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Do Virtual Professors Dream of Electric Students? University Faculty Experiences with Online Distance Education

by Claire Howell Major - 2010

Background: Faculty acceptance of distance learning plays an important role in its success or failure in higher education. Information about faculty experiences of teaching online can improve understanding about this delivery mode’s potential longevity in academe. Exploratory qualitative research has begun to uncover and unpack faculty experiences with online learning. Such studies provide a focused and detailed picture of faculty perceptions of teaching online; however, they have not been considered for what they add to cumulative knowledge.

Purpose: The purpose of this research was to employ a rigorous and systematic approach to make meaning of individual studies that investigated faculty experiences of teaching online by considering the studies in aggregate.

Research Design: This study drew upon qualitative synthesis methods to investigate faculty experiences with online teaching. In particular, the study used metaethnography, an interpretive approach, to synthesize findings from nine original studies conducted by 23 researchers involving interviews with 117 faculty members with online teaching experience.

Data Collection and Analysis: This study involved searching electronic databases and tables of contents of key journals to gather relevant articles. It relied upon analysis techniques common to metaethnographic approaches, including reciprocal translation analysis (translating themes into each other), refutations synthesis (attempts to explain variations and contradictions), and lines-of-argument analysis (building a general interpretation from findings of separate studies through reliance on qualitative analysis such as constant comparison).

Findings: This article presents findings from a qualitative synthesis of university faculty experiences with online distance education. Results show that faculty members believe teaching online changes the way they approach and think about teaching, course design, time, instruction, and students.

Conclusions: Finding new ways to understand existing literature was one of the chief goals of this study. These results represent a starting place for improving current practice as well as for guiding future research.

Teaching in the absence of physical copresence has a long history in higher education, dating back to the late 1800s with correspondence courses, and scholarly attention over time has focused on the apparently short life spans of various delivery modes. Some scholars believe these modes generally evidence a “cycle of failure,” citing as support the rise and fall of instructional delivery via specific technologies such as instructional radio, television, and mainframe computers. Scholars who hold this view have proposed that an overselling of technology, a lack of appropriate infrastructure and training, and a lack of faculty buy-in led to disuse (Cuban, 2001; Ehrman, 2000). Other scholars have proposed a “generations approach,” in which various delivery systems have overlapped and coexisted. Most frequently, these scholars have noted changes in communication patterns, from slow asynchronous to synchronous to fast asynchronous, and argued that instructional materials over time lacked an appropriate theoretical base, appeared substandard, or exceeded faculty ability to produce (Garrison, 1985; Garrison & Archer, 2003; Taylor, 2001). Both historical perspectives delineate faculty’s key role in determining the success or failure of distance learning. Both perspectives reveal that none of the previous delivery modes gained “critical mass” of faculty involvement and acceptance (Cuban, 2001; Ehrmann, 2000; Garrison, 1985; Garrison & Archer, 2003; Rogers, 2003; Taylor, 2001).

Today, distance instruction tends to occur online, a trend that coincides with increased use of personal computers and Internet-based technologies. Courses employing online learning may be “blended” or “hybrid,” in which a substantial portion (30% to 79%) of the content is available on the Internet, requiring some face-to-face meetings, or “online,” in which at least 80% of the content is available on the Internet, without face-to-face meetings (Allen & Seaman, 2007). Online learning may occur either synchronously or asynchronously (Waits & Lewis, 2003).

Institutions are often attracted to online learning, in part because of its potential to increase student access while decreasing marginal costs; higher education institutions are turning to this medium to accomplish their instructional missions at unprecedented rates (Allen & Seamen, 2007; Taylor, 2001; Waits & Lewis, 2003). According to a recent Sloan Consortium Report (2007) that presented results from a survey of 2,504 institutions (a 55.8% response rate from the 4,491 total population), 73% of institutions reported high levels of engagement in online learning, perceiving it critical to their formal long-term plans. When the count included institutions that offer online courses not considered critical to their long-term strategic plans, nearly 100% of public institutions reported some involvement with online learning. The most recent estimate is that approximately 3.5 million students, representing nearly 20% of total enrollment, have taken at least one course online. Approximately 69% of administrators indicated they believe that demand for online courses is still growing, and 83% of institutions with online offerings expect enrollments to increase during the next year (Allen & Seamen, 2007). Such rapid growth indicates that education researchers should examine how distance education may be changing higher education currently and how change may continue in the future (Natriello, 2005).

Despite the swift growth in the use of and demand for online courses, firm evidence of the acceptance of online distance technology is lacking. In fact, the growth of enrollment in online courses was substantially lower in 2006 than it was during previous years; in 2003, the growth rate was 23%; in 2004, approximately 18%; in 2005, approximately 36.5%; and in 2006, only 9.7% (Allen & Seaman, 2007). Although these numbers indicate both continuous growth and an increase in online learning as a percentage of overall enrollment, whether online distance education will become an enduring part of higher education remains to be seen.

Limited research has examined the advantages and disadvantages of online learning, but these efforts have identified a number of institutional barriers to its adoption, such as cost of delivery and facilities and equipment (Geoghegan, 1994; Waits & Lewis, 2003). Faculty concerns are among the chief barriers to the adoption of online learning (Allen & Seaman, 2007). Levine and Sun (2002) articulated the following obstacles to faculty participation:

First, academe lacks a pedagogy for using the Internet.… Second, faculty’s role in using this technology remains uncertain. They could be the traditional teacher, the software designer, the content creator, all of these things, or none of these things. Justifiably, faculty are concerned about the effects of distance learning not only on students, but also their own careers and workloads. Third, faculty need to know more about interactive and individualized pedagogy…. Finally, distance learning entails a host of teaching and learning practices that may be convenient for students but are far more labor intensive than traditional college practices: Creating courses, maintaining chat rooms, and responding to e-mails from students around the clock require far more time and energy from faculty than traditional courses. Additionally, distance learning comes with a new language and different expectations, including ‘anytime, anyplace learning,’ ‘24/7 advising,’ and ‘round-the-clock availability of instructors.’ (pp. 5–6)

Understanding faculty views of these obstacles could provide important indicators of the potential longevity of online distance education in academe.

Several scholars have acknowledged that teaching online changes faculty work and asserted the importance of understanding these changes, particularly so that institutions may encourage faculty participation and improve course success. As Burbules and Callister (2000) noted when describing the transitions technology catalyzes in universities, “faculty at most colleges and universities are only beginning to come to grips with the opportunities, and the challenges, that such changes represent for the educational roles, their relations to students, and their working conditions” (p. 272). As Blass and Davis (2003) argued when considering criteria for successful e-learning as well as changes to faculty work, “universities are embracing e-learning in one form or another without really getting to grips with the extent of the paradigm shift required to make e-learning a success” (p. 28). In considering distance learning’s future in academe, Natriello posited that “the current barriers to faculty involvement in distance learning may be the result of the unsettled nature of pedagogy for distance learning efforts. It is difficult to move to something new when the patterns of behavior required for success are not fully established” (2005, p. 1891). Rigorous scholarly investigation and reporting of faculty experiences is critical to understand challenges as well as opportunities for success, and promising exploratory research has begun in this area.

In this article, I examine existing literature related to faculty experiences with online learning in higher education. I proceed in three stages. First, I review quantitative research that identifies faculty perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of teaching online. Second, I outline the research methods for this study, a qualitative synthesis, and in so doing describe the state of qualitative research on faculty experiences with online learning, demonstrating where gaps remain, making transparent studies included in the analysis, and highlighting literature that served as a framework for the interpretation of data. Third, I report findings from the qualitative synthesis that explored faculty experiences in online courses.


Quantitative research examining the phenomenon of faculty teaching online tends to focus on faculty perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of online learning, whereas qualitative research tends to focus on the general faculty experience of teaching online as well as the question of how teaching online changes faculty work. Because perceived advantages and disadvantages result from the changes that faculty experience, quantitative studies provide an important reference point when examining qualitative literature. However, surprisingly few quantitative studies have examined the perceptions of faculty who have taught online. Table 1 presents a synopsis of these studies. In the following section, I summarize their findings, as indicated by agreement of a majority of faculty in the studies cited.

Table 1 Quantitative Studies Examining Faculty Perspectives of Online Teaching




Faculty Participants from

N =

Bennett & Bennett



single institution





single institution


Daugherty & Funke



single institution


Fredericksen, Pickett, Shea, Pelz, & Swan



multiple institutions in a system


Gahungu, Dereshiwsky, & Moan



single institution


Hartman, Dziuban, & Moskal



single institution


Hislop & Atwood



single institution


McKenzie, Mims, Bennett, & Waugh



single institution





a professional organization


Pachnowski & Jurczyk



single institution


Pajo & Wallace


New Zealand

single institution


Panda & Mishra



single institution


Schoenfeld-Tacher & Persichitte



single institution


Shea, Pickett, & Li



multiple institutions in a system





multiple institutions in a regional education board




*402 was the total sample of faculty teaching via a distance; 177 taught online

The advantages of online learning identified in these studies were numerous. Faculty in some of the studies agreed that professional advantages for teaching online exist, including increased schedule flexibility and, eventually, increased efficiency in teaching (Daugherty & Funke, 1999; Hartman, Dziuban, & Moskal, 2000; McKenzie, Mims, Bennett, & Waugh, 2000). Some faculty agreed that online learning improves opportunities for recognition as well as for research (Hislop & Atwood, 2000). Faculty also acknowledged advantages such as the opportunity to use new technologies and to experience intellectual challenge (Fredericksen, Pickett, Shea, Pelz, & Swan, 2000; McKenzie et al., 2000; Panda & Mishra, 2007; Schoenfeld-Tacher & Persichitte, 2000; Shea, Pickett, & Li, 2005). Faculty in some of these studies indicated that pedagogical advantages exist for online learning (Fredericksen et al., 2000; Hartman et al., 2000; McKenzie et al., 2000). In particular, they agreed that teaching online allows for changes in their roles, permitting them to engage in facilitation roles; increased opportunities for instructional design and structure in courses (Hartman et al., 2000); and improved opportunities to get to know students (Fredericksen et al., 2000). Faculty also acknowledged curricular benefits of teaching online, including a wider variety of course offerings (Daugherty & Funke, 1999; Fredericksen et al., 2000; Hartman et al., 2000; McKenzie et al., 2000; National Education Association [NEA], 2000). Faculty in some of the studies recognized advantages for students in online courses, agreeing that students have better access to courses and information resources (Hartman et al., 2000; McKenzie et al., 2000; NEA, 2000), higher levels and greater quality of interaction (Fredericksen et al., 2000; Hartman et al., 2000; Shea et al., 2005), and higher levels of learning (Hartman et al., 2000; NEA, 2000).

