What Do Online MBA Professors Have to Say About Online Teaching




Shijuan Liu
Research Fellow- Kelley Direct Programs
 Indiana University
Bloomington, IN
shijliu@indiana.edu

Kyong-Jee Kim, Ph.D.,
Research Professor - School of Medicine
Sungkyunkwan University
Seoul, Korea
kjkim@med.skku.ac.kr

Curtis J. Bonk, Ph.D.,
 Professor - Department of Instructional Systems Technology
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN
cjbonk@indiana.edu

Richard Magjuka, Ph.D.,
Chair of Kelley Direct Programs
 Indiana University
Bloomington, IN
rmagjuka@iupui.edu

 

 

Abstract

Online MBA programs have grown exponentially in recent years. Yet, the prevailing literature indicates that research on online MBA education remains extremely limited. This article summarizes 28 instructor interviews from those teaching online courses in an online MBA program at a Midwestern public university. Instructors were interviewed regarding their perceptions of the benefits and barriers of teaching online, as well as their suggestions for improvement of the online courses and the overall MBA program. The results are expected to help better understand issues related to online teaching and learning, and provide implications for designing and delivering online MBA courses.

Introduction

Online MBA programs, which allow students to partake in graduate management education while maintaining their full-time jobs and staying with their families, are gaining increasingly interest across the globe, and are especially attractive to mid-career professionals (Arbaugh, 2000a; 2000b; Kathawals, Abdou, & Elmuti, 2002; Larsen, 1999). The population of online MBA students in the United States alone is estimated to have grown from about 5,000 in 2000 to more than 100,000 in 2003 (Braun, 2003). According to Phillips (1998), education delivered via the Internet is projected to be a primary delivery vehicle for MBA programs in the future. However, the literature in this area indicates that research on online education, in particular that conducted on online MBA programs, is still extremely limited (Arbaugh, 2005; Parnell & Carraher, 2003). To keep pace with the exponential growth of online MBA programs, there is a pressing need to conduct strategic research in this area.

This paper presents the results of a recent study we conducted at an accredited online MBA program in a large Midwestern university. Initiated in 1999, this program has grown exponentially during the past few years. Student enrollment increased from 14 in 1999 to nearly 1,000 in 2007. During this same time period, the number of program staff members increased from just 3 in 1999 to over 20 in 2007. Importantly, to maintain course and program quality standards, instructors were recruited from the full-time faculty of the residential programs of the business school where the program was hosted.

Three research questions guided this study:

  1. What are the benefits that the online MBA professors perceive in teaching online MBA courses?
  2. What are the barriers that these professors perceive in teaching online MBA courses?
  3. What suggestions do they have for improving the online MBA courses and/or programs?

The results of this study are expected to help better understand issues related to teaching and learning in online MBA courses and to provide implications for designing and delivering online MBA and professional education courses. The present study was a part of a larger research project in which online MBA students’ perceptions of the benefits, barriers, and suggestions regarding online learning were also studied. Our research findings related to student perceptions concerning this program are published elsewhere (i.e., Kim, Liu, & Bonk, 2005).

Literature Review

The literature in the field of online teaching and learning indicates that designing and developing of online programs involves many factors. Interaction has been highlighted as one of the keys to the success of Internet-based distance education (Picciano, 2002). Some researchers suggest that online learning can involve those who might not normally participate in a traditional classroom (Mills & Salloway, 2001). Other studies in this area indicate that online learning allows for higher levels of interaction than the large lecture classes typical of business schools (Hay, Peltier, & Drago, 2004).

