Built for Distance

Online education demolishes borders: borders between regulatory jurisdictions, between traditional and nontraditional learners, and between for-profit and nonprofit higher education.

But one pattern of erosion that has been less thoroughly documented has been the crumbling of the borders that define the work lives of college professors. Some experts fear that the boom in online education could lead to higher rates of burnout among faculty, especially those whose emotional satisfaction depends on face-to-face interactions with students and colleagues. At the same time, some suggest that technological advances in online learning environments, specifically tools that aim to make virtual interactions more rewarding, could reduce the risk of alienation for online instructors.

Does teaching online increase the risk of burnout? Scholarly research devoted to the topic is thin and offers no definitive answers. One study, based on 2005 survey data from 76 online instructors from a mix of institutions, found that the online instructors tended to feel less competent and successful in their work than the average college professor or K-12 instructor.

They also tended to depersonalize their students and colleagues more. But the authors acknowledged the weakness of the sample size, and the study ultimately raised more questions than it answered.

“We’ve had an immense amount of interest in this research,” recalled Mark A. McKnight, an assistant professor of business at the University of Southern Indiana and one of the study’s authors, in an interview Wednesday, "which was interesting, given that we didn’t have any real significant findings.”

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