students to learn effectively; for example, through use of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles (Rose, 2000). Pedagogical support professionals such as Instructional Designers are ideal for contributing in these efforts, as instructors need support and development in order to do their best teaching. Institutions with limited resources might consider ways that they can prioritize faculty support, particularly in areas related to UDL; for example, graduate students (possibly those in the social sciences (Dello Stritto & Thomas, 2021)) may benefit from assistantships focused on teaching and learning focused efforts.
Time Flexibility Will Increase Access
Instructors also highlighted the “flexibility” and “convenience” of online courses, and suggested that this feature of online learning can be beneficial for a wide variety of students, providing “options for students whether they’re on campus or not.” For example, one participant said that online learning can “divide up education and make it available for people… squeeze it into some of the margins of their lives.” Additional instructors highlighted different student groups who may be unable to make the time and/or financial commitment for full-time college coursework on campus, such as single parents and older students who are employed full time. This result suggests that new online instructors should be trained in areas related to working with busy students; for example, instructors should provide advance notice to students, as they juggle multiple responsibilities (Ko & Rossen, 2017). Instructors can also work with students graciously (e.g. providing multiple tries on exams, offering deadline forgiveness), as online students may perform more optimally under less rigid expectations. In general, it is important for online instructors to be aware of the struggles of online students, as online students may differ demographically from traditional in-person students.
Financial Accessibility in Online Education
While some instructors suggested that online learning can also increase financial access to education, others suggested that despite the potential for accessibility in online learning, financial access may still be a barrier. For example, one participant said,
“I see online teaching as the antidote to urban and rural inequities… an antidote to age-ism… an antidote to gender… Single moms can now go to school and experience their social mobility… But there are some inequities. There is still an issue of financial access, but before [online learning] the financial burdens would be higher.”
Financial accessibility is an issue for higher education in general, as running quality online programs require resources. Most instructors lack the ability to change the cost of the courses that they teach. However, it is useful for instructors to consider their students’ financial situations. For example, online instructors can prioritize providing open educational resources, and can ask their students what kinds of technology (e.g. student devices such as laptops) they have access to (Dello Stritto & Linder, 2018). This awareness can help instructors work with students who may struggle academically due to financial reasons.
Horizon Report Theme: Modularized and Disaggregated Degrees
Modularized and Disaggregated Degrees was a “Key Theme” in the 2019 issue of the Horizon Report. Considering that many of these instructors were interviewed during that same year (2019), it may not be surprising that this was one of the most commonly discussed Horizon Report theme (27.3%, n=9). This trend describes the growth of online learning outside of formal education or degree programs, and includes alternative training and credentials offered in online formats, such as massive open online courses (MOOCs), badges, and microcredentials. This theme relates to another theme, “online learning will increase access and accessibility,” as these modularized and disaggregated degree programs offered online can allow adult learners to receive the education they need to progress in their careers without needing to spend more time and/or resources enrolling in longer degree programs.
MOOCs in particular were mentioned by many of these instructors as an accessible means to education outside of traditional degree programs. For example, one participant said, “I think there's a big push for MOOCs…I appreciate it because…I'm a sociology person. I appreciate free, level the playing field. Give people an opportunity.” These instructors mentioned that MOOCs had recently grown in popularity and expected similar open educational resources to grow in popularity in the future.
Another core component of this theme centered on “lifelong learning.” Instructors predicted that more adults would use online education to access specific content needed in order to progress, and that less “linear” options for higher education would become more common culturally. For example:
“I think you should be able to do it whenever you want from wherever you want, trying to continue your life and do these education hacks. You're just grabbing some education and you need that to do this next task and it's.. not linear… also more affordable that way where people are making the money and doing it as they go.”
It is important for online educators be made aware of the different kinds of courses (e.g. MOOCs compared to asynchronous online courses) and certification programs that could be offered to students. As online education and higher education continue to evolve, instructors will need systems for determining students’ levels of expertise, as well as goals and objectives for taking the course, at the beginning of each term or semester. Since instructors could theoretically be teaching students enrolled in a variety of types of degree programs, technology could be a less labor intensive way to help instructors track student goals and progress.