Table 2 Appraisal Prompts for Informing Judgments about Scholarly Rigor of Studies


Prompt Question


Are the aims and objectives of the research clearly stated?


Is the research design clearly specified and appropriate for the aims and objectives of the research?

Data collection

Do the researchers provide a clear account of the process by which their data were collected and handled?

Data analysis

Is the method of analysis appropriate and adequately explicated?


Do the researchers display enough data to support their interpretations and conclusions?


Has the paper been published in a peer-reviewed journal or presented at a conference that peer-reviews proposals?

Adapted from Dixon-Woods et al. (2006)

Studies have also indicated faculty perceptions of a number of disadvantages of online learning. Those identified included professional disadvantages to teaching online, such as increased demands on time both for developing and delivering courses (Berge, 1998; Daugherty & Funke, 1999; Hartman et al., 2000; McKenzie et al., 2000; NEA, 2000; Pachnowski & Jurczyk, 2003; Pajo & Wallace, 2001; Wilson, 1998), inadequate compensation (NEA, 2000), lack of recognition and reward (Berge, 1998; Pajo & Wallace, 2001; Wilson, 1998), and unclear policies regarding ownership of intellectual property (Berge, 1998). Faculty in some of the studies indicated a number of organizational disadvantages. They indicated concern, for example, about the cultural fit of technology in an academic environment as well as about general faculty and student resistance (Berge, 1998; Daugherty & Funke, 1999; Hartman et al., 2000; Pajo & Wallace, 2001). Faculty also indicated inadequate support from administration (Daugherty & Funke, 1999; Hartman et al., 2000; Wilson, 1998). Faculty in some of the studies agreed they had technological concerns, including worry about a lack of appropriate hardware and software, connectivity, and technical support (Bennett & Bennett, 2002; Berge, 1998; Daugherty & Funke, 1999; Hartman et al., 2000; Pajo & Wallace, 2001; Wilson, 1998). Faculty in some of the studies further agreed that a general lack of knowledge about what works well in a distance setting and a lack of training in the use of technology could be disadvantages of online learning (Berge, 1998; Fredericksen et al., 2000; Gahungu, Dereshiwsky, & Moan, 2006; Pajo & Wallace, 2001; Panda & Mishra, 2007; Wilson, 1998). In addition, faculty in some of the studies indicated several pedagogical disadvantages of online learning, including lower course quality, a perception of lower quality, and learning outcomes (Gahungu et al., 2006; Hartman et al., 2000; Hislop & Atwood, 2000; NEA, 2000); decreased interaction among and with students and inadequate visual clues to help “read” students (Fredericksen et al., 2000; Gahungu et al., 2006; Hartman et al., 2000; Hislop & Atwood, 2000); lack of student technological knowledge and skills and their lack of offsite access (Pajo & Wallace, 2001; Panda & Mishra, 2007); and increased levels of academic dishonesty (Hartman et al., 2000).

Findings from studies surveying faculty with experience teaching online mirror those from studies that surveyed both experienced and inexperienced faculty (Jones, Lindner, Murphy, & Dooley, 2002; Newton, 2003; Rockwell, Schauer, Fritz, & Marx, 1999). They also mirror those studies in which faculty had no experience with online distance education but were considering attempting it (Jamlan, 2004; Koehler, Mishra & Yahya, 2007; Naidu, 2004). This seeming congruity warrants further investigation into whether inexperienced faculty have similar perceptions to their more experienced counterparts about the advantages and disadvantages of online learning. Further, the findings from these studies parallel those from studies examining faculty perceptions of other forms of distance education, including synchronous and asynchronous televised delivery (Betts, 1998; Lee, 2002; O’Quinn & Corry, 2002; O’Quinn & Corry, 2004), providing an opportunity for further research about whether delivery mode affects faculty perceptions about distance learning.



Studies about faculty perceptions of the advantages and disadvantages of teaching online are important. Specifically, they provide information about factors that may influence faculty decisions to teach online as well as about factors that may cause faculty to continue or discontinue their efforts. However, these studies do not convey rich, thick description about the lived experiences of faculty teaching online or the changes they experience in the online environment. Investigating how faculty experience online teaching is critical to understanding new practices and patterns of behavior that occur in the technology-mediated environment. Therefore, systematically examining the experiences of faculty who have taught online can tap a potentially rich vein of information about online distance education and provide important insights into its viability as an instructional medium.

Some exploratory qualitative studies have begun in-depth examination of faculty experiences with online learning. However, the difficulty is that these individual qualitative studies have not yet been considered for what they add to cumulative knowledge. Just as meta-analyses have begun sensemaking of individual quantitative studies (see, for example, the following meta-analyses comparing student learning outcomes in face-to-face and distance courses: Bernard et al., 2004; Gunawardena & McIsaac, 2004; Joy & Garcia, 2000; Lockee, Burton, & Cross, 1999; Machtmes & Asher, 2000; McIsaac & Gunawardena, 1996; Zhao, Lei, Lai, & Tan, 2005), so too may the qualitative studies examined collectively add to the knowledge base. Thus, the purpose of this research was to employ a rigorous and systematic approach to make meaning of these individual qualitative studies by considering them in aggregate.

Metasynthesis served as the research design for this study. Metasynthesis emerged as the most appropriate method, since synthesis of qualitative research can demonstrate important connections and interactions and help anticipate what might happen in similar contexts. Synthesis can add to theory building in a way that no single study can alone (Estabrooks et al., 2005). Qualitative synthesis can help optimize findings, an advantage given the intensive and time-consuming nature of qualitative research (Thorne, 1994). Further, synthesis can provide answers from a range of studies, which users of research (i.e., practitioners and policy makers) tend to want, rather than results from one individual study (Gough, 2007).

A number of researchers have undertaken qualitative synthesis. Many of these researchers have imposed frameworks and values of quantitative systematic reviews on qualitative studies or have moved toward approaches such as case narrative that involve translating qualitative studies into quantitative findings. However, many others have attempted to synthesize qualitative research by qualitative approaches or to argue for the potential of such methods and, in so doing, have also suggested ways to improve the processes (Doyle, 2003; Egger, Smith, & Phillips, 1997; Rantala & Wellstrom, 2001; Savin-Baden & Major, 2007; Shkedi, 2005; Weed, 2005). The result of early efforts is a growing number of qualitative syntheses, particularly in the professions, which document the utility of this approach.

Nevertheless, synthesis of qualitative research is not without criticism. Those who have argued against qualitative synthesis have noted the tendency to decontextualize material, provide thin description, ignore methodological differences, and marginalize the voices of participants. However, efforts to provide contextual information, thick description, and evidence of common research questions and designs among studies can help alleviate these concerns (Savin-Baden & Major, 2007). Furthermore, Rantala and Wellstrom (2001) have suggested that re-analysis of inherited secondary data is problematic because “the researcher conducting the re-analysis might understand the data differently from its collector” (p. 88). However, metasynthesis does not involve review of full sets of raw data but rather focuses on the interpretations of the data (Doyle, 2003), which some view as a potential strength (Weed, 2005). If interpretations of the original researcher are used, then the focus on meaning in context may be retained. Thus, interpretations can convey such meaning in context, whereas raw data cannot (Weed, 2005).


A key characteristic of qualitative synthesis is the use of explicit searching strategies, with the researcher providing a clear account of the search for and selection of relevant evidence so that strategies may be reproduced. I began the study by framing one broad research question: how do faculty experience online teaching? This question allowed me to cast a wide net in the initial search for relevant studies. I searched online databases, such as Educational Resources Information Center’s (ERIC), Academic Search Elite, and Google Scholar, and hand-searched the tables of contents of several key journals in addition to bibliographies of relevant articles. I adhered to a set of decision-making criteria to select articles based upon content and scope, timeframe, report type, educational level, research methodology, and contribution to the current research. Appendix A provides detailed information about these decisions. These strategies produced an exhaustive list of studies related to the research question.


The nine articles included in this synthesis comprise 23 authors/researchers from five countries and 117 faculty members. Although selection criteria did not exclude conference papers, all studies identified for inclusion are peer-reviewed, published works. Brief descriptions of the nine studies that serve as data for the study appear below. Appendix B provides a comparison of these studies.

Study 1: Bongalos, Bulaon, Celedonio, de Guzman, & Ogarte (2006). This article reported results from a study involving interviews with 10 faculty members. Faculty held positions in a range of disciplines at the University of Santo Tomas and participated in an institutional project to adopt online teaching as a part of a long-term strategic initiative. Research methods involved interviews with faculty, which the authors tape-recorded and transcribed.

Study 2: Conceição (2006). This article examined the online teaching experiences of 10 university faculty members. Faculty represented different geographic areas of the US and Canada and held positions in a variety of academic disciplines. At the time of the study, all faculty were teaching in an online environment. The article relied on phenomenology as its research framework and used semistructured interviews and follow-up e-mails. The author analyzed data and grouped them into clusters.

Study 3: Coppola, Hiltz, & Rotter (2002). This article reported results from a qualitative study involving interviews with 20 faculty members from a variety of disciplines who were teaching online at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Methods involved semistructured interviews with faculty that the authors tape-recorded and transcribed. The authors coded and analyzed data using QSR NVivo.

Study 4: Jones, Asensio, & Goodyear (2000). The authors reported findings from a phenomenographic study of 10 practitioners from eight departments in five universities with varying ranges of experience teaching online, from novice to highly experienced professors. The authors tape-recorded and transcribed the interviews and examined the transcripts for variances in experiences and emergent themes.

Study 5: Kanuka, Collett, & Caswell (2002). This study investigated the influence of adopting web-based instruction on faculty role perception. The 12 faculty members who participated in the study were from the University of Alberta; most had experience with online teaching. The authors tape-recorded interviews and used qualitative software for analysis. The authors used Moore’s theory of transactional distance as a theoretical lens.

Study 6: Lao & Gonzales (2005). The authors reported results from a qualitative study that investigated both faculty and graduate students’ perceptions of online distance education. Six faculty members participated in interviews, which the authors taped and transcribed and analyzed for themes.

