What Motivates Higher Education Faculty to Teach Online?

What Motivates Higher Education Faculty to Teach Online?

What motivates higher education faculty members to teach online courses? This has been an interest of mine for a number of years, and is particularly salient given my own institution’s decision to launch a fully online Masters in Strategic Leadership. In fact, this topic interested me so much that I decided to make it the basis for my dissertation, which I recently completed as part of my doctor of education degree from Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies.

There’s no way I could boil down the results from a 30,000 word dissertation into a 600 word blog post, is there? Let’s find out.

Unsurprisingly, a number of scholarly researchers have investigated this topic. Their interest is, at least in part, due to the fact that so many higher education institutions are launching new or expanding existing online degree programs—programs that require instructors to teach. Research has so far suggested a number of reasons why instructors would want to teach online. Some suggest that the flexibility of online education appeals to faculty members. (One envisions teachers running a course while lounging on a beach sipping a cocktail.) Others point to money. (Are all college professors mercenaries at heart?) Still others propose that online education offers educators the opportunity to teach students in distant places—students they otherwise could never hope to reach. So which of these is the real reason faculty teach online? Is it a combination of these factors? Or is it something else entirely?

In an attempt to answer this question, I surveyed the faculty at St. Bonaventure University, where I’ve been executive director for Information Technology for the past eight years. The survey attempted to measure the extent to which a number of potential motivators influenced each faculty member’s willingness to teach an online course. Through a series of pleading emails, tokens of appreciation and threats to remotely wipe their computers (it’s good to be the head of IT), I obtained enough data to reach a set of conclusions.

Here are some of the 10 potential motivators I examined: flexibility; incentives; the perception of the workload associated with online education; the degrees of institutional and peer support for online education; a faculty member’s perception of online education, technology experiences and belief that online education allows him or her to grow professionally.

So which mattered most? It turns out that it was the extent to which a faculty member believes online education will allow him to reach new or different students.

Now is a good time for an important disclaimer. What I was able to determine, through various statistical wizardry, is that a relationship exists between a faculty member’s willingness to teach online and his desire to use online education to reach new students. In other words, my results indicate a correlation. Experimentation would need to be done to determine if the relationship is causal.

Is that it? Are faculty members only motivated to teach online by their innate desire to share their wisdom with new and different populations of students? Nope. I found several other reasons as well. The flexibility offered by teaching online was also found to be a positive motivator (hurray for beaches, laptops and cocktails!). Additionally, a faculty member’s opinion of online education, as well as his or her belief that online education allows for  professional growth, were motivators. None of the other aforementioned potential reasons, including incentives (I guess faculty members aren’t mercenaries after all…), were found to be positively related to willingness to teach online.

More broadly, I was able to categorize broad groupings of extrinsic motivators (flexibility, incentives) and intrinsic motivators (student access, professional growth). Guess what? The intrinsic group was much more strongly related to faculty member willingness to teach online than was the extrinsic group.

So, what does this all mean? Well, I’ve already exceeded my 600 word blog limit, so stay tuned for that answer in my next post.

Watch Michael Hoffman’s speech accepting the Dean’s Medal for Outstanding Doctoral Work.

About Michael Hoffman

Dr. Michael Hoffman is the executive director for Information Technology at St. Bonaventure University, and has also taught courses in the School of Business at St. Bonaventure on business information systems and internet marketing. In 2013, he received the Dean's Medal for Outstanding Doctoral Work, the highest honor awarded by the Northeastern University College Professional Studies to a doctoral student.

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