In evaluating an online program, Moskal and Dziuban (2001) surveyed 48 instructors teaching online regarding their motivations for teaching online courses. The key motivators that they uncovered included: (1) increased interaction with students (29%), (2) more teaching flexibility (27%), (3) the teaching experience helped them improve their teaching by forcing them to rethink the way they delivered instruction and how they assessed their students (18%), and (4) the changed role of the instructor from “sage on the stage to coach or facilitator (15%). Additionally, Smith (2001) identified three benefits for faculty teaching online; namely: (1) enhanced ability to use technology while staying current in one’s field, (2) excitement of doing something new, and (3) greater employment security because of expanding enrollments (p. 43). In reflecting his online teaching experience, Berge (1999) also stated that one of the most striking benefits of online education, from an instructor’s perspective, was more personal dialogue with students.

Compared to face-to-face environments, courses delivered entirely online rely on more types of technology tools and systems (Liu, 2005). Not surprisingly, previous studies indicate that technology has been perceived as one of the major challenges for online teaching and learning. For instance, Smith (2001) summarized six problems concerning online teaching. Of these problems, two of them were related to technology issues; namely, time spent learning to use new technologies and frustration with the malfunctioning of technology. Perreault, Waldman, Alexander, and Zhao (2002) surveyed 81 business professors who taught online courses at 61 U.S. Business schools, examining participants’ perceptions related to the important problems in the development and delivery of distance-learning courses. Four key problems that they identified involved technology, including: (1) reliability of technology, (2) technology support provided by the institution, (3) student technology competence, and (4) teacher technology competence.

Perceptions of extensive time required or heavy workload is another key barrier to online teaching cited in the literature (e.g., Kathawala et al., 2002; Lick, 2002). May and Short (2003) further detailed examples for why teaching online courses takes instructors more time and energy. Their list included such factors as the need to foster student motivation to learn online, the keyboarding time required to engage students appropriately, and the additional course maintenance requirements. However, when time is segmented or divided between tasks (e.g., planning the course, developing content, preparing lessons, presenting content, evaluating outcomes), it becomes quite evident that the dominant roles of the instructor tend to shift from the delivery of content to the planning and development of content when teaching online (Bennett & Lockyer, 2004; Zuckweiler, Schniederjans, & Ball, 2004). If much of the content already exists for the online course, the time differences are minimized or perhaps even reversed. In the present study, we sought to verify and extend many of these previous findings related to the benefits, barriers, and suggestions for online MBA programs.

Method

Instructor interviews were employed as the major data collection method in this study. Given that the purpose of interviewing is to understand “the world from the subjects’ points of view,” and to unfold the meaning of their experiences (Kvale, 1996, p. 1), these interviews were meant to provide a window on what was working in this online MBA program and what needed further refinement and change. Twenty-eight professors teaching in the online program were interviewed face-to-face. The names and contact information of the interviewees were provided by the online program administrators. Except for two professors who co-taught one course and were interviewed together, the other participants were interviewed individually. Twenty-seven semi-structured interviews were conducted from May to August, 2004, each lasting from 30 to 60 minutes.

In addition to the authors of this paper, two additional researchers participated in the data collection. Before conducting the interviews, the research team met several times to discuss the interview protocol so as to ensure the quality and consistency of the interviews. In addition, each interview was conducted by at least two researchers in order to “ensure credibility and trustworthiness of the interview responses” (Song, Singleton, Hill, & Koh, 2004, p. 64). All the interviews were audio-taped and summarized right after each interview session by the interviewers. The tapes were then transcribed by a local professional company. We then analyzed the transcripts for key themes or patterns in faculty members' perceptions of online teaching. The lead investigator analyzed the transcripts and another investigator reviewed the results of these analyses to verify the accuracy and enhance the reliability.

Results

Several themes emerged from our analyses of the interview transcripts. The findings were organized by the aforementioned three research questions.