Study 7: McShane (2004). This study examined five instructors’ experiences with online teaching. The study took place at a large regional campus of a state university. The author used case study methods relying on semi-structured conversations, with tape-recorded interviews and phone conversations as well as e-mail follow-ups. The author coded and analyzed transcripts for distinguishing narrative.

Study 8: Samarawickrema & Stacey (2007). This article reported findings from a case study that relied heavily on interviews with 22 faculty members who use web-based learning to teach at Monash University’s six Australian campuses. The authors tape-recorded and transcribed the interviews and sought emerging categories using NVivo. Actor-network theory provided an interpretive lens.

Study 9: Smith, Ferguson, & Caris (2002). This study examined 22 instructors’ experiences teaching in web-based environments. Half of the participants taught in the SUNY Learning Network, while the other half taught in a similar course environment (e.g., Blackboard or WebCT); the latter group served to validate the experiences identified in the former. Methods included telephone and e-mail interviews, with open-ended questions. The authors coded data and developed a matrix of themes.


One decision attending synthesis of qualitative research is whether data analysis and synthesis will be aggregative or interpretive (Noblit & Hare, 1988; Dixon-Woods et al., 2006). I relied upon metaethnography (Dixon-Woods et al., 2006; Doyle, 2003; Egger et al., 1997; Noblit & Hare, 1988; Savin-Baden & Major, 2007; Weed, 2005), an interpretive rather than aggregative approach, for analyzing and synthesizing the original studies. Noblit and Hare (1988), the originators of metaethnography, state that the approach

enables a rigorous procedure for deriving substantive interpretations about any set of ethnographic or interpretive studies…. A metaethnography can be considered a complete study in itself. [Metaethnography] compares and analyzes texts, creating new interpretations in the process. It is much more than what we usually mean by a literature review. (p. 9)

Therefore, a metaethnographic approach uses qualitative methods to synthesize existing qualitative studies to construct greater meaning through an interpretive process.

Metaethnography generally involves analyzing and synthesizing a small number of studies, normally between two and five (Noblit & Hare, 1988); however, since the approach’s inception, researchers have used it to examine as many as 10 to 20 studies (for example, see Campbell et al., 2003; Coffman, 2004; Rice, 2002). The process of metaethnography focuses on concepts, themes, and metaphors used by researchers of individual studies. It involves listing and organizing these themes and attempting to relate them to one another (Schofield, 1990). Then, in reviewing the data, the researcher makes a “translation of interpretations of one study into the interpretive frames of another” (Shkedi, 2005, p. 23). In the attempt to synthesize, analysis requires directly comparing and contrasting narratives of related topics and viewing them as in unison or divergent, which often suggests a new line of argument (Shkedi, 2005). Findings require interpretation, but researchers strive to retain the narrative–interpretive nature of the original studies by providing rich detail.

The process of data analysis metaethnography described by Noblit and Hare (1988) requires determining the relationship of the original studies by one of three main strategies:


Reciprocal translation analysis. The researcher identifies key metaphors, themes, or concepts and translates them into each other. The researcher makes judgments about the ability of the concepts of one study to capture concepts from another and selects the “most adequate” to describe the phenomenon.


Refutational synthesis. The researcher characterizes and attempts to explain contradictions between the separate studies.


Lines-of-argument analysis. The researcher builds a general interpretation grounded in the findings of the separate studies, identifying through constant comparison themes that are the most powerful in representing the entire dataset.

Following the process for a reciprocal translation analysis meant not only a transition and synthesis of one study into and across another, but also a reinterpretation of data using an interpretive stance (Savin-Baden & Major, 2007). In practice, data analysis resembled processes used in primary qualitative research. The procedure involved reviewing the papers; identifying clear, well-documented, and supported findings; and developing a critique. Categories generated during the process helped explain findings from the original studies, as did constantly comparing the theoretical structures against data while attempting to specify categories of relationships, as suggested by Noblit and Hare (1988) and Dixon-Woods et al. (2006).


Relating change theory to technology provided a framework to guide data interpretation. In Shoshana Zuboff’s (1984) classic work, “In the Age of the Smart Machine,” the author conceptualized change in the nature and character of jobs created by using technology. Zuboff asserted that computer-based technologies are not neutral. Rather, technology imposes as well as produces new patterns of information and social relations. Technology may automate, replacing human labor and physical motions and leading to dull jobs with lack of meaning. It also may “informate,” replacing human contact with collecting information and data, but potentially leading to more stimulating, challenging jobs and greater satisfaction. In its ability to informate, Zuboff suggested that information technology substitutes technological interface for sensory or expressive relationships with objects or persons. Thus, the sensory- or expressive-based skills diminish, while new skills that allow the effective management of the new interface must be developed to harness the full power of the technological tool.

Zuboff’s work holds relevance for faculty using asynchronous technology for teaching. The notion of informating skills in particular provides a theoretical frame for understanding faculty perceptions of the changes that may occur when adopting web-based instructional technologies. Specifically, faculty in classrooms rely on interpersonal skills replaced, in a web-based environment, by what Zuboff calls “intellective skills,” such as abstraction, inference, and procedural reasoning. Faculty pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1986; 1987; 1991) moves from tacit to explicit and in many instances requires retraining and new ways of thinking.

Recently, several scholars have extended Zuboff’s ideas, for example, Brooke’s (2001) use of the concept of informating to consider the value of creating representational space within which stakeholders can negotiate meanings; Jackson’s (1997) work on technology’s role in the representation of space and time; and Cooper’s (1992) work on technology’s role in displacement, abbreviation, and remote control. In addition, Zuboff’s influence is apparent in Cooper’s (2002) work, which argues that “technology enables a more constitutively abstract mode of engagement with the world” (emphasis in the original, p. 4). That is, through a technology-mediated environment, the essence of being is established in the absence of a concrete reality. Being, then, is deconstructed and reconstructed in the new medium. Reconstruction and re-creation occurs through shifts in (1) social integration and (2) ontological categories of existence. Social integration shifts from face-to-face communication to disembodied forms of communication enabled by technology; technology enables participants to engage outside of the tangible presence of another (copresence). In this way, according to Cooper, technology reconstitutes social relations, making them more abstract, yet, at the same time, closer and more intimate connections may take place during moments of physical disconnection. Ontological categories of existence shift from fixed categories to more abstract ones (e.g., time and space categories shift from interaction among individuals that requires presence to interaction with mass audiences and access to individuals at any time; embodiment categories shift from observable markers of race, age, and gender to a space in which such markers are not fixed or known). I used the concept of informating and following considerations of space and time, in particular the notion of constitutive abstraction, to guide data interpretation.


I have taught in an asynchronous online environment several times and have had both good and bad experiences. Even though I try to be objective about the experience of teaching online, I am intrigued intellectually by the notion of online learning and the question of how it alters traditional patterns of teaching and learning. I began this research knowing that my interest in the topic could influence my interpretations. Further, while I have attempted to be transparent in my approach, I know that, as with any qualitative analysis, transparency is not fully possible because of the interpretive process involved (Dixon-Woods et al., 2006). For these reasons, I have taken several steps to be as objective as possible, to reduce the influence of bias, and to clarify the research process.

The study design provided several safeguards against bias. Triangulation is built into the process of metasynthesis research by design. In this study, synthesizing nine articles comprising 23 authors/researchers from five countries and 117 faculty members provided multiple perspectives, locations, and approaches to the central research question. Because the research design relied on qualitative methods, the findings contain rich, thick description. This description appears in the form of quotations from the original studies, which provide the reader with information by which to gauge the accuracy of the interpretations. Furthermore, the findings from the qualitative studies used as data concur with and extend many of those from the quantitative studies, providing an additional measure of trustworthiness.

An additional step toward ensuring trustworthiness involved using peers in several phases of the process. A colleague with expertise in qualitative research reviewed initial codes for the purpose of questioning accuracy. This step led to revising certain codes (collapsing two codes within a single code and expanding another) as well as to a stronger set of rules about what to include and exclude in certain categories. Second, three colleagues with different levels of experience with online learning assisted with data coding. We initially coded one manuscript and discussed differences in coding. This process led to the clarification of inclusion and exclusion rules for each category. We then coded two additional manuscripts, comparing results after each manuscript. Through this process, we achieved consensus about coding rules and improved agreement. We each coded the remaining six manuscripts independently. I reviewed the individually coded documents and developed a final coded document for each manuscript, sharing it with my colleagues, asking for critique as well as validation, and inviting a conversation to gain final consensus about coded data.

In addition to peer checks, I used member checks to help establish trustworthiness. According to Lincoln and Guba (1985), “The member check, whereby data, analytic categories, interpretations, and conclusions are tested with members of those stakeholding groups from whom the data were originally collected, is the most crucial technique for establishing credibility” (p. 314). This technique is not free from criticism as a validation technique, but its usefulness to the research process seems apparent. For example, Bloor (1997) concluded that, rather than validation of existing evidence, member checks should be viewed as critical additional evidence.

Because of the importance of retaining the researchers’ interpretations to synthesis methods, I believe member checks are useful for qualitative synthesis methods. For this reason, I involved the authors of the original studies in member checking. I sent an e-mail initially to the primary author of approximately half of the studies (four). I introduced myself, told them of my research and about the inclusion of their work in the study, and asked for their assistance. I attached a full-length working draft of the paper. I asked them in particular to provide comments on my findings and conclusions to indicate whether my interpretations were consistent with their findings and to provide comments about the overall document as desired. I noted that my findings would not be the same as theirs because of the inclusion of additional studies, but asked whether they saw them as valid interpretations or whether I needed correction/elaboration in any of the themes identified, implications highlighted, or conclusions drawn. All four authors responded. Their responses provided support and encouragement for the work and ranged in depth from surface corrections to ongoing conversations about the nature of the field of faculty experiences online and of qualitative research. I revised the document based upon their responses and then sent the revised paper to the lead or contact authors from the remaining five studies for review, with the same request for assistance. Four of five authors responded. Again, they indicated support for the work. The authors offered points of clarification of their interpretations, which most often validated the interpretations. Occasionally, the authors provided information that complemented and extended the interpretations; these comments are indicated in the end notes. Their comments suggested additional conclusions, in particular those providing practical advice for institutions.