Horizon Report Theme: Collaborative Learning
Eighteen percent of instructors (n = 6) also discussed “Collaborative Learning,” which was included as a “Key Theme” in the 2017 Horizon Report and was also a key theme voiced by the instructors in Shearer et al.’s (2020) study. This theme describes increased amount of student-to-student collaboration and group collaboration in higher education. While some of the instructors simply described the importance of collaboration without specifically applying it to online education, others discussed how technologies can facilitate online collaborative efforts (e.g. Zoom), and some emphasized cross-cultural collaboration in the online classroom. For example, one participant said, that with online learning, “you can learn from other people all over the world,” suggesting that diverse online courses that encourage collaboration may provide rich experiences for future online learners.
This suggests that while diversity training is a growing trend in higher education (Mercer-Mapstone & Bovill, 2020), diversity training may be especially important for online educators. Instructors should be encouraged to embrace diversity in their classrooms, and to show that they celebrate diversity through their language and teaching facilitation. For example, instructors should consider how the layout of their online course welcomes students from diverse backgrounds. Images used in online courses, as well as language, should communicate to students that diverse perspectives are welcome and encouraged. Instructors should be trained to thank students for sharing their diverse views and perspectives, as this positive feedback can encourage future sharing and growth for all students. Additionally, instructors need support in how to respond to ideas shared in the classroom that threaten opportunities for students to share diverse experiences (Kafka, 2021), as it is the instructor’s job to manage online discussions in the classroom. Future work should consider how instructors can advocate for diversity in the online environment.
Will Online Learning Replace Brick and Mortar Institutions? Rethinking How Institutions Work
Eleven instructors (33.3%) discussed the possibility that online learning may grow so much that it could eventually become the primary modality used in higher education, replacing face-to-face learning. One participant said, “…it almost seems like someday we're not going to have our regular institutions…looking at the trends in online course enrollment compared to traditional classroom.” Other instructors suggested that face-to-face learning may not be needed in the future. For example, one instructor said, “If you have a virtual reality, you're able to immerse yourself with your classmates in a virtual classroom… I can see not the need for a brick and mortar a university.”
However, more (13 instructors total; 39.4%) instructors suggested that they didn’t think face-to-face learning should be eliminated in the future, due to the “college experience,” “culture,” and “climate” offered at brick-and-mortar institutions. One participant said, “I think it [taking only online courses] loses the intellectual growth that comes along with being in university setting, or a college setting. There's a lot more to it than just learning facts and figures. It's about maturing and interacting and living within a community of scholars.” Along these lines, some instructors stated that they thought online education could be a good fit for older students, or non-degree seeking students, but that fully online education would be “a horrible option for 18- and 19-year-olds and 20-year-olds.” Overall, most instructors hoped that online education could provide more options for students, but did not want online education to replace brick-and-mortar institutions.
While attending a brick-and-mortar institution may provide valuable opportunities for many students, it is important to consider ways that instructors, and institutions as a whole, can foster community for online students. Frameworks such as the Community of Inquiry (CoI) (Garrison, et al., 1999) can help instructors create a community of practice in the classroom. While the instructors in this study thought that face-to-face environments were ideal for this kind of community, future conversation about cultivating a broader community for online students can be further explored. Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as learning how to include students in campus clubs, could inform future efforts to include online students in campus culture. Considering that online students represent diverse identities, including online students in campus communities can contribute to these environments in a valuable way.
Horizon Report Theme: Rethinking How Institutions Work
Twenty-one percent (n = 7) of instructors also discussed “Rethinking How Institutions Work,” which was included as a “Key Theme” in three of the five issues of the Horizon Report (2015 - 2019). This theme describes the growth of institutions and new ways these institutions could fulfill their mission. In general, instructors discussed where online learning fits (or could fit) in the context of institutions, and how online learning, in addition to other forms of learning, can provide students more options to succeed. For example, one participant said:
“The question will be, how do we grow [online] classes in a way that maximizes… the effectiveness for both? Because I can see utility in having hybrid courses. I can see the utility in having solely [online] courses. I can also see the utility of just having on-campus classes. And I can see how those could integrate over time to more effectively support the mission of the university and to help students get their career goals and opportunities.”