I. Benefits of Teaching Online

1. Working with “the Group of Students”

Teaching online provides faculty members with opportunities to teach certain groups of students whom they might not be able to reach in residential classes. A majority of the interviewed professors appeared to think highly of the online MBA students, and viewed working with them as one of the major benefits they received from teaching online. As one interviewee noted, “I just really enjoyed the group of students.” A few of the commonly encountered characteristics of the online MBA students are presented below.

a. Self-motivated. Many interviewees mentioned that the online MBA students were highly engaged and self-motivated in the learning process. As one professor argued, “MBA students are not just in the courses to complete the course. They are really in here because they want to learn a new set of materials.” This high drive exhibited by the online MBA students fueled the instructors as well. Put in another interviewee’s words, “their level of motivation helped keep my level of motivation high. It’s much harder, you know, when you’re staring at a class or dealing with a class, (wherein) you can’t get a response.” Many interviewees suggested that this characteristic of online MBA students, at least within this particular program, made online teaching “enjoyable” and “pleasurable.”

b. From diverse backgrounds and experiences. Some interviewees claimed that the students’ diverse backgrounds made online teaching more interesting. As one faculty explained, “they are from vastly different backgrounds and areas of the world, and they bring a lot to hear. They can make some very nice comments and it’s interesting reading their papers.”

c. More directly connected to the real world. Some faculty members noted that online MBA students tended to put what they learned from classes into practice more directly compared to residential students. This characteristic helped to make online teaching enjoyable. As one faculty member noted:

[what I enjoy most is] more real application of materials. People [i.e., students] would say “Hey, I saw this phenomenon in my last job and really want to share it”... I had a couple of students that said “this is exactly what I’m going through and this is really helpful.” So they’re really about how [they are] going to use this and they shared the stories of application opportunities.

2. Flexibility in Teaching

Temporal and geographical flexibility is among one of the benefits frequently mentioned in the literature on online teaching and learning (e.g., Arbaugh, 2000a). Not surprisingly, it was also noted by some faculty interviewees of this study. For instance, one faculty member mentioned that “I really like not being tied to the teaching schedule….So I can teach anywhere I have a computer.”

3. Helping Students Learn More and Getting to Know Them Better

Some interviewees reported that they felt online students learned more knowledge than the average residential students, and this was the most enjoyable part for them. Moreover, some interviewees believed that teaching online helped them get to know students better than in face-to-face settings. One faculty interviewee explained why he thought that way:

In an online course it’s harder for students to avoid the professor. And here is my example. You [a student] could take my class in the business school here and you could come every week or twice a week, never ask a question or talk to me after class. … So there are many students who sit in my classroom whom I do not get any relationship with. With the [online program] stuff, they [the students] have to talk to me every week. Whenever people ask ‘is not online stuff kind of bad or you don’t really see your students?’ and I say “well, you know it’s true I don’t see the students but I interact with them a lot and I get to know them better.

4. Using Different Skills Needed for Teaching Online

During the interviews, quite a few faculty members mentioned that teaching online asked for different skills, and they enjoyed this intellectual challenge. For instance, one instructor summarized his online teaching experience as follows:

I find that [in the online MBA program] I [am] judged more purely according to content, structure, how quickly I gave feedback, [and] how detailed the feedback is. And I think that what is valued in the learning environment is by the students having the instructor who is just very conscientious, very organized, [and] good in communication; a somewhat different set of skills than the regular classroom.

II. Barriers to Teaching Online

1. Impersonal Nature of the Online Environments

Several faculty members viewed the impersonal nature of online environments as a barrier to effective online teaching and learning. To some faculty members, the most enjoyable part of residential teaching is when “sometimes all of a sudden in the middle of a class a student’s face just kind of lights up… they are starting to understand something.” Not being able to see this was what some instructors missed most in an online environment. As one interviewee noted, “the most difficult part about teaching online is simply that we’re social people and we are used to having that.”

2. Amount of Time and Heavy Workload Required for Online Teaching

There is a general impression that online teaching and learning takes more time than traditional instruction (Zuckweiler et al., 2004). Unfortunately, time is of limited supply with so many duties tugging at faculty members in higher education; especially those in MBA programs who have worldwide reputations. Not surprisingly, a number of the participants in this study mentioned the time barrier as an issue for them. A couple of faculty members, in fact, frankly stated that, “it’s just a lot of work” and “it takes more time to teach an online course.” Additionally, one faculty member showed a specific concern about striking a balance between teaching quality and time spent on one’s online classes. According to him, “the big challenge is how I can find a way to keep the quality up and so it works for more students and it does not kill me.”

