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Research Highlight: The Current Climate of Online Courses and Faculty Care

October 8, 2021

In the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Idaho State University College of Business Professor of Management, Dr. Alex Bolinger collaborated on a research project with students that would analyze the current climate of online courses and faculty care.

The pandemic restricted classroom structure allowing for Zoom classes to be the alternative of keeping students enrolled and continuing their pursuit to attain their respected degree. In fall 2020, as Dr. Bolinger was teaching one of the core Master of Business Administration classes in the College, Business Negotiation and Decision Making, a Graduate Student, Kelsey Breer, discussed her interest in pursuing a research project that could be published within four months prior to graduation. Along with three other graduate students that decided to take on the challenge. Sophia Perry, Jeff Morgan and Kelsey Breer worked on the project in a three-person seminar with Dr. Bolinger. The group had decided to pursue the research topic uncovering: ‘How many students determine that faculty care in online courses?’

A relevant area of study considering the impact of Covid-19 as students may have felt that they were not getting the same quality of education from a face-to-face class setting compared to an online course. Dr. Bolinger discussed why students see this form of learning to be lower quality as students are not given a setting where they can get to know and network with their faculty. As Dr. Bolinger and the three graduate students met once a week for 90-minutes going through the research process, they decided to conduct a qualitative survey and conducted interviews among students. Using this raw data, the group analyzed the data by looking into the commonalities and key take-aways of the characteristics that show that faculty members display care for their students and characteristics that showed that they did not care. In recent years as most institutions have been pushing for more online courses, this research study served a high relevance with the comparison of online courses compared to the  face-to-face environment.

Using the raw data, the research team assessed what does ‘care’ look like in face-to-face classes. Key terms included personalization, which is the extent that faculty members will go through to know everyone in the classroom setting such as having them introduce themselves and having a short open-ended discussion including where they are from and interests. What the team found stemmed on the notion that personalization is highly reliant on social presence. Faculty are at a major disadvantage to create a personalized connection with students as it is more difficult to be personable in an online setting. The question that the research team daunted upon is how can faculty show that they care about their students in online courses? Dr. Bolinger served as a guide for the research process, and the research team went out and searched for specific examples from multiple students about a time that a faculty member showed that they cared for that student, or a specific moment that showed a lack of care. There were a total of 28 interviews, 10 men, 18 women, and an average age of 26 years. The respondents took an average of 10 online classes, which shows a high level of experience in the online setting.

The themes and categorizations that emerged from the respondents opened two key principles that showed that faculty members cared in an online setting, which includes ‘Adaptability’, and ‘Exceeds Expectations’. From these key principles, the descriptive sub-categories included proficiency with tools, for example, did the faculty member take the time to learn how to use Zoom. Additional factors include setting up the class structure that really articulates ‘care’ with hurdles of an online course, and the research team found that faculty members who sent out weekly emails to their students showed adaptability in an online setting. Furthermore, the willingness to work with students shows that they care through their flexibility. Finally, faculty members have the opportunity to exceed expectations in the online setting in terms of availability and to how far they go the extra mile. For example, respondents recognized that one of their professors emailed them about how their sick relative was doing which shows genuine concern for the student.

On the other hand, the themes that emerged from the study that showed a lack of ‘care’ from faculty members include what was described as the two dis’s, ‘Disinterested’ and ‘Discourteous’. The common stories from the respondents included faculty members responding to incorrect emails, addressing students by the wrong name, and did not set course structures. The big take-away from the Discourteous category was that the faculty member presented incommensurate requirements such as sticking to strict deadlines for assignments but taking a lengthy amount of time to grade a particular assignment.

As we have become more accessible to online courses this study has allowed us to focus more on the quality of the online experience. Thanks to Kelsey, Jeff, Sophia, and Dr. Bolinger, the College of Business and other departments can use this study to create certain expectations of online courses and identify the barriers in showing ‘care’ to students. This serves as an opportunity for educators to focus on providing the face-to-face course experience in an online setting using the key categories of course structure, proficiency tools, flexibility, and personalization. The College of Business is open to hearing any concerns or experiences from the online setting as we strive to excel whether a student is in a face-to-face or online courses.