The findings from this study appear in Figure 1 through Figure 6. Each figure documents three levels of synthesis. First-order analysis involved characterization and cross-case comparison of well-documented findings from the original studies; references to the studies are numbered.1 Second-order synthesis involved compilation of findings and creation of new categories representative of the original studies. Third-order interpretation involved a conceptual, line-of-argument interpretation of the findings. The following section provides a narrative of the findings.


Faculty members in several of the studies indicated that, when teaching online, they were confronted by challenging situations that caused them to reconsider who they were as teachers and how they presented themselves in the technology-mediated environment. As Figure 1 indicates, these situations ultimately led to changes in teaching stance. For example, faculty noted that challenges in the online environment led them to develop a “completely different personality” (Coppola et al., 2002, p. 182). Faculty also reported being conscious of the need to change:

I found that my persona did not work well online. Here the instructor has to be more proactive, more aggressive, and directive in terms of a leadership role; however, that’s not my style. I found myself in a position where I needed to change my teaching style, and I didn’t know how to do that. (Coppola et al., 2002, p. 181)

The faculty member’s self-perceived personality and public teaching role no longer worked in the online environment, creating a tension requiring resolution in a new way of being. Faculty deconstructed and reconstructed their personas online but, as the quotation above demonstrates, initially lacked information about how to make changes.


Faculty in several studies noted shifting beliefs about teacher centrality to the learning process. As one faculty member said, “It has gotten me to think about the fact that class does not revolve around me which is what every new teacher thinks. They are more concerned about themselves and what they are doing” (Coppola et al., 2002, p. 180). One faculty member explained the difference between the face-to-face and online courses in this manner: “In a face-to-face class the instructor initiates the action; meeting the class, handing out the syllabus, etc. In on-line instruction the student initiates the action by going to the website, posting a message, or doing something” (Smith et al., 2002, p. 353).

Faculty often articulated changes in roles, some citing a shift to a role model or mentor of good thinking with others citing a shift toward a facilitator role, which involved asking and answering questions and guiding students’ understanding. One faculty member explained the shift in roles in this way:

It sounds like a cliché at this point, but in the on-line class the instructor is more of a facilitator. This is due to the time lapse more than anything else, I think. They have great discussions with each other; (sometimes, however, they’re off point). My role seems to be moving the discussion along, raising questions, etc. It is not always easy to know when to change the discussion’s focus. In a f2f [face-to-face] everyone is there; in the on-line time needs to be given for more (how many????) students to log in and address a particular question or issue. (Smith et al., 2002, p. 354)

Therefore, changes in perspectives and roles inspired changes in the teaching skills upon which faculty drew.

Some faculty described shifting toward formality online, at least initially. The shift was not always negative, as it could have benefits as well. Yet, even in more neutral explanations, the change seemed to be regarded with a certain nostalgia for the previous, more carefree position. As one faculty member suggested: “I’m more reserved online. I don’t know why. In the classroom I tend to be energetic and I use humor a lot. I use energy a lot. Online, I tend to be more reflective and introspective” (Coppola et al., 2002, p. 180). For this faculty member, intellective skills replaced expressive skills.

Faculty felt a greater demand for accountability online, which caused them to assume a more formal teaching stance than they used in face-to-face settings. They became more careful in crafting responses. This tendency toward formality and precision had some advantages, as faculty in many of the studies became more “thoughtful,” “articulate,” and “intellectual.”2 One faculty member put it this way:

I give myself more time to think about what they’re saying before I respond to them. In the classroom, I’m more prone to avoid the silence. That should probably be easier, the silence, but I hear the question or I read the question and this allows me to really sit back and really think about giving a reasonable response rather than something that’s right there. In class, they want the immediacy, they want my response. And this [ALN3] gives me a chance to think. (Coppola et al., 2002, p. 177)

In this case, the asynchronous nature of communication provided additional time for thinking and providing a reasoned response.

The long life span and permanence of online responses marked one of the primary drives for accountability. One faculty member said it this way:

…because you can get away with things…in a live situation where…it’s transient. I mean, I can get up and I’ll rant and rave about uh, y’know, the past […] government and the sort of inequities of the system…. But if I put that down online, it’d be like […laughs]…I mean if I put that down in writing, ah…. (McShane, 2004, p. 12)

Another said it as follows:

I mean you have to give a much more comprehensive, more thoughtful response. It makes you do research because your response to a question is there for everyone to read, whereas face-to-face you can say something and you say something off the cuff or you’re not sure. But when you’re having to post it, you have to be sure (Conceição, 2006, p. 39).

Faculty seemed more wary of written communication.4 The permanence of the written word gave faculty an added feeling of scrutiny and accountability for their responses.


As Figure 2 indicates, faculty in many of the studies found professional renewal from teaching online. However, many faculty members noted that, initially, they felt a sense of stepping into the unknown. They lacked knowledge about their undertakings so they did not always appreciate the difficulty of teaching online or the technology’s potential and power. One faculty member explained it in the following way:

It’s difficult because we don’t always appreciate the possibilities that are available because we don’t understand them.… You don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t know what it is that you could be asking because you don’t realize the potential; new IT development could be absolutely wonderful but because you haven’t used or haven’t been aware of it, you don’t realize you could put your time into it. (Samarawickrema & Stacey, 2007, p. 324)

While some faculty initially felt trepidation about the unknown, most tended to overcome it and engage with technology in extended ways.


Many of the faculty described a renewed appreciation of the complexity of teaching while working online. Faculty often articulated a sense of intellectual challenge. They developed new ideas and skill sets, which they enjoyed learning. One faculty member explained it this way:

I think it has added some excitement to teaching, some new challenges. Teaching is not a new concept, it has been around for hundreds of years. People have learned what works and what doesn’t work. Then all of a sudden with computers and technology, a new avenue has been opened for us. This offers a new mode of teaching for us we are not familiar with. Because you are an effective teacher in the classroom does not mean you are an effective teacher in this mode. There are new issues, new challenges, new tools to bring to this. (Coppola et al., 2002, p. 185)

The technology afforded faculty something they craved: an opportunity to learn. One faculty member explained it this way:

The intellectual challenge of mastering new skills and putting things together. How I am going to design the course and ask questions, how to integrate materials. Every time, I sit down to do an exercise, it’s a learning experience to me. (Coppola et al., 2002, p. 185)

Using technology presented faculty with a new way of thinking about teaching and learning. They believed the technology challenged them to consider not only what they were doing but also why they were doing it. One faculty member put it this way: “It has gotten me to rethink pedagogical objectives, pedagogical techniques. It has exposed me to new ideas and a new means of delivery that I hadn’t paid any attention to at all” (Coppola et al., 2002, p. 180). Thus, using technology to deliver instruction caused faculty to think about what they were going to teach, how best to teach it, and how to use the technology to accomplish the teaching act.

Faculty often discussed the creative aspect of teaching online. One faculty member described it as follows: “It’s like creating a new work of art, and you could say this is mine” (Bongalos et al., 2006, p. 700). Another faculty member explained it this way “It adds a new dimension to teaching…I think there is more creativity that goes into the creation of a class. I think the technology is changing so dynamically that it is almost fascinating to be involved in this process” (Coppola et al., 2002, p. 185). As is apparent in the quotations above, faculty frequently likened the creative act of teaching online to art. Many faculty also likened it to creative or scholarly writing.

For the faculty in these studies, redesigning instruction and teaching the course initiated a fun and exciting adventure they found professionally satisfying. As Conceição (2006) stated:

There was a wide array of perspectives related to the type of satisfaction gained from the experience of designing and delivering an online course. Words such as ‘stimulating,’ ‘invigorating,’ ‘exciting,’ ‘rewarding,’ ‘satisfying,’ ‘gratifying,’ and ‘empowering’ convey the sense of satisfaction the experience gave to them. (p. 40)

One faculty member said it this way: “It’s just fun logging in and seeing what people have to say. And it’s exciting watching the [learners] really respond and get into it…and that’s what kind of keeps me going” (Conceição, 2006, p. 40). Another said, “it was actually a lot of fun putting the assignments on to the web page….I created a crossword puzzle and it was on-line…It was a lot of fun” (Coppola et al., 2002 p. 178).


Faculty in many of the studies noted they increased the organization and structure of courses when teaching online, as revealed in Figure 3. Several felt a need for additional planning, envisioning the entire course from start to finish. One faculty member put it this way:

In the course development role I am finding that I really have to change because I have had to be organized for every aspect of the whole course. I think in a virtual environment over-planning is an essential virtue….course development is much more complex in the sense that I must not only plan for content and pacing, but also interaction, and pre-planning or highlighting what will happen. I need to have clear in my mind what will happen, what the expectations are, and to find a way to communicate all of it in a text environment. (Kanuka et al, 2002, p. 158)

This quotation evidences two trends toward increasing structure. First, faculty believed knowledge had to be structured and scaffolded for students and that it had to be broken down into manageable “chunks” that made sense in the new web environment. Second, faculty worked to anticipate student actions and responses. Some faculty seemed to have a predestined path for students to follow, while others sought to provide students with multiple pathways for learning. Many faculty reported structuring courses and assignments so that students received immediate feedback on and confirmation of learning.


Faculty provided a variety of reasons for increasing structure, including improving student learning and increasing teaching efficiency.5 They also reported mixed success on achieving those goals, with some faculty noting the tighter structure improved learning (“Even stuff that didn’t work, it had much greater structure, so that was good for them. I think they learned more,” Coppola et al, 2002, p. 180), while others noted it restrained learning. For example, one faculty member mentioned that increased structure

does not encourage the learners to assume as much responsibility for their learning, and keeps them in a comfort zone that reduces the odds of them taking greater risks in their learning. The result is that they may not have stretched in their thinking as much as I would have liked. (Kanuka et al., 2002, p. 159–160)

Some faculty members articulated improvements in efficiency, while others indicated that structuring responses and assignments increased workload by increasing numbers of student postings and assessment measures.6

A highly structured approach to teaching resulted in many faculty feeling a loss of spontaneity. They believed that technology was restrictive and prohibited them from approaching teaching in the ways they wanted. They indicated that planning courses from start to finish months in advance prevented improvisation or change based upon course needs or current events. As one faculty member explained,

Things are much more structured and perhaps rigid than they are in a regular course. When I teach a course, oftentimes I find topics and readings and things of interest the day before I teach. I read a book, I read a new journal article, I would see something in the paper. I bring that into class. And I modify and adjust my syllabus accordingly. In an online environment, I have to make decisions about what to teach, what to talk about, what content to cover 6 months in advance, without knowing the audience, without knowing their specific needs, without being able to react to what’s coming from the class. (Conceição, 2006, p. 35)

They also felt decreased spontaneity in conversations, indicating they lost the give and take necessary to foster in-depth discussion. As one faculty member said: “It’s very canned instruction and…spontaneity is lost in that…. We seem to jump from topic to topic a lot. It’s really hard to pursue an in-depth discussion on topic with give and take. It’s hard to do that in writing” (Conceição, 2006, p. 37). Thus, some sensed teaching had become more automated and less creative.