3. ISP Cost

The Internet Service Provider (ISP) cost is another barrier identified from the faculty interviewees, especially for those who often travel around the world or who work from home. For instance, one online instructor stated that “Sometimes when I am away, I don’t get broadband. I was teaching in Cancun, Mexico, on a dial-up, it was really slow. … I was in bunch of places and sometimes it’s painful and expensive. …Being on the Internet of a hotel is highway robbery. I spent $250 on a weekend, just paying for the connect charge. It burned me up.”

4. Some Unpleasant Students

While the interviewees generally agreed that the online MBA students were of extremely high quality and enjoyable to work with, a couple of faculty members mentioned that there was a small percent of students whose attitudes and behaviors were negative when compared to students in face-to-face classes. As one faculty said, “The thing that I don’t like most is the few students that you get who are really mad when they feel like they’ve been trounced. They seem to go above and beyond what is diplomatic at times.” Likewise, another interviewee mentioned, “I think students tend to be more that way online.… I think they feel they can say things in an email or a discussion that they wouldn’t necessarily say the same way to someone face-to-face.”

III. Suggestions for Improvement

1. Improving Online Technology

The suggestions that the vast majority of the interviewed faculty provided were related to the specific technology issues. Such technology suggestions included making the learning environment better support interaction, adding audio messages and videoconferencing capabilities, and improving the online testing tools, grade book, and chat tools. For instance, one online instructor mentioned that he felt extremely frustrated when he conducted online chatting. He would have liked to have tools that would allow him to type a message as long as he wanted and to track what each student said more conveniently. Another instructor indicated that he would prefer students to be able to take tests and get their grades without seeing the answers so that they could repeat the tests several times if they wanted.

It is interesting to note that when the interviewees offered the above suggestions, many of them mentioned that these issues were “minor,” “trivial,” or “narrow.” And some of them emphasized that they had not discussed these with the technical support staff; therefore, they were not sure whether the current technology tools they used actually had the functions and they had not yet had time to ask about this.

2. Enhancing Faculty Support

In addition to specific functions that the interviewees wanted in the online tools and technologies, the interviewees provided several key suggestions related to the instructional and technical support they would like to have. Suggestions in this regard included providing some nice user-friendly software packages or more templates to help instructors design online courses, making the course and system resources available to faculty even when they were not teaching, and keeping in touch with them year around with training, announcements, and resources. A few of these instructors also requested providing cutting-edge technology but only if it was easy to understand, readily available, and easy to use.

3. Fostering a Learning Community for Online Instructors

Several interviewees indicated their interest in sharing experiences with each other. As one faculty member stated, “we [are] all out there doing our own thing, but it would be nice to know what everybody else was doing.” Some interviewees further suggested specific ways for how to do the sharing. For instance, one online instructor suggested having a central location where all of those who were teaching or considering teaching in this program would be able to observe what others were doing in their courses.

Additionally, quite a few interviewees commented in a highly positive way on the training opportunities and activities (e.g., brown bag lunches) that the program arranged for the online instructors. At the same time, they would have liked additional opportunities to discuss online teaching with colleagues in the program.

Finally, a couple of interviewees suggested asking online instructors who taught well to do some short presentations. Noticeably, one interviewed faculty member mentioned that while he benefited from attending a presentation given by a more experienced colleague, he was concerned that this strategy put the administrators in a difficult situation in that they had to identify which instructors, in fact, did a better job teaching online first.

Discussions and Implications

The major findings of the study are summarized in the table below.

