Professors online

First Monday has published the results of a survey of 2,316 US college faculty to determine the impact of specific internet technologies on teaching and research, their interactions with students and about their perceptions of students’ internet use. One particularly important research question focused on the degree to which the internet enhances or detracts from the quality of classroom discussion. The conclusions of the authors were that “There is general optimism, though little evidence, about the Internet’s impacts on their professional lives.” (Note: First Monday was launched as an openly accessible, peer–reviewed journal solely devoted to the Internet. )

Summary of some findings.

* 98% of faculty use the internet to communicate with students.
* 55% use course web sites.
* 37% used chat rooms (I found that pretty high).
* 73% said that their communications with students had increased since they started using email.
* 33% communicate with their classes electronically several times a week.
* Both faculty and students use the internet primarily for class adminstration–announcements, checking grades or assignments, or reporting absences.
* However, 76% believed that the internet it has “enabled the expression of ideas that their students may not have expressed in class due to peer pressure, fear of embarrassment, or simply a lack of class time to allow for all students’ ideas to be expressed.”
* One third believed that use of the internet had improved their students writing; only 6% believed that it had hurt it.
* “Nearly half (42 percent) of college faculty felt their students’ work had worsened in quality and another 24 percent were undecided. Just 22 percent felt the Internet had improved students’ work.” (Hardly sounds like an optimistic conclusion to me!)

The article concludes with three implications for the future.

The spontaneity of the email has allowed the the expansion of some elements of intellectual community.

Others noted that they use the Internet to send students material on the spur of the moment, such as “articles, things I get in my e–mail that might be interesting for them to read,” or to notify them of events and lectures that are class related. Still others noted the importance of Internet contact with students as a means to provide “encouragement (and) building community” and “to foster intellectual community, to enable students to see how academic conversations might unfold, and to encourage them to participate in an intellectual community.”

So, does the internet enhance or detract from the quality of classroom discussion?

It is surprising that a significant number of faculty, one–third (33 percent), do not know whether Internet use in general has improved the quality of their students’ classroom participation. Just over one quarter (26 percent) believe the quality of their students’ classroom participation has been unaffected by Internet use, while 22 percent believe the quality has improved and 19 percent believe it has worsened.

The study identified three implications for the future.

* Infrastructure: Internet technologies could be better integrated with faculty work. Personal satisfaction remains the primary reward for faculty to master the intricacies of a complex infrastructure that is by no means “user-friendly.”
* Professional development: Expectations for faculty Internet use will continue to increase. However, we still have precious little evidence about how networked communications actually impact on learners with different styles and across multiple disciplines with dramatically different expectations and demands.
* Teaching and research: Collaboration and work among scholarly disciplines will continue to be enhanced through Internet use. The study notes that “an important element that the Internet provides in academic conversations about teaching and research is speed.” Finding ways to integrate that capacity for rapid sharing of information about “knowledge about teaching practices, new research findings and opportunities, and news of the profession” with the traditional structures like the meetings of professional societies, academic libraries and scholarly journals will be a major challenge.

Question: How would you would you rate the overall value and usefulness of this article in supporting institution-wide technology planning? What conclusions or assumptions would you draw from it?