Online Education in Higher Education. What Factors Facilitate and Inhibit It?

Faye L. Lesht, Deborah L. Windes


For higher education to remain innovative and viable in the future, factors facilitating and inhibiting online education must be closely examined and addressed. Higher education's approaches to the phenomenon of online learning reveal much about its ability to be proactive in the face of significant societal change. Miller1 notes that this is a time in higher education not unlike the period after World War II when colleges and universities were compelled to respond to post-war issues and opportunities by revising and establishing policies and procedures to facilitate entry into, and completion of, educational pursuits on the part of men and women from all walks of life. Online learning is a dynamic process that includes the interaction of administrators, faculty, and students. Surprisingly, there is a limited amount of literature written on this dynamic as it pertains to the digital age2. Issues ranging from access to accommodation and trust to management of time, money, and people all combine to create an environment in which online programs succeed, fail, or never materialize. This essay explores some of the major barriers and bridges to online higher education.

Factors Inhibiting Online Higher Education

While not as intense as a decade ago, skepticism about online learning still persists in higher education today3. Attitudes toward online education influence an institution's ability to use multimedia to enhance the educational experience. As is well known by scholars of the pedagogical process, quality education has to do with instructor expertise, course content, teaching methods, student engagement, and related supports4. Delivery modes are important to the extent they are used properly and their complexities and fluidity are not taken for granted5. Colleges and universities must become aware of how attitudes within and outside higher education environments affect approaches to online education. Higher education institutions should systematically revise policies and procedures that inhibit online learning6 in order to remain responsive to societal changes and by so doing, relevant to their constituencies.

One formidable barrier to online learning is the faculty-reward structure at most colleges and universities that remains dependent on teaching, research, and service and often diminishes the uniqueness of online education by treating it as equal to, and part of, residential instruction in promotion and tenure decisions7. For example, at research-intensive institutions in the United States, faculty are often rewarded mainly on research and publication; to entice faculty to engage in online education requires rethinking the faculty reward structure. Given multiple demands on faculty members' time from within their institutions and without (e.g., personal and professional roles), the formal reward structure can present a significant obstacle to engagement in online education. The faculty reward system needs to be reconsidered in light of the breadth of educational options students have so faculty are not penalized for participation but are rewarded for it because it benefits the larger organization.

Use of adjunct or part-time faculty is a related point that merits special consideration. At times, institutions rely on part-time faculty to develop and teach online courses in order to accelerate access and enrollment growth. Administrators such as department heads and deans seek to alleviate pressures on full-time faculty from engagement in online education while continuing to contribute to the institution's economic well-being at times through the use of part-time faculty8. Debate continues on the impact of part-time faculty on instructional quality9. At the same time, efforts are under way in the United States to create more „safeguards” for part-time faculty who often lack benefits accorded to full-time faculty10.

In terms of „safeguards,” intellectual property is another area of concern. The question of „who owns the online course?” has been discussed in the literature11. For example, intellectual property and ownership of course content has influenced faculty participation (or lack thereof) in a number of initiatives on college campuses across the country12. The matter of intellectual property and its influence on faculty participation in exploring new pedagogical models is an evolving area in need of more attention. Some institutions use work-for-hire13 agreements or enable faculty to own their content provided the institution maintains rights to it as well.

At the same time, earlier assumptions such as that online education is not as rigorous or as interactive as residential instruction are being challenged today by full-time faculty themselves14. Some Institutions recognize the value of online education for what residential instruction cannot offer: courses and degrees in specialized areas that need the support of a broader array of students than exists on a single campus15; flexibility and access to those unable to attend programs on campus; and innovative ways of teaching that are encouraged in online education.

However, higher education has been slow to adapt e-learning as a valuable and meaningful means of instruction. For example, some policies affecting all students enrolled at institutions may date back to the emergence of higher education in the early part of the 20th century. How institutions handle transfer credit is a primary example. With increased access to credit courses, students may pursue a degree on or from one campus while enrolling at another. Nonetheless, policies pertaining to transfer credit can be rigid and may fail to recognize current realities that students face in terms of opportunities16, such as the fact that online education makes course selection at multiple institutions on the part of students relatively seamless.

Another issue for students is „identity management” or the lack of systems in colleges and universities that allow for ease of access to registration, courseware, and other secured information. Automated services are required, for example, to integrate Web 2.0 technologies with legacy systems and enable continuity of connections on the part of students, faculty, and staff. A similar issue is pending legislation in the United States that will require identity confirmation of students in distance education/online courses at various points during the course, including registration, course work, and examinations17. Yet, such stringent policies for student identification in residential courses-including large lecture courses--are all too often deemed unnecessary. These issues require institutional resources in terms of time and management and can present barriers to online education if not appropriately addressed.

Furthermore, access to campus personnel and resources such as technical support, financial aid, and library services needs to be carefully addressed to avoid inhibiting an institution's interest in online education and student participation. If an institution thinks it will be too costly to serve the online student due to infrastructure issues, it can be dissuaded from doing so even though by serving these students well, the campus has the opportunity to enhance its services in comprehensive ways.

Overall, as today's students have more ways to access online education18, it is imperative that administrators, faculty, and students work together to reframe online learning as a viable alternative to residential instruction. This means ensuring that policies and procedures acknowledge the needs of all students, as well as those of colleges and universities, in order for higher education to remain the innovative and essential place for learning as higher education has been in the past.

