Updated: Oct. 16, 2017 at 6:30 p.m.
The quality of some of the University’s online and off-campus programs may be suffering because of a lack of University-wide standards and the large number of adjunct and part-time faculty teaching those courses, according to a Faculty Senate report released Friday.
A faculty task force, in an extensive report presented to the Faculty Senate, found that oversight of online and off-campus programs – those taught at locations other than the University’s three campuses – was spotty and varied across schools. Faculty said that as online learning becomes a larger part of the University’s educational blueprint, there are issues with how the courses are being monitored and how they are impacting face-to-face programs that haven’t been addressed.
The task force found that courses approved for in-person instruction could be moved online without review and that online courses were duplicating on-campus versions of courses, creating a “cannibalizing” effect. The review found that in some cases doctoral candidates were teaching online courses to master’s degree students.
Among the task force’s 15 recommendations were to use a similar process to develop, approve, implement and monitor online courses that is already in place for face-to-face courses and to require that in-person courses be re-reviewed before they are moved online to assess whether the course can effectively be taught in that medium.
Kurt Darr, the chairman of the task force and professor emeritus of hospital administration, said the eight-member committee, commissioned in April 2016, examined the quality of education and oversight systems across all online and off-campus programs. He said the findings indicate that some schools should change the way these programs are organized.
“There’s no organized approach to the online education experience, not in all schools,” he said in an interview.
It was not clear how closely faculty reviewed and monitored online courses in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, the task force concluded.
Members of the Faculty Senate did not introduce a resolution based on the report’s findings Friday, but faculty at the meeting said the Senate may eventually take action on the report.
Provost Forrest Maltzman said he would review the recommendations and present a report about the University’s progress to the educational policy committee in January.
Maltzman defended the University’s online courses, saying they make programs more accessible to working professionals and non-traditional students. He said online courses were not “cannibalizing” on-campus programs because some students opt to take online courses for that type of learning environment.
“I think as someone who is passionately committed to accessibility in higher education, it changes people’s lives,” Maltzman said.
Former Provost Steven Lerman, who left in 2015, brought in more than 100 online programs and made expanding online programming a part of the strategic plan. Officials have used online learning to grow enrollment – and tuition revenue – while also staying under strict on-campus enrollment caps implemented as part of an agreement with the District.
Across all degree programs, there were 4,796 students enrolled in online programs last spring, according to the report.
Last year, officials created an online course for faculty designed to teach them how to conduct classes in an online setting.
Maltzman said he wasn’t concerned about the number of adjuncts teaching online and off-campus courses because that doesn’t necessarily mean the educational quality of the course suffers and many adjuncts bring valuable outside experience to their teaching.
Most online courses are part of master’s degree programs, which often have a large number of adjunct professors, whether they are taught face-to-face or online, he said.
“There’s lots of different ways that courses can vary,” he said. “I want all of our classes to be state of the art.”
There were 3,639 students in master’s degree online programs in February, compared to 381 undergraduate students and 271 doctorate degree students.
Phil Wirtz, a professor of decision sciences and chair of the Senate’s educational policy committee, said he was concerned about the differences between online and on-campus degree programs, like how courses can be offered online with or without review. He said the committee needs more information to make policy suggestions, but they could introduce a resolution in the coming months.
“This is just the beginning of the story,” he said at the meeting. “There are a considerable amount of issues that remain unaddressed in the online space.”
The task force was commissioned last year after four master’s degree students sued the University, claiming their instruction in an online degree in security and safety leadership failed to live up to what the College of Professional Studies had guaranteed.
Despite the issues identified in the report, GW maintains several highly ranked online programs. This year, GW ranked No. 29 in the nation in online Masters of Business Administration programs and No. 16 in online education programs, according to U.S. News.
Professors at the meeting said they had concerns about the lack of data available to the members of the task force. Committee members couldn’t find some programs’ enrollment information or even if certain programs existed, according to the document.
Don Parsons, a professor of economics and member of the Faculty Senate, said the task force’s lack of data was worrying and the faculty should see more transparency in the online programs.
“We really don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “It troubles me, and there is a call for much more data collection.”
The members of the task force also suggested the University have more full-time tenured professors teach and approve online courses. The report noted a doctoral program in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences had two full-time advisors and 20 part-time advisors for 220 students.
Corrine Hyde, an associate professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California, said having part-time faculty overseeing online programs is problematic because they often have less time to focus on building the curriculum than full-time faculty.
“They are often overworked and underpaid,” she said. “You don’t get the same time investment.”
Hyde said if online classes aren’t going through the same review process as on campus classes it would be “massively concerning.”
“You have to make changes,” she said. “You can’t plop a class into existence and expect everything to go right.”
Joseph Cavanaugh, a professor of economics at Wright State University, said accessibility is a benefit for online education and is the direction in which most universities are headed. Students might miss out on some interpersonal interaction, he said, but faculty shouldn’t automatically consider online programs to be of lesser quality.
“It’s neither the best thing in the world nor the worst thing in the world,” he said. “It’s just a trade off.”
This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Maltzman said he would present a report about the University’s progress to the Faculty Senate in January. He will present a report to the educational policy committee. We regret this error.