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Why continue to teach online? Interview results from experienced online instructors

Clock and bell tower on the campus of Oregon State. Online teaching

By Rebecca Arlene Thomas, Ph.D.
Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit
Sept. 28, 2020

While online education is often considered fairly new, some institutions have been offering online courses and programs for over a decade. Among these is Oregon State University Ecampus, where I currently work as a postdoctoral scholar. Since Oregon State has been offering online education for more than 20 years, our research unit decided to conduct a qualitative study where we interviewed faculty from diverse disciplines who had been teaching online for 10 years or more. The interviews we conducted in 2018-19 asked a series of questions about instructors’ perspectives and experiences teaching online, as well as lessons learned over time. You can learn more about the study and read about other results from this study.

In our interviews, one question we asked these experienced online instructors was, “What has kept you teaching online?” We conducted qualitative analysis of their responses to this question. Considering that this blog post is being published during the time of COVID-19, it is important to note that some of the current forms of educating, such as emergency remote instruction, may differ from the kind of online learning that Oregon State Ecampus provides (e.g. Riggs, 2020).

However, I believe that sharing this information can be used to support higher education professionals as we, the higher education field, move forward, both during and after the pandemic. More specifically, I hope that reading about these instructors’ motivations to keep teaching online may enlighten others as they tackle multiple forms of educating, using multiple modalities, such as remote, online, blended, or others, in the future.

Key takeaway #1

Instructors kept teaching online because they were passionate about teaching in general

As I was coding the instructors’ responses to the question, “What has kept you teaching online?” and discussing coding and themes with my team, something that struck me was that many of the themes were not specific to online education. Instructors expressed that the following factors had kept them teaching online for 10 years or more:

Instructors expressed “intrinsic interest” in the content that they taught. The instructors in this study represented diverse backgrounds and disciplines. However, across fields of study, instructors expressed “interest” and “love” for both the courses they taught, as well as their fields as a whole. They enjoyed “constantly thinking” about their content area, updating their courses to “keep them fresh,” and “keeping their toe in” areas of interest.

Instructors showed passion for teaching and pedagogy.In addition to expressing interest in particular content areas, some instructors also expressed passion for teaching methods and pedagogy. For example, one said, “I really like teaching. I really like pedagogy. I really like understanding what works, how the brain works. I think that is just my passion in life.” This instructor was one of several who expressed motivation to continuously learn and apply teaching methods as they taught.

Instructors appreciated how teaching facilitated new ideas and viewpoints within their content areas. Instructors also described how teaching their online courses helped them think about their content areas in different ways. For example, one instructor said that teaching online kept them “up-to-date and engaging with other smart people.” Other instructors said that teaching online helped them connect theory and practice in their fields, improve their teaching skills across the board (both online and in person), and engage in their content area differently than they would doing other responsibilities, such as conducting research.

Instructors enjoyed seeing their students learn, grow, and succeed. Instructors were inspired by witnessing their online students learn concepts within their courses, as well as progress through online degree programs. As one instructor said, “we are helping these people to be empowered, to better themselves… to receive the privilege of a college education.” Another instructor said that seeing students grow throughout a term provided “so much reward.”

As the themes above illustrate, part of the reason why these instructors continued to teach online for over 10 years was because… they were passionate about teaching in general. During a time when instructors have been, and are being, asked to teach using modalities that they may not be familiar with, I think it is relevant to highlight that the above motivations could apply to in person, as well as online, or remote, education.

Key takeaway #2

Instructors kept teaching online because online teaching provided different benefits than in-person teaching

Another general take-away that I contemplated as we were analyzing instructors’ responses to, “What has kept you teaching online?” was that many of the instructors were highlighting benefits that generally do not apply to in-person teaching. The following were specific benefits these instructors emphasized related to teaching online:

Headshot of Rebecca Thomas, a postdoctoral scholar for the Oregon State Ecampus Research Unit.

Rebecca Thomas is a postdoctoral scholar for the Oregon State Ecampus Research Unit.