Factors Facilitating Online Higher Education

What makes online learning effective in ways that are beneficial to the academic entity offering the courses and programs, faculty, and students? For one, commitment on the part of the entire faculty for the effort is essential to successful offerings. This includes consensus on the part of administrators and faculty that the endeavor is important and a good use of time. It also means a commitment to „intellectual property” protection and „academic freedom” for the faculty teaching online, a commitment that requires collaboration between faculty, staff, and external entities such as publishers and governments. As noted by L. C. Smith19, „those wishing to facilitate ubiquitous learning need to consider barriers that students may encounter and how to reduce or eliminate them. Many of those relate to administrative factors and require the active involvement of administrative units providing services for faculty and students”.

Another facilitating factor is the ability to interact with students synchronously and. asynchronously20 as this cultivates a sense of community. There has been an evolution over time of products that facilitate interaction between faculty and students between, before, during, and after class. Examples include a variety of virtual conferencing tools, bulletin boards, and chat sessions. An organization must keep its „hand on the pulse” of educational technologies as they evolve over time. An example in point is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Illinois), which has undergone a technical migration over the past 25 years from the „Electronic Blackboard (developed by AT&T along with the University of Illinois), to Vis-a-vis (a DOS- and Windows-based product developed by Bell Canada), to VOICE (voice over IP and content delivery integrated into one package developed by Thin ICE), to Elluminate (a greatly enhanced version of virtual meeting software)”21. Appropriate levels of resources must be expended in order to test, develop, and implement appropriate educational technologies. Fiscal considerations are paramount when engaging in learning initiatives, and this includes ensuring adequate technical support to faculty and students and financial aid for these students. It includes resources to both maintain infrastructure and evolve as new findings are discovered in order for online education to continue at its highest quality. Moreover, additional staffing is often required by colleges and universities to oversee policy development in the digital age, as existing staff may become resentful or exhausted trying to maintain long-held policies while reviewing new ones.

Policies and procedures need to be reconsidered in light of different economic expectations for online programs. For example, availability of technical support in light of the Internet and locations of students around the world may require 24/7 support every day of the year. Training faculty on how to work in the online environment where verbal cues are not readily available to students also requires a new way of thinking and related fiscal and human resources22. However, it is also the case that institutions sometimes expect online learning to generate significant revenues but neglect the economic requirements (e.g., start-up costs, upgrades, supports for faculty and students) necessary to offer an educational option that is attractive to students23.

The impact of e-learning on higher education is significant. As noted by Magjuka et al. „traditional not-for profit universities have begun to reinvent themselves into what can be called 'extended traditional universities' that 'seek to capture the growing learning market' in an attempt to remain competitive,”24 particularly in light of the rise of private, for-profit higher education.

Innovative partnerships are developed which create „win-win” situations for multiple institutions and students. A notable example is provided by the Web-based Information Science Education Consortium (WISE,, which started with a few universities in need of sharing educational resources through e-learning and has grown over the past few years to include 15 colleges and universities. The partnership is between academic units of library and information science across the United States. Students at any Consortium-institutions have access to all the online courses available. This enables them to engage in knowledge acquisition in specialty areas of library and information science not offered by their home institution. The student enrolls in the courses at his home institution. This award-winning partnership25 is one example of how structural changes make significant impacts over time.

At the same time, balance is encouraged. Recognition of the breadth of human resources required for faculty members to focus on the instruction with limited distractions and to live a balanced life is essential. As text chatting and e-mail are relied upon heavily and may be more than double that of a campus course to make up for the lack of body language and in-person contact26, administrators can encourage faculty to find ways to take breaks or allow „online sabbaticals”27 or other ways to acknowledge this need on the part of faculty.

Providing faculty with class sizes small enough for effective interaction and classroom management; working as a team with administrators, instructional designers, and other faculty and staff to create the best possible pedagogical experience; and learning to take breaks from the online environment on occasion all contribute to good online teaching experiences. Furthermore, administrative leadership can ensure that an academic advisor-or „online coordinator”-is assigned to oversee student academic progress and that sufficient time is provided for community building between faculty and students.

Each of the above named methods has been noted as ways that administrators have facilitated successful online programs28.

Furthermore, support services such as market research, marketing, library, registration, textbook delivery, and related processes must be firmly in place so the faculty member can focus primarily on the subject matter. For example, Illinois developed its own noncredit system for online course scheduling, registration, and tracking, similar to its campus enterprise resource planning (ERP) system interface, in order to serve well students who wished to pursue professional development opportunities on a noncredit basis. The University's Office of Continuing Education has also instituted a Service Center that facilitates scheduling, nondegree registrations, reports, and related processes to complement the ERP's capabilities for off-campus/online nonresidential students.


Institutions of higher education are in a period of significant change as a result of the rapid growth in online education29. Online education can enhance the pedagogical experience and increases access to higher education. However, in order for online higher education to enrich the work of higher education over time, strategies to reduce barriers to participation on the part of universities must be agreed upon by policy and decision makers.

References and Related Readings



Author earned her PhD in Continuing Higher Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has worked in the field of continuing higher education for 24 years. She holds the positions of Head, Academic Outreach, Office of Continuing Education and Adjunct Assistant Professor, College of Education, at the University of Illinois. Her administrative role includes facilitating online education opportunities for faculty and students; she has taught courses on academic leadership and is currently teaching a capstone research experience as part of an online master's degree program in educational policy and leadership; her research interests focus on effective models of online education.


Author earned her PhD in Organizational Behavior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has developed and taught online and distance courses for 21 years. In her current position as Program Coordinator LAS Online and the Office of Continuing Education at the University of Illinois, she has assisted in developing and coordinating a number of online programs that serve both undergraduate and graduate audiences. Her current research interests include faculty perspectives on online education, an examination of who the innovators are as business schools go online, and retention initiatives in online programs.



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