Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 68: NEA Gives Thumbs Up to Distance Education

The National Education Association (NEA) this week released a study showing positive support among NEA-member faculty for distance education. The study polled more than 400 plus instructors who had taught distance-learning courses and 130 who had not in an effort to assess distance learning’s strengths and weaknesses. Currently, one in 10 higher-education NEA members teaches a distance-learning course.

Among the study’s findings:

* Three-fourths (76 percent) of distance-learning faculty rate the technical support, library, and laboratory facilities for their course as excellent or good.
* Among distance-learning faculty, 72 percent hold positive feelings about the new technology, compared to only 14 percent who hold negative feelings. Traditional faculty are less positive, with 51 percent holding positive feelings toward distance-learning courses, compared to 22 percent who hold negative feelings. Faculty who teach web-based courses have more positive opinions about distance-learning courses than do faculty who teach traditional courses.
* Despite their positive outlook, faculty members think that the following negative outcomes are “very likely” to occur as a result of distance learning: 1) Faculty will do more work for the same amount of pay and 2) Faculty will not be fairly compensated for their intellectual property. An outcome that is “unlikely” to occur as result, said faculty, is that the quality of education will decline. Faculty said that “fewer jobs,” “decline in the quality of faculty,” and “less candidness in the classroom” were “not likely to occur” as a result of more distance education.
* Faculty teaching web-based courses give their distance-learning courses a better rating than their traditional courses on meeting five goals: giving students access to information, providing students with high quality course material, helping students master the subject matter, assessing the educational effectiveness of the courses, addressing the variety of student learning styles.
* Faculty teaching web-based courses give their distance-learning courses the same rating as their traditional courses on improving students’ quantitative skills and developing student interactivity, but a lower rating than traditional courses on strengthening students’ group problem-solving skills, improving verbal skills, and helping students deliver better oral presentations.

The study yielded other findings unrelated to faculty assessment of distance learning, such as the typical size of a distance-learning class, the typical profile of professors who teach web-based courses, and the typical profile of a distance-learning student. It explored common myths about distance education – for example, whether part-time distance-education faculty will replace more experienced, tenured faculty.

“Distance learning faculty who have been at their institution for less than 10 years are only somewhat more likely to be teaching Web-based distance learning (52 percent) than distance learning faculty who have been at their institution 25 years or more (42 percent),” according to the study.

Also, distance-learning instructors reported just as many students over the age of 25 years as under, dispelling the myth that distance learning is only for older students. For more on the study, contact NEA Communications at 202-822-7200 or www.nea.org.

CLARIFICATION: The colleges highlighted in last week’s Clarion Call for their recognition by the John Templeton Foundation as colleges that encourage character development appeared in the Foundation’s 1999 guidebook. The Foundation has yet to release its next guide.