Instructors appreciated the flexibility teaching online allowed, in both their personal and professional schedules. For example, instructors highlighted that they could set their own work hours, and rearrange them depending on their other responsibilities. Additionally, several instructors traveled as part of their lifestyle, and appreciated that they could teach online as they were traveling. For example, one said, “I’m a recording artist myself so sometimes I’m touring and I’m in a new city. Doesn’t matter. I can still be working with everybody.” Another instructor mentioned that this flexibility made it easier to complete experiments and travel to professional conferences.

Instructors enjoyed connecting with diverse groups of students in their online courses, many of whom differed in background, experience, and lifestyle from their campus students. Many instructors stated that their online students tended to be more diverse than their campus students, and more likely to be “non-traditional students,” students with full-time jobs, students living in rural areas, and “students who otherwise would not be able to attend classes, like single moms and older people with disabilities.” Instructors appreciated teaching a “variety of students,” as well as hearing from students who “brought their work into their classes,” and showed “this really deep connection to practice.”

Instructors enjoyed the challenge of teaching their content areas using an online format. Most of the instructors interviewed had started teaching face-to-face before they started teaching online, and one described online teaching as “a different beast than teaching in the classroom.” Several instructors enjoyed the challenges associated with teaching online, such as “the challenge to keep improving something,” challenges involved with teaching specific content online, as well as the broader challenge to reach students who could not be reached in face-to-face courses.

Some instructors preferred the teaching methods and pedagogy they could utilize online. Some instructors had taught concepts online in ways that they would not be able to in face-to-face environments. For example, one said, “I’m not sure that the results I’m getting now would be gettable in an in-class setting.” In addition to this, other instructors felt a “sense of ownership” in their online courses, and “proud” of the online teaching methods they had developed over the years.

This suggests that in addition to general passion for teaching, many of these instructors continued teaching online for over 10 years because they experienced benefits from doing so, both in their professional and personal lives. As higher education moves forward, educators may consider the benefits they may gain from teaching using multiple modalities, including online and remote instruction.

Key takeaway #3

Instructors kept teaching online because they wanted to make an impact

Lastly, a key theme that we saw from instructors’ responses to, “What has kept you teaching online?” was that instructors believed that teaching online made an impact on their students and society more broadly. Several instructors mentioned that they had found online pedagogy to be effective, as they had seen students learn and progress while taking online classes. When it came to servicing students, instructors expressed that they felt connected to a larger purpose, whether that included the mission of their institution, or the mission of providing individuals access to education and resources that they would not otherwise have. When talking about this, one instructor said, “To me, this is golden. This is one of the things that keeps me going for as long as I do. It’s so important for me that online teaching opens the doors where there used to be walls.”

Concluding thoughts

Experienced online instructors identified several motivations for why they had kept teaching online for over 10 years. In general, instructors expressed passion for teaching whatever the modality, received benefits from teaching online that they could not receive teaching in other modalities, and believed in the impact of online higher education. As higher education moves forward, educators may be tasked with increased teaching using online, hybrid, remote, and other modalities. While this may present challenges, I think that one way to support instructors could be to encourage them to focus on their general motivations and interest in educating, as these can be applied to any form of teaching and learning. Teaching using multiple modalities may strengthen educators’ skillsets and perspectives, while increasing students’ access to education.


Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the WCET Frontiers blog.

Rebecca Arlene Thomas, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral scholar with the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit. Her research focuses on online learning, educational innovation, aggressive behavior, and interpersonal relationships. She can be reached via email.

About the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit: The Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unit responds to and forecasts the needs and challenges of the online education field through conducting original research; fostering strategic collaborations; and creating evidence-based resources and tools that contribute to effective online teaching, learning and program administration. The OSU Ecampus Research Unit is part of Oregon State Ecampus, the university’s nationally ranked online education provider. Learn more at ecampus.oregonstate.edu/research.

References
Riggs, S. (2020, April 15). Student-centered remote teaching: Lessons learned from online education. EDUCAUSE Review.

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