Online MBA Professors’ Perceptions of Online Learning

Benefits
Challenges
Suggestions
  • Working with “the group of students”
  • Flexibility in teaching
  • Helping students learn more and getting to know them better
  • Using different teaching skills
  • Impersonal nature of the online environments
  • Perceived amount of time and heavy workload required for online teaching
  • ISP cost
  • Some unpleasant students
  • Improving online technology
  • Enhancing faculty support
  • Fostering a learning community for online instructors

As with previous research in this field, this particular study indicated that professors teaching at this program perceived flexibility as a major benefit of teaching online. Online environments also were perceived to have potential in providing more interactions between faculty and students. These two findings coincide with the results of our parallel study on student perceptions of online learning in this program (i.e., Kim, Liu, & Bonk, 2005). Such benefits need to be considered in the design and development of online courses so as to realize the full potential of the online environments.

Online teaching requires extensive task structuring and organizational skills as well as other support skills and competencies. While using different teaching skills in online environments was perceived as a benefit in this study, it was regarded as a barrier by online instructors in other studies (e.g., Smith, 2001). As Lick (2002) discovered, the instructors of this program found that “if you taught in the classroom for 20 years, you have to reinvent yourself.” Perhaps the people we interviewed were more innovative and risk taking than the norm. Still, to get other instructors on board and enthusiastic, online program administrators and instructional designers may need to provide corresponding support for the roles that they will have to take on. And they must be savvy at promoting the benefits of teaching online.

Online environments were perceived by some professors as less personal compared to face-to-face settings. Similarly, students viewed communicating with their peers online as a challenge (Kim et al., 2005). Such challenges indicate that more training in effective teaching and learning strategies needed to be provided in this program. For instance, faculty might be trained to use such activities as virtual coffee hours, eight noun introductions, and student expectations and course commitment exercises to add more social flavor to online environments (Bonk & Reynolds, 1997). In addition, they might be exposed to online team blogging, short podcast lectures, Wikibook projects, and a few collaborative tools for team collaboration and competition. With proper exposure, the pedagogical possibilities are endless.

Consistent with the prevailing online learning literature, some professors in this study perceived that the amount of time and workload required for online teaching was a challenge. Three points are worth noting in this regard. First, we did not actually clock instructor time spent on different course-related tasks or with different technology tools or features; of course, perceptions of time spent in an online class may not match reality and may significantly vary with the instructor’s familiarity and experience with online learning.

Second, literature indicates that time saved on traveling when teaching online and time spending on setting up a live classroom when teaching face-to-face are often forgotten when making comparisons between the two environments (Zuckweiler, Schniederjans, & Ball, 2004). Online instructors might use the time saved from less course-related travel and class set-up needs, for furthering their research and writing efforts. In other words, while online learning can add to time pressures with increased email and course development needs, it can also reduce the time by limiting time required for other tasks such as traveling to work. Furthermore, online teaching can offer high profile business professors opportunities to consult with distant institutions and organizations or present at international conferences while continuing to teach their courses.

Thirdly, there are myriad solutions for the time challenge. For example, Bonk, Wisher, and Lee (2003) suggested that instructors establish regular times each week for conducting their online teaching rather than teaching around the clock. Another idea they noted was to have students assigned critical friends or email pals who give each other weekly feedback on their work or conferencing discussion posts. In addition, they advised that instructors need not respond to all the student postings in online discussion. Rather, they might just give feedback to a percent of students’ posts or focus on responding to heated discussions or major threads.

Asking for departmental support such as having teaching assistants is another solution for solving the workload challenge when the course size exceeds what is humanly possible (e.g., 25 or 30 students). Likewise, to solve the barriers concerning ISP cost, Smith (2001) advised to provide the faculty members with monetary stipends for the cost of a home office.

