An Exploratory Case Study of Online Instructors: Factors Associated with Instructor Engagement

By Seaton, J. X.; Schwier, R. | Journal of Distance Education (Online), January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

An Exploratory Case Study of Online Instructors: Factors Associated with Instructor Engagement


Seaton, J. X., Schwier, R., Journal of Distance Education (Online)


INTRODUCTION

A considerable amount of research has investigated student engagement in online courses (e.g., Oliver, 1999; Angelino, Williams, & Natvig, 2007), but the question of instructor engagement in online environments has not received significant attention. It is important to have a better understanding of the instructor's experience of teaching online because an effective instructor is one of the strongest predictors of a successful online course (Bernard, Abrami, Lou, Borokhovski, Wade, Wozney, Wallet, Fiset, & Huang 2004). This study explored factors that positively and negatively affect faculty engagement when they teach online, as well as perceived barriers to their engagement in online courses.

REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

Defining Engagement

Studying engagement is difficult because there is no consensus on its definition. Instead, engagement is an amalgamation of several attributes including participation, collaboration, and affect (Beer, Clarck, & Jones, 2010). Engagement also encompasses behavioural, emotional, and cognitive elements. Studies of engagement differ based on their operational definitions of engagement and whether these definitions focus on behavioural, emotional, and/or cognitive aspects (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). For the purposes of this study, the concept of engagement is based on the definition used by Schaufeli and his colleagues. Their definition incorporates behavioural, emotional, and cognitive aspects and focuses on vigor (investing high levels of energy in tasks), dedication (characterized by pride and a feeling that work is significant), and absorption (becoming engrossed in tasks). By this definition, engagement contrasts sharply with burnout which is characterized by exhaustion and cynicism (Schaufeli, Salanova, Gonzalez- Roma, & Bakker, 2002).

Importance of Instructor Experience

Although studies assessing the success of online education in comparison to face-to-face (F2F) education have been conducted, few definitive conclusions have emerged (Bernard, et al., 2004). Instead, what has been determined is that education, whether it is conducted online or in a face to face setting, is dependent on the quality of instruction and the learning environment. Based on this idea, it is becoming increasingly important to understand that online education is not just a medium (Bernard, et al., 2004); it is an environment. A key component of the environment is the instructor (Hogan & McKnight, 2007). While the structure of a course can encourage or mandate communication, it is the instructor who facilitates the educational process. It is the instructor's responsibility to connect the cognitive and social aspects of a course to its purposes through critical reflection, productive debate, and co-creation of common understandings (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999). A large part of the success of an online course can be attributed to the online instructor (Booliger & Wasilik, 2009).

One way an instructor influences the environment of an online course is by demonstrating the value of online communication through active participation in discussions, thereby creating and maintaining social presence. Social presence is a person's ability to project one's personal characteristics and convey the 'real self' (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999). Students gauge the level of importance of online communication by the rate of involvement by the instructor (Mandernach, Gonzales, & Garrett, 2006). Instructors demonstrate that they value learning facilitated through online communication by their active participation which then prompts students to respond. An instructor must actively question, listen to, and respond to online discussion (Mandernach, Gonzales, & Garrett, 2006) as well as guide interactions, dialogue, and critical thinking by fostering debate and co- constructing understanding that leads to a community of inquiry (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999). …

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