Other instructors provided examples of how online learning facilitates the “rethinking” process. One participant discussed how online learning can affect college coursework offered for high school students, and another discussed how graduate students’ experiences teaching online have impacted hiring practices for faculty in their department. Overall, instructors suggested that online learning can be a critical component of the “rethinking” process institutions are expected to do as they aim to meet future learners’ needs.
While the long-term instructors in this study discussed the possibility of online education replacing the brick-and-mortar intuitions, it is important to change this perspective moving forward. Rather than asking if online education is going to replace “traditional” education, institutions need to think through how different modalities can meet student needs. Institutions can also communicate with students about the tradeoffs associated with different educational modalities, so that students can choose courses that are the best fit for their lives.
Technology Development Will Increase
Many of the instructors in the sample (39.4%, n = 13) also discussed the relationship between future online education and technology development. Some mentioned that technology development in the past has already “made it easier to teach online,” and cited technologies such as Zoom that ease communication in online environments. These instructors predicted that technology development will continue to impact online teaching and learning. For example, one participant said, “… technology is going to improve and there are tools that I can't even imagine, which would increase students' success online.” Some specific technologies that these instructors cited as potentially impacting online learning in the future included virtual reality, increased capabilities of cell phones, and online systems that can better adapt to individual learners’ needs.
Most of the instructors who were optimistic about technology development cited technologies that could improve online teaching and communication; however, some instructors were pessimistic about technology replacing other lifestyle elements, such as face-to-face communication.
Horizon Report Theme: Redesigning Learning Spaces
Redesigning Learning Spaces was included as a “Key Theme” in all five issues of the Horizon Report (2015 - 2019) and was also one of the most commonly discussed by the long-term instructors (27.3%, n = 9). This trend describes the growth of designing learning spaces that facilitate active learning and collaboration. While the Horizon Report has mostly described the theme in the context of face-to-face courses, the 2019 Horizon Report stated that the theme can be applied to virtual environments as well. For example, some instructors mentioned virtual reality (VR) and other technologies that may change online learning spaces in the future. One participant said, “I think there are going to be more ways in which the online experience will be using…virtual reality so that people might even feel like they're in the same space at some point in time…It could go lots of different directions.” These instructors predicted that virtual learning spaces will become more “dynamic” and “multidimensional” in the future as new technology develops.
Additionally, some instructors mentioned the online platforms themselves, and suggested that they could be designed in a way to more specifically meet learner needs. For example:
“I think that our online systems are going to become better at adapting to…individuals and how it is that they go about learning. Not learning styles, I'm talking about what they pursue and how they put the information together and what they do with it. I believe that we're going to get better at creating individualized education.”
Essentially, instructors predicted that technology development could enhance online learning spaces in the future, through tools that facilitate communication and collaboration, as well as tools that adapt to learners’ individual behaviors. This theme mirrors Shearer et al. (2020) findings, in which instructors suggested an ideal future would include an eclectic pedagogical approach that would include personalized and adaptive learning. Thus, trainings for faculty should include pedagogical training paired with technology training, as it may be difficult for faculty to keep up with new technologies. Institutions can vet and recommend certain technologies for instructor use. This may help mitigate the challenges of preparing faculty to learn and adopt new technologies in their courses.
While this study sheds light on long-term faculty’s perceptions of the future of online education, it is important to note that many perspectives were not included in the current study. Future work should consider perspectives from faculty with diverse experiences and from diverse institution types. Additional work can consider how the COVID-19 pandemic may have shaped faculty perceptions, as the data were collected prior to COVID-19.
This study provides a unique perspective on what a group of long-term online instructors foresee in the future of online education. Overall, instructors’ ideas of the future aligned with some themes in the broader field of higher education, such as diversity, opportunity, and access. Instructors acknowledged that online learning will continue to grow and they promoted online learning as a way to increase access and accessibility. They further encouraged institutions in higher education to continually rethink and re-envision technology and online pedagogy.
The findings from these long-term instructors provide a context by which we can consider the needs of all online instructors in the near future, irrespective of where they are in their careers. As more and more instructors transition into the online modality, it is important that we prepare them to be successful. Instructors need to be knowledgeable not only in their content area, but in pedagogy and in working with online students as well. Trainings for instructors in higher education should include pedagogy that can be applied across modalities, technology skills to enhance the course and help individual students, and information about how to work with diverse student groups around the globe.
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