As indicated in Figure 4, faculty in several of the studies believed they assumed many new responsibilities when teaching online. As one faculty member put it, “You become an administrator and a teacher and a multimedia developer and you are a researcher and whatever else that I’ve left out” (Samarawickrema & Stacey, 2007, p. 323). Faculty were mixed about whether these added responsibilities were positive or negative, with some viewing them as opportunities to improve learning and connections with students and others seeing them as diminishing creative and expressive work, which were replaced by dull tasks. Faculty views on this question appeared connected to the nature and number of the responsibilities as well as to the support they had for completing them.


One of the greatest responsibilities involved managing students’ technology. In Bongalos et al.’s (2006) study, faculty identified several difficulties in managing students, including “password problems, the site’s accessibility and the computer literacy.…” (p. 699). One faculty member in Lao and Gonzales’s (2005) study noted,

I’ve learned over the years that students need to have the right technology to begin with because if you don’t have the right…you know enough memory on your computer, and the right version of Netscape or Explorer, [then] you can’t get into the chat room and all those kinds of things. You don’t know right away the first time you are doing it. (p. 468)

Faculty in Coppola’s (2002) study indicated that getting students enrolled was a “major headache.” Other “headaches” involved making sure students had an appropriate account, getting students signed into conferences to do their work, and dealing with students enrolling late. These additional responsibilities seemed to diminish faculty’s online experiences.

Faculty indicated a need to set expectations for participation. Some faculty cited disappointment with low participation and with student participation for spurious purposes, such to appease the instructor or to earn a good grade. One faculty member explained it in this way:

In this module there is a very clear design assumption that everyone would participate in the online environment and that they will do that in quite a highly structured way…. It's not uncommon in previous modules for the online activity to be seen by the students as entirely optional. The majority of them wouldn’t participate at all in any one module and if you look back over the last two years on the programme under half of the students that could participate in the online activity did so. So this is actually better than that, but it's not as good as I hoped for when I was designing it. (Jones et al., 2000, p. 5)

Others celebrated achieving 100% participation and high quality, evidenced in the thoughtfulness and reflection of student assignments and postings (“I feel that I can get real input—it’s almost like having a seminar, and that’s nice. Because I get 100% participation,” Coppola et al., 2002, p. 186).

Faculty also assumed new duties of learning and using technology. As one professor put it, “It takes time. An ALN professor is not born; they evolve from this and it takes a long time” (Coppola et al., 2002, p. 183). While some were familiar with technology or adopted it easily, others had more difficulty: “And also, I got, my neck was all crimped up and my hand and I had to go to a masseur and things like that” (Coppola et al., 2002, p. 184). Another faculty member explained it this way:

Now that everything is all said and done, I’ve come to realize that when teaching these online courses that it’s really easy for the small things to become big things. The small things that became big things for me were typing [laugh]…maybe you’d call it ‘pecking,’ marking online, and attaching and receiving files—and to do all this without losing the assignments [attachments] and not having my computer crash from a virus I somehow managed to acquire along the way with an attached assignment. (Kanuka et al., 2002, p. 157)

Related to the new technological duties was the added responsibility of working with technology staff. Faculty noted that the lack of prompt responses caused additional work for them as well as additional stress.


As Figure 5 indicates, faculty views on time changed when teaching online. They often described shifts in how they conceptualized time. In particular, they mentioned that work was no longer contained within a set time and place. As one faculty member revealed,

Teaching, I have to say, takes a lot of my time … it’s a bit like gas where it expands, whatever room you put it in, it will expand, whatever time I give it, it’ll just take … so I have to put very strict limits. (Samarawickrema & Stacey, 2007, pp. 321–22)

Faculty also suggested that work was constant. Furthermore, they explained that students “expected” them to be online and accessible at any time of day or night, which many found undesirable, although a few enjoyed the constant connection with students. They indicated that work extends into personal time as well. As one professor explained,

I want to be able, if I want, to choose to go online on the weekends. But I don’t want a situation where it’s expected of me to be going online on a Sunday evening. I want time with my family. (Conceição, 2006, p. 38)

Another said it this way:

When? Anytime of the day, even weekends. That’s another thing…. I’ve done this on Sunday night, I’ve done this when I’m on sick leave. When I had the heart trouble I was off for nearly eight weeks and I still had students firing questions at me. I answered them ‘cause I was at home and I was feeling all right. Ahmm, it tends to… I think you’ve gotta turn off. I think you’ve really got to…say to yourself, ‘Ok, there’s a student needing a response there. But it’s Sunday night. No, I’m going to look at that tomorrow.’ (McShane, 2004, p. 10)

Many faculty members felt a need to set boundaries between work and home life.


Faculty also described increases in the amount of time spent teaching online. They believed it took them more time to deliver a course online than face to face. They expressed time both in percentages (e.g., one faculty member from Conceição, 2006, p. 38, suggested it took 50% more time to deliver an online course than a classroom-based course) and in hours per week (e.g., one said teaching online added several additional hours a day, Coppola et al., 2002, p. 181). Faculty most frequently mentioned that corresponding with students through e-mails and postings created the greatest demand on time. Additional time went toward providing individual feedback on each written assignment, including student journals. The challenge these faculty felt stemmed from the notion that, if they were in a classroom with the students, they could respond quickly and immediately, but the process of writing things down caused an additional investment of time. Faculty revealed the increased demands on their time, far exceeding the demands of teaching face-to-face courses, took a toll on other professional activities, research in particular.


Faculty described a number of ways in which they deconstructed then reconstructed relationships with students, as depicted in Figure 6. Faculty found they had to renegotiate professional status with students. They mentioned a need to establish status online: “Sometimes I think they forget I’m there!!!” (Smith et al, 2002, p. 354). They also felt a need to assert presence at each point of communication with students: “On-line you establish yourself again and again with each response” (Smith et al., 2002, p. 353).


While redefining and reasserting status could prove challenging, some faculty saw a benefit in being freed from preconceptions students might hold. One faculty member put it this way: “What I liked was…it [e-mail] seemed to me really good in establishing a rapport with students, who look at me and think, ‘You’re my mother’s age….’ CMC7 makes it easier to, I suppose, relate to the whole person” (McShane, 2004, p. 8). Freed from observable markers of demographic characteristics, faculty connected with students on a new level.

In a similar fashion, the online environment eliminated markers that could have led faculty to stereotype students. One faculty member related the following incident:

There was one student who was having a particularly difficult time and this student’s name was ‘Hollie.’ I imagined the student, from the name, to be a small, slim 60’s hippie-looking female with long light brown hair, rimless glasses, and Laura Ashley dresses. One day Hollie came to campus to talk to me directly about problems in completing the Web pages for the class. At the appointed time I looked up to see ‘Hollie’ standing in my doorway. Hollie was a handsome, athletic African-American male about six foot four. After that, I vowed never to pre-suppose anything about a student based on name. (Smith et al., 2002, p. 355)

Many faculty explained similar changes in how they perceived students in the absence of physical markers.

Faculty in many of the studies described increased closeness to students. Some learned more about students on an intellectual level online than in face-to-face courses, providing a point of connection with students. For such faculty, the online environment created a “kind of a purified atmosphere” (Smith et al., 2002, p. 352) in which faculty knew the students through their work. As one faculty member explained:

Interesting story: recently I had printed out a number of student papers to grade on a plane. And (damn them!) most forgot to type their names into their electronically submitted papers. I went ahead and graded them and guessed who wrote each one. When I was later able to match the papers with the names, I was right each time. Why? Because I knew their writing styles and interests. When all of your communication is written, you figure out these things quickly. I would know if someone else wrote a paper. (Smith et al., 2002, p. 355)

For some faculty, this increased knowledge of students at an intellectual level replaced visual cues and physical markers.8

Perhaps because of the increased closeness to students, faculty in some of the studies expressed increased appreciation for them. Faculty noted they could draw upon student experiences when teaching: “One of the things that we want is for people to learn from each other, get insights into their own work by hearing about other peoples’ work…um…actually giving some of their background is really quite useful” (Jones et al., 2000, p. 6). Faculty also saw students as partners in the learning process: “I have learned…from my [six years with] online [learners] a lot more than I have learned the previous 15 years from my on-campus learners” (Conceição, 2006, p. 41). Further, they noted changed levels of responsibility for connecting with students, including increased responsibilities to reach new audiences, particularly those “professionals who have a lot to contribute” (Conceição, 2006, p. 41), and to build community among online learners.

However, the new relationships were not always positive, as faculty in many of the studies described losses rather than gains. Faculty articulated a number of reasons for feelings of loss, including their inability to draw upon relationship-building tools that had served them in the past:

I felt that a lot of my skills … that I would traditionally rely on—like body language—I don’t have anymore. Smiley faces, they’re not my thing…. So it took a while thinking about all that good stuff and wondering, how do I get that back? (Coppola et al., 2002, p. 183)

Coppola et al. (2002) explained that, “Faculty noted the absence of nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, eye contact, voice qualities, and body movement, which are used in the classroom to support and encourage students on both conscious and unconscious levels” (p. 179). Faculty could no longer rely upon sensory and expressive skills to establish and maintain relationships with students.

One loss that several faculty members identified was of the immediate interchange of face-to-face synchronous conversation, noting that the time lapse in asynchronous courses allowed shallow exchanges. Some faculty believed their relationships with students suffered because of the asynchronous nature of the conversation, indicating that they could have identified misunderstandings in a face-to-face environment, rather than allowing them to build, which increased stress and frustration for them as well as for students. One faculty member explained it this way:

When you and I are talking face-to-face, the manner, the way we go about discussing things, how we say things, how we look each other in the eye, how we gauge things that we say based on how you react to that I said… If I get the impression that you are uncomfortable I may adjust and so on. This isn’t there with the keyboard. (Coppola et al., 2002, p. 179)

For this faculty member, the technological interface could not replace sensory relationships with students.