As previous studies revealed, technology plays a critical role for success of online programs like the one evaluated here (Zhai & Liu, 2005). Improving the technology for online teaching and learning was reiterated by the faculty members interviewed in the present study. Given the many consistencies in these findings, administrators, instructional designers, and technical support staff need to pay attention to the specific needs that the faculty members conveyed in this particular study about technology tools and supports. Perhaps as Arbaugh (2000a) advised, programs with available expertise and sufficient resources could develop their own software or systems that incorporate the best features of a variety of packages and are tailored to their specific faculty members and student populations. Noticeably, this program has hired some technical support staff to customize the technology tools that the program uses and to better meet the technical needs of the professors. How to keep the professors updated on the features of the tools and teach them how to use the tools seem to be another issue that administrators and supporting staff need to consider.

Finally, fostering learning communities for online instructors is another area that administrators and practitioners of online education should consider in the design and delivery of online MBA courses. In the end, each suggestion provided here as well as in our related research is intended to further break down the barriers to online teaching and learning while adding to the perceived benefits encountered in online MBA programs as well as other Web-based professional degree programs and beyond.

Limitations of This Study

Three limitations are associated with this study. First, the list of the potential interviewees was provided by the online MBA program under investigation. There might have been a possibility that the faculty members who agreed to participate in the study held more favorable or unfavorable perspectives toward online teaching than those who did not participate. Second, this study used interviews as its major data collection method. Like other studies of this kind, these self-reported data represented the perceptions of the participants, which might not always match reality. Finally, in terms of generalization, as Fraenkel and Wallen (2003) point out, “generalizing is possible in qualitative research, but is of a different type than that found in quantitative studies. Most likely it will be done by interested practitioners” (p. 445).

Back and Forth Reflections of Study Significance

Given the above limitations as well as the plethora of research on student and instructor perceptions of online teaching and learning, what is the significance of this particular study or for any additional studies in this area? As anyone reading this journal realizes, online programs continue to proliferate in higher education settings. The rate of growth is, without a doubt, one of the most monumental changes and challenges to arise in higher education since Plato held his first classes on Academos. Back then, the technology and medium of educational delivery was oral speech used for didactic purposes from a teacher to the learner. Such oral practices still pervade all educational levels and environments. In just a decade or two, however, with the emergence of fully online and blended learning, instructional delivery systems and formats have expanded educational practices beyond the rigidity of the typical time and place constraints of learning that were part of his 4th century B.C. teaching and learning environments. Institutions and instructors are now being asked to give up, or at least modify, instructional practices that they have used--and often found (at least from their perspectives) highly effective--for millennia. Such changes do not come easy or without significant questions, concerns, and casualties.

Understanding the benefits of as well as the barriers to effective online instruction can better inform both the administrators developing such programs as well as those in the teaching and learning trenches. Just knowing that dozens, if not thousands and soon perhaps millions, of online instructors each day face the same problems that you encounter should ease the tension of novice or slightly hesitant online instructors as well as those who are more steadfast in their reluctance or resistance.

Of course, knowing that many unique and engaging pedagogical possibilities are also there for the taking should stimulate many educators to not only follow in the footsteps of the 28 instructors we interviewed here, but to take experimental risks and lead still others to new visions and realizations of what is instructionally doable on the Web right now! It is here that we all should be striving toward—to find ourselves in the midst of pedagogically exciting instructional situations wherein learning opportunities and formats are made available for learners of any educational need, monetary status, background, or age level.

To realize such visions, we need still further studies into the possibilities and constraints of teaching online as well as additional suggestions and guidelines related to how to improve online learning for all learners of this planet. This study, in a very modest way, was an attempt to do just that. We look forward to reading from those who conduct online learning studies that break new ground in exploring student and instructor perceptions of new forms of blended and fully online learning including cross-institutional collaborations, innovative international mentoring, the creative use of free and open educational resources, and participatory learning with technologies such as Wikibooks, video blogging, and YouTube videos. We have completed a decade of increasingly exciting and rapid use of the Internet in instruction; however, the coming decade will likely be much more fascinating and tumultuous. What will online professors (and their students) have to say about online teaching then?

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Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume X, Number II, Summer 2007
University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center
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