Finally, a number of faculty simply missed seeing students. One faculty member put it this way:

It’s more difficult to build up those kinds of personal relationships. I would classify myself as a teacher not the content expert. Teaching is where my interest is. I miss not having that face-to-face time, that relationship building opportunity. I know that it will be different. I like seeing people. I like seeing how they change throughout the term. Their hair grows longer. They dye their hair. They pierce their nose. I like seeing those changes in people, you know. I like being able to have that personal time, which is different than in a distance educational environment. So I miss it. But maybe it’s different and equally rich, but different. (Kanuka et al., 2002, p. 161)

Another explained it in this manner:

The reason I don’t want to do it again is the hours in front of the computer is 10% as gratifying to me as the same hours face-to face….I just don’t enjoy sitting in front of the computer and reading people’s responses and responding to them and so on….I didn’t care for it. I found myself dreading sitting down in front of the computer and doing all those interactive stuff, whereas I don’t dread going to the class to work with students. Not my cup of tea. But for someone else that likes that type of format, it’d be great. (Lao & Gonzales, 2005)

The online environment did not provide an adequate substitute for the sensory and expressive relationships some faculty believed they established with students in face-to-face courses. For these faculty members, abstract relationships did not allow the closer relationships experienced by others who used technology to make deep and rich connections with students.


Prior to a discussion of the findings and their implications, several delimitations and limitations of the study bear mention. First, searching electronic databases using keywords and hand-searching selected tables of contents for works published in the last decade represented the best method of searching the largest pool of articles available; however, these choices of searching strategies may not have uncovered all articles that possibly could have warranted inclusion; in particular, articles not indexed by ERIC or Academic Elite or articles published in less well-known journals could have been overlooked because of the search strategies. Second, the decision to gather and use as many articles as possible led to the inclusion of articles of varying levels of depth, explication, and length. This variation meant that some articles presented more and lengthier quotations from participants and thus were richer sources of representative quotations of given themes; Figure 1 through Figure 6, which identify each article that evidenced a particular theme, were created in an effort to overcome the limitation of uneven numbers of quotations from source articles by documenting the representativeness of key findings. Third, the research approaches and context of the articles included in the synthesis limited the applicability of the findings to other settings. Such limitations warrant further exploration.

One example of a limitation introduced by the articles included in the synthesis is that many of the original studies seem to have been conducted at similar kinds of institutions: public universities. While the findings of this study may not be applicable to small private liberal arts colleges or community colleges, they likely have much to offer other universities. Many of the original studies apparently focused on faculty teaching at the undergraduate level. Thus, while the findings of this research may not be as fit for explaining how faculty at the graduate level, in technical programs, or in nondegree programs will experience teaching online, the findings may be applicable for faculty teaching at a similar level. Since the original studies focused on asynchronous courses, the findings may not be as applicable to synchronous online courses or for teleconferenced courses as they are to online asynchronous courses. Further, the original studies focused on courses using commercial or in-house standardized course platforms; therefore, the findings may not have as much applicability for those who design their own courses or who teach in simulated environments, such as Second Life, or through academic social network sites, as they do for faculty who use commercial products such as Blackboard. Finally, original studies involved faculty apparently associated with a single institution and occupying more traditional faculty roles; thus, these findings may not be as relevant for the growing number of adjunct faculty who, as a career, teach online for multiple institutions.


The results of this research are indicative, rather than conclusive, and they hold potential value to those working in contexts similar to those of the faculty interviewed in the original studies. In addition, the results are supported in many ways by findings from quantitative studies. Qualitative studies extend the findings of quantitative studies by documenting both how faculty experience these changes and why they believe these changes occur. For example, quantitative studies reveal that faculty believe they will spend more time developing and delivering online than face-to-face courses. Findings from qualitative studies concur, revealing that faculty believe that time expands, that it subsumes personal time, that time requirements are constant, and that students expect and demand time. As another example, quantitative studies document faculty belief that online courses require more structure. Qualitative findings concur, extending this finding by documenting that faculty believe they must structure knowledge as well as student actions. In one last example, quantitative studies indicate many faculty members believe they will forge closer relations with students. Qualitative findings concur, extending this finding by documenting that such changes may occur through the elimination of physical markers that can lead to stereotype and bias and that closeness occurs through the creation of an intellectually purified atmosphere.

These individual qualitative studies also evidence many findings not documented in quantitative studies. The finding, for example, that the longevity of the written word causes faculty to think longer before responding and to strive for precision in responses is unique to qualitative studies. In addition, the finding that faculty believe that teaching online is a creative act and compare it to research and writing is unique to qualitative studies. As a third example, the finding of changed power dynamics in the online environment is also unique to qualitative studies. These exploratory studies have advanced knowledge by discovering and presenting many unique findings.

Metasynthesis further contributes to the body of knowledge by reviewing, analyzing, synthesizing, and interpreting these individual studies in aggregate. This process documented important patterns and connections among findings. As the figures and the narrative demonstrate, faculty beliefs and perspectives are challenged in a technologically mediated environment. Faculty strive to adapt in order to meet the challenges. Whether they adapt successfully to the new environment or whether they determine that online teaching is not their “cup of tea” depends on whether and how they harness the technology and draw upon it to reconstitute social relations and structures with students. These findings provide opportunities to guide future research as well as to inform current practice, particularly for those working in similar contexts.


While working through studies on faculty and distance education—not only those selected for inclusion but also those excluded from this study—I realized that my work rests upon the assumption that lessons may be drawn from existing literature to guide future research. In addition to uncovering information about faculty experiences in distance education, my study revealed ways to advance this body of knowledge. I suggest that future research add depth to existing literature and make efforts toward transferability and credibility more apparent.


While the number of qualitative studies that examine faculty experiences with online distance education is small, existing literature provides a solid base upon which to build. Extending this research is critical to the field. Additional focused studies would deepen the understanding of online learning, and future qualitative synthesis could add breadth by examining new relationships and patterns to improve the understanding of the potential of online distance learning in higher education. Adding depth may be accomplished in several ways.

Future studies could focus on individual issues related to online distance education. Existing studies about faculty experiences with online learning represent important exploratory research. As such, this literature largely provides an overview of faculty perceptions of change, and future studies about single aspects of how technology changes teaching and learning would deepen the knowledge base. Research has yet to take as a single focus, for example, changes to faculty personas in an online environment, although some studies have examined faculty roles (see, for example, Coppola, 1997; Coppola et al., 2002). Future work could examine this change more closely, focusing on how persona is simultaneously more abstract yet more personal. Future studies could examine the issue of authority in the online environment, which has not yet been the subject of investigation. While there are studies of faculty workload, no study has taken as a single focus faculty perceptions of changes in time, for example, such as how faculty perceive time as more fragmented and disjointed. While many studies of student outcomes exist, no study identifies faculty perceptions of changes in outcomes nor focuses singly on faculty and student relationships. Such focused research is critical to understand the varied ways that faculty experience teaching online.

Future research could illuminate differences among the various types of online learning. The broad literature base about distance education often conflates different modes into a single monolithic category. When reviewing these works, it is difficult to determine at times whether the researcher has examined synchronous, asynchronous, blended courses, or a combination of these, or even whether the researcher has examined online or other forms such as teleconferencing. Focused studies could help not only to clarify the language in the field but also to provide useful information about how faculty experience various forms of online learning.

Future research could provide information about online learning at different types of educational institutions. Qualitative literature on this topic is frequently vague about the setting of the research. While the term “online learning” arguably defies or blurs geographic and institutional boundaries, faculty teaching a given course are generally affiliated with the institution that offers the course (and when they are not, it is noteworthy). Most current literature seems to focus on faculty who teach in four-year institutions. Future studies could focus on experiences within specific institutional types, such as community colleges, comprehensive universities, research universities, historically black colleges, religious institutions, tribal colleges, online or “click and brick” institutions, and so forth. Studies conducted at these different sites would add to understanding how institutional culture and differing student populations can influence faculty experiences with online learning.

Future qualitative studies could examine online learning in specific educational contexts within institutions. Studies of faculty and online learning in specific disciplines or within interdisciplinary contexts, for example, would deepen the understanding of how disciplinarity influences faculty online experiences. Examining teaching in programs offered fully online or in programs that offer only a few courses as a small part of face-to-face degree programs could provide information about whether the amount and duration of time online influences faculty experiences. Researchers could focus on faculty teaching courses aimed at different education levels (e.g., freshmen, seniors, graduate students) to attempt to discover whether student level influences faculty experience. All of these foci would be important additions to the knowledge base, as various interconnected cultures and subcultures, whether disciplinary, departmental, or student, may influence faculty experiences with online teaching.


While trying to identify studies for inclusion in this work, methodological gaps became conspicuous, particularly in those articles excluded from the study. There may be a number of reasons for such gaps, including journal limitations on article length. Whatever the reason, the result is that readers often lack sufficient detail to evaluate transferability and credibility. Indeed, lack of transferability is one of the most common criticisms of qualitative research. I argue, and have attempted to demonstrate, that such criticism need not be justifiable. Rather, findings from qualitative studies may be applicable to other settings, populations, and circumstances if they share common ground or a common context; and research methods may be transferred for use in future studies, such as those proposed in the preceding section. Such transferable methods and findings may indeed provide a greater understanding of a phenomenon, in this case, of faculty experiences with distance learning. While the burden of transferability rests with the individual who will apply the original research, studies that are well designed and executed and fully reported greatly increase the likelihood that the results will apply outside the boundaries of the original study or that research methods may be transferred for use in other studies. As Lincoln and Guba indicated (1985), “It is not the naturalist’s task to provide an index of transferability, but it is his or her responsibility to provide the data base that makes transferability judgments possible on the part of potential appliers” (p. 316). Further, qualitative researchers have an obligation to demonstrate credibility. A number of avenues exist for making transferability and credibility judgments more feasible in this field.

Articulating well-defined qualitative research designs could aid transferability judgments. Existing studies of faculty experiences with online distance education take a variety of qualitative research designs, including basic qualitative research, phenomenology, and case study. Drawing from a variety of designs and approaches deepens understanding of how teaching and learning change in an online environment. However, in much of the existing literature, it is difficult to determine how one design differs from another; indeed, many different terms describe apparently similar designs. Further, researchers sometimes use various terms, “semistructured,” “structured,” and “open-ended,” to describe the same kind of questioning procedures. Language to describe data analysis varies as well but also appears to describe similar techniques. Finally, the reader rarely knows the total population or the participant selection process. Many times, the reader cannot identify participants’ academic disciplines. In part because qualitative research tells a unique story and in part because there are no hard and fast rules about which methodological details to include, methods sections often cannot be given short shrift. Transferability requires sufficient information about the research design, data collection, and data analysis methods to demonstrate that the researcher approached the research question in a sensible way.

Using established techniques for presenting findings could demonstrate transferability. Sequences from original data, such as direct quotations, generally support results of qualitative research. Generally, such data appear with information that provides unity and coherence to the narrative (such as participant pseudonyms, numbered extracts, etc.). Studies of faculty experiences in online environments often lack such original data, and, when such data appear, it is often difficult to distinguish among the faculty members quoted. Indeed, two studies warranted exclusion from my research in part because of such deficiencies. Such rich, thick description can paint a more vivid picture of the experiences of faculty teaching online and can aid judgments about transferability.

Identifying researcher positionality could allow readers to make more informed judgments about credibility. What an interviewer believes can influence data interpretation. Whether the interviewer has taught online may influence the reading and coding of transcripts. In addition, many researchers have a direct connection with the courses they are investigating, often serving as faculty of record. Both insider and outsider perspectives are critical, for the insider can understand nuances of the experience that the outsider might not, while the outsider often can identify overarching patterns that an insider might miss or take for granted. However, few studies in this field provide information about researcher positionality. The qualitative interviewer can provide information about his or her background, experience, and stake in the course so that readers are knowledgeable consumers of information.


Because faculty hold key roles in determining whether online learning will become an enduring part of higher education’s instructional mission, findings about faculty experiences of teaching online hold implications for institutions, particularly those seeking to begin, continue, or increase online offerings. Based upon these findings, I offer the following ideas for enhancing faculty experiences.


Faculty may feel uneasy as they renegotiate representing and re-presenting persona as well as status in an online environment. They become, in effect, authors of themselves, which can be liberating as well as challenging. They no longer have the face-to-face presence that can help assert traditional representations that establish their expertise, such as standing in front of a class at a lectern, dressing more formally than students, or appearing older than students. Rather, faculty online find themselves engaging with students in a disembodied environment in which they are not physically discernable from students. Faculty may be unprepared for such challenges and changes to teaching personas.

Most support offered at an institutional level has involved helping faculty convert existing courses to an online format, and, when faculty assume they will remain the center of authority and control, they may feel threatened or discouraged by unexpected change and challenge. Programs preparing faculty to teach online can acquaint faculty with a variety of teaching styles and roles. Technology staff who assist with course development can aid faculty in establishing a persona for the new environment, for example, by helping faculty personalize course sites with photos and graphics or by creating avatars. Teaching experts can help faculty renegotiate new roles and talk through feeling as if all they ever knew about teaching is worthless. Formal workshops as well as informal work sessions with faculty can help accomplish these goals.


Faculty teaching in an online environment may experience change in two ways. They may find the new environment dull and automatic. They may struggle against the need for additional structure. They may feel hampered by additional feelings of accountability. On the other hand, faculty may find themselves empowered and challenged. They may see new tools as powerful, allowing for creative expression and outlet. They may see scrutiny and accountability as providing opportunities for greater reflection and learning.

Some institutions are moving toward standardized courses, designed by a single subject-matter expert and developed by a technologist, providing little opportunity for contribution by the faculty member teaching the course. While this may be an efficient model, it may hamper the creative dimension of teaching online and lead to automation of the teaching responsibility. Institutions should determine where opportunities for creativity exist, whether in content creation or technology infusion, and encourage faculty to take advantage of such opportunities. Including teaching faculty in course design can encourage their participation in the creative process.

Faculty who have sole responsibility for designing and delivering courses may have more creative control, but they need to understand they will face challenges and need knowledge and skills to harness the opportunities that technology can provide. Demonstrations of technological tools used in a variety of contexts will help faculty understand the range of possibilities. Workshops on specific technological tools can help them gain confidence with various platforms. Recognizing and rewarding this work as scholarship (see Boyer, 1990) could provide faculty not only with recognition but also with a sense of safety and support to engage with it as well as encouragement for the endeavor.


Much of the existing literature about faculty teaching online focuses on how professional responsibilities shift toward managerial roles and how faculty use time differently. Such studies indicate that increases in the amount of teaching time, whether real or perceived, coupled with a lack of incentives such as financial support or release time, is a serious deterrent to the development and use of technology-mediated instruction (Bower, 2001; Chizmar & Williams, 2001; Pachnowski & Jurczyk, 2003; McKenzie et al., 2000; Schifter, 2000; Wilson, 2001). However, the faculty in this synthesis study spoke of responsibilities and time in a different way. While they believed they spent more time on tasks, they indicated that time categories shifted from fixed to variable, requiring them to be available to students at any time, which could be overwhelming or empowering. Further, work management issues associated with added responsibilities contributed to feelings of having dull and meaningless jobs.

Faculty preparing to teach online should develop time management skills for the new environment and consider how best to capitalize on the ways different conceptions of time could be liberating for them. For example, while the technology required that work be more dispersed as well as more time intensive, it provided faculty with flexibility in their schedules and their on-campus appearances, a great appeal for many faculty. Institutional policies can support and encourage effective time management and schedule flexibility. For example, setting enrollment caps on courses can prevent feelings of being overwhelmed and burdened by e-mail. In addition, suggesting a limit for the number of online courses a faculty member should teach in a single semester can help ensure they do not become too overloaded by their online responsibilities. Finally, policies encouraging “virtual office hours” can allow faculty to take advantage of flexible time and space.

To maximize the talents of faculty and staff, design teams consisting of faculty as well as technical, teaching, and library support staff can work together. For faculty to truly engage with and use the technological tools, some of the more administrative and technical course delivery duties could rest with professional staff who have the skill set and inclination to handle them. In addition, institutions would be well served to recognize that a faculty member’s “personal” technology likely will be used to communicate with students. Providing hardware and software that can be used on or off campus is an institutional investment in online learning.


Technology reconstitutes social relations. Rather than relying on traditional social relations and cues, relationships are established through print and graphic interfaces. Faculty may respond to this new environment by feeling removed from tangible presence with students, or they may feel that issues of power and control, stereotype and bias have disappeared. In the studies I synthesized, while the technology physically removed faculty from students, often it permitted faculty to develop new respect for students as learners, to increase their connections with students, and to reduce feelings of bias. Zuboff’s notions of “informating skills” and following notions of changes in conceptions of time and space are evident in these findings.

Helping faculty anticipate changes can afford them an opportunity to think through new ways of relating to students. Providing information about the changes students may experience, either by sharing existing research with them or establishing mentorship programs in which they can talk with experienced faculty, could alleviate feelings of isolation. Further, creating opportunities to “meet” students, whether through orientation sessions, teleconferencing, or other means could help faculty develop a sense of knowing students.


The title of this article, “Do Virtual Professors Dream of Electric Students? University Faculty Experiences with Online Distance Education,” alludes to the title of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” which inspired the movie “Blade Runner.” In that work, Dick blended concepts of humanity and technology while considering several important questions, including who or what a human is and what it means to be human in a technological world. The authors of the studies I analyzed likewise considered teaching in a technological environment and provided insights as well as further questions about who faculty are and what it means to teach online. The findings suggest that faculty indeed appeared to re-create, re-present, and even author themselves online, ultimately creating a “virtual professor.” The term “electric” seems apt for describing how faculty view online students. They ranged from enthusiastic, indicating that online students are energetic and lively, to troubled, indicating that students are isolated, remote, and, in some senses, automated. The term “dream” underscores the central question of whether faculty really want to teach online, whether they dream of being virtual professors interacting with electric students. This research suggests the answer is complex but depends, in part, upon whether faculty use technology for establishing connections and reconstituting social relations.

It is critical to the field of distance learning to find new ways of understanding existing literature. Achieving this goal was the primary purpose of this study. The process raised a number of points about metasynthesis and how it may best be accomplished as well as verified. These points present an opportunity for continued conversations about the methodology of qualitative synthesis. The study also documented many findings and drew connections and patterns among them, taking an important step forward toward understanding teaching in an online environment. These findings represent a starting place for improving current practice as well as for guiding future research.


1. Key for figures:

1 Bongalos et al. (2006)

2 Conceição (2006)

3 Coppola et al. (2002)

4 Jones et al. (2000)

5 Kanuka et al. (2002)

6 Lao & Gonzales (2005)

7 McShane (2004)

8 Samarawickrema & Stacey (2007)

9 Smith et al. (2002)

2. A member check with McShane revealed that one participant in her study, Hilary, “was definite about this point. She believed she could be far more articulate in threaded discussions and e-mail than in face-to-face teaching. Online, she also learned how to ask better questions and to respond to a student’s question with another question.”

3. Asynchronous learning networks

4. A member check with McShane revealed that one of her participants, Rahime, “would not write much to students who asked her questions about the next due essay or assignment—for fear they would take her words and use them verbatim or to organize the structure of their writing! But she would happily have five or six of them in her office madly taking notes on the same matters as she responded to questions they asked.”

5. Further, as Samarawickrema indicated during a member check, using a learning management system by design requires more structure in content presentation delivery. “It is after all a ‘management’ system.”

6. A member check with Jones indicated faculty unease with the notion of structure. Jones et al.’s  study revealed that adopting a tight structure could have undesirable outcomes. In particular, changing to a more tightly structured course held unintended consequences that were in tension with known problems in courses that had looser structural forms. Thus, the experience of trying structural change led to a known tension, but not a clear resolution.

7. Computer-mediated communication

8. A member check with McShane revealed that Hilary noted increased closeness but was also very alert to dis/honesty in text-based contexts. Mcshane noted, “Hilary, for example, was concerned about trust in text-based communications, and wanted to meet with a student who had opened up and told her some terrible family secrets in his online journal. She needed to see him f2f to check he was telling the truth and not ‘spinning her a yarn,’ as she put it.”

9. A member check with Conceição revealed that the author taped and transcribed interviews.


References marked with an asterisk indicate studies included in the metaethnography.

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Appendix A: Inclusion Decisions

Basis of Decision



# of mss

Content and scope

Searched for studies with ERIC descriptors: “Distance Education,” “Web-based Instruction,” “Online Courses,” and “Educational Technology.”

According to the ERIC website, descriptors return more complete results than keyword searches.



Limited time frame to 1998.

Technology changes rapidly, so studies of teaching via older technology might have detracted from meaning. During the late 1990s, personal computers became widely available, more people began to access the Internet, and online course offerings increased; WebCT and Blackboard courseware became publically available, providing standardization to many online courses; 1998 is the first year in which Zhao et al. (2005) found a positive influence on effectiveness of distance education.



Limited the search to research reports and eliminated descriptive reports and opinion papers.

This limitation ensured articles returned were scholarly research.



Searched within results for descriptors “College Faculty” and “Higher Education.”

This limitation ensured a focus on online courses in institutions of higher education and excluded other educational levels, such as adult education, high school equivalency, preschool, K-12.



Searched within the 1,576 articles for interview-based research by using the descriptors “Qualitative Research,” “Interviews,” and “Ethnography.”

This limitation excluded articles employing quantitative methods, such as analysis of large data sets, survey research methods, and social network analysis, and focused on qualitative research methods most likely to examine participant experiences and to collect data one-to-one (contrasted with case studies, more likely to have a different unit of analysis, or focus group interviews, not likely to gather as much depth of information from individuals).



Excluded works that did not employ qualitative methods.

Two in the set were conference proceedings with multiple papers that had no one study that met the criteria; one was program history; one was a program description; one involved survey research.



Excluded studies in which qualitative collection of data from faculty represented a minor part of the research design.

These studies used interviews only to compare or corroborate survey data, and the findings from the interviews, often collected from a single faculty member, were not reported in detail.



Excluded studies in which faculty were not the data sources.

It was critical to learn about faculty experiences directly. Graduates were the sole data source of one study. Administrators were the sole data source of two studies. Instructional designers were the sole source of data of two studies. Project managers were the sole data source of one study. K-12 teachers in a university partnership were the source of one study. Online workers were the data source of one study.



Excluded studies in which faculty experience with online teaching was not the focus of the research.

This step eliminated studies of faculty opinions about a specific course, program, or institution, rather than the experience more generally.



Excluded articles about other topics.

Two studies focused on faculty perceptions of specific teaching techniques (problem-based learning and collaborative learning); one study was about faculty attempts to establish social presence online; one study was on faculty perceptions of change management, and one case study on a faculty development workshop was designed to encourage mid to late adopting faculty members to teach online. One study of teleconferenced rather than online courses also required exclusion. Three studies were on classroom-based technology (e.g., using a networked computer system during a face-to-face class session).



Used various combinations of key words, formerly descriptors.

This search step ensured that searching by descriptors rather than key words had not bypassed relevant articles.



Searched the contents of key journals in the field of distance education.

Key journals in the field of distance education were most likely to have articles on topic that might have not turned up during a descriptor or keyword search. The journals I searched included American Journal of Distance Education, British Journal of Educational Technology, Distance Education, Educational Technology Research and Development, International Journal of Instructional Media, Internet and Higher Education, Journal of Computing in Higher Education, Journal of Distance Education, Journal of Educational Technology Systems, Journal of Research on Technology in Education, Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Open Learning, and Quarterly Review of Distance Education.



Searched bibliographies of relevant articles.

Authors of relevant studies could have cited articles related to specific disciplines that did not turn up in ERIC.


Contribution to the study

Eliminated studies that did not contribute new information to the study.

One conference paper was subsequently published in a peer-reviewed journal. One study appeared in four forms: a conference paper, a full-length research article, a magazine with a target audience of practitioners, and a second, separate full-length scholarly article. I excluded the conference paper and the magazine, and, because the content of the second article repeated the first, I excluded the second article.


Scholarly rigor

Used the prompts documented in Table 2 to guide inclusion and exclusion decisions based upon quality of scholarship.

Quantitative synthesis methods assess quality to exclude studies; however, researchers have not yet agreed on whether or how to appraise papers for inclusion in interpretive reviews (Dixon-Woods et al., 2006). With complex qualitative literature, appraisals of quality can pose several challenges, including the risk of discounting important studies because of “surface mistakes” (Dixon-Woods et al., 2006). Studies that had what might be perceived as minor methodological gaps or oversights did not warrant exclusion. Passing minimum criteria for inclusion did not mean that all articles contributed equally to the findings, as even “weaker” articles had something to contribute (as suggested by Dixon-Woods et al., 2006). One article warranted exclusion because it was not detailed enough to demonstrate the research design, the data collection or analysis procedures, or whether the author had reached valid conclusions. This article had not been subject to any form of peer review. A second article lacked sufficient methodological detail and did not include quotations from participants, so it was impossible to gauge rigor, quality, or accuracy.


Appendix B: Comparison of studies


Primary Researcher institutional affiliation at time of research

Faculty members included in sample

Faculty member institutional affiliation/type of institution

Faculty member rank and discipline

Technological Environment used for teaching online

Form/level/extent of use of online distance education

Bongalos et al. (2006)

Royal and Pontifical University of Santo Tomas

10 college professors

University of Santo Tomas

Not specified


Fully online

Conceição (2006)

University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States

10 faculty members

Different four-year institutions in various geographic regions of the US and Canada

Various disciplines, occupying assistant, associate, and professor ranks

Customized/In-House and Commercial Course Management Systems

Fully online

Coppola et al. (2002)

New Jersey Institute of Technology, Newark, New Jersey, United States

20 faculty

New Jersey Institute of Technology

Various disciplines

Customized/In-House Course Management System

Fully online

Jones et al. (2000)

Lancaster University, Lancashire, England

10 “practitioners”

5 universities

Eight departments; law, information technology, library and information studies, education, and management

Not specified

Both synchronous and asynchronous online courses

Kanuka et al. (2002)

University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada

12 instructors (ranging in experience from vary experienced to not experienced (note, care was taken to extract findings from experienced faculty)

University of Alberta

Faculty of education, delivering an Adult Education BA program online. Rank not mentioned.

Web and FirstClass

Fully online

Lao & Gonzales (2005)

New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico, United States

6 faculty (and seven graduate students; care was taken to extract only information from faculty)

New Mexico University

College of Education


Fully online

McShane (2004)

University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

5 lecturers

A large regional campus at the same university, and one central metropolitan campus

Diverse disciplines

Customized/In-House and WebCT or FirstClass

Combined online and face-to-face

Samarawickrema & Stacey (2007)

Deakin University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

22 faculty members

Monash University; 6 Australian campuses

Faculty from a range of ranks and disciplines


Online learning for both on and off campus learners

Smith et al. (2002)

State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, New York, United States

22 college instructors

Half of participants teach in SUNY Learning Network (SNL); the other half teach elsewhere

(from a sample of 225 faculty teaching online, discovered by distance education environment and at AERA), from assistant professors to adjunct professors

SNL and Blackboard

Fully online

Total: 23 researchers

5 countries

117 faculty members


Appendix B. Comparison of studies continued.


Stated focus of research

Stated Research


Data collection

Data handling

Data analysis

Notions of validity

Positioning of researcher

Bongalos et al. (2006).

Faculty experiences in developing, implementing and evaluating courseware



Interviews were taped and transcribed

Data were categorized

No direct mention

No direct mention

Conceição (2006)

Improvement of quality of instruction


Semi-structured, open-ended interviews, face-to-face and via email

No direct mention9

Data were grouped into clusters, and overlapping data were removed; “imaginative variation” was performed on each theme; “intuitive-reflective integration” developed a synthesis of meanings and experiences.

Member checks, peer examinations, and detailed accounts

Online instructor and instructional designer who is an active advocate of technology

Coppola et al. (2002)

Faculty role related to changes in communication and behavior


Semi-structured interviews

Interviews were taped and transcribed (the interviewer took notes as well).

Data were coded and analyzed using QSR NVivo.

No direct mention; implied in research team’s coding efforts

Faculty and graduate students and part of the research team

Jones et al. (2000)

Varieties of experience of practitioners of networked learning


Open-ended, conversation-style interviews

Interviews were taped and transcribed.

Transcripts were analyzed for differences in experiences and emergent themes.

No direct mention

The Joint Information Systems Committee (a government agency in the UK) funded the research. Authors were a research team, assembled for this project. See acknowledgements in article.

Kankua et al. (2002)

Impact of integrating online teaching on instructor’s role

No mention

Semi-structured interviews

No mention

Keywords were selected through preliminary readings of the data; NUD*ist was used to help search for commonalities.

No mention

No mention

Lao & Gonzales (2005)

Perceptions of professors and graduate students about teaching and learning online


Structured interviews

Interviews were taped and transcribed.

Emerging themes were analyzed.

No direct mention

No direct mention

McShane (2004)

Faculty role concept and teaching choices

Qualitative research/Case study

Semi-structured conversations

Taped interviews; Phone conversation and e-mail follow-ups

Transcripts coded and analyzed for distinguishing narratives, critical incidents, and reflective insights. Cross-case interpretive research

No direct mention; implied in multiple data sources

No mention

Samarawickrema & Stacey (2007)

Reasons for adoption of online learning

Case study involving interviews

Semi- structured and open-ended questions

Interviews were taped and transcribed; transcriptions verified by participants

Data were analyzed using NVivo software; categories and tree structures were developed to explore and generate patterns.

No mention

No mention

Smith et al. (2002)

Isolation and community effects in online learning


Interviews, face-to-face and via e-mail, open-ended and essay style

Data gathered primarily through e-mail; Trends examined; 39 categories of coded responses

Frequency of responses identified; trends in the data identified

Coding by all three authors with comparison to determine agreement

Co-inquirers, with insider perspective (i.e., teach online courses as profs and adjuncts)

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 8, 2010, p. 2154-2208
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15946, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 4:32:20 AM

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About the Author
  • Claire Major
    The University of Alabama
    E-mail Author
    CLAIRE MAJOR is Associate Professor at the College of Education at The University of Alabama. Her research interests include college faculty’s use of innovative instructional approaches. Her recent publications include, “Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Resource for College Faculty,” with Elizabeth Barkley and Pat Cross (Jossey-Bass, 2005) and “Foundations of Problem-based Learning” with Maggi Savin-Baden (Open University Press/Society for Research in Higher Education, 2004).
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