Online education, including Web-facilitated, blended (or hybrid), and fully online courses, has become a key instructional delivery method in higher education. The trajectory of online education in the United States was documented for the past 12 years by Allen and Seaman (2015). Results of their 2013 survey of chief academic officers from active, degree-granting institutions of higher education in the United States revealed that 7.1 million (33.5%) of students in higher education took at least one online course (Allen & Seamen, 2014). Recently, they reported that the number of students who took at least one online course had grown at a rate greater than that of higher education in general. Between 2012 and 2013, the number of distance students increased by 189,187, which represented 73.7% of the increase in overall enrollment (256,650) in higher education. In addition, the proportion of chief academic officers who responded that online education was critical for their institution's long-term strategy reached an all-time high of 70.8% (Allen & Seaman, 2015).
The discipline of nursing has embraced online delivery as a way to educate nurses. Although online programs are found in undergraduate and graduate levels of nursing education, a large number are degree completion, or RN-to-Bachelor of Science in Nursing, programs. RNs who initially completed an associate's degree or diploma program enroll in these programs to earn a baccalaureate degree in nursing. In 2014, nearly 59% (n = 400) of the 679 RN-to-BSN programs in the United States were delivered online (American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 2015). Degree completion programs, primarily those delivered online, play a major role in achieving the Institute of Medicine's (2011) recommendation of having 80% of the nursing workforce prepared at the baccalaureate level by 2020.
As enrollments in online courses and programs continue to increase, so does the need for faculty who can design and deliver quality courses and systems that support their work. Straumsehim, Jaschik, and Lederman (2015) surveyed faculty from public, private, and for-profit sectors in higher education to learn about faculty attitudes toward technology. Their findings reflect the potential challenges to building the faculty complement needed to grow online education. Of the 2,175 respondents, only 32% of respondents had taught online, leaving two thirds who had never taught online. Fewer than half of the faculty members thought their institution provided adequate technical support for online teaching (49%), provided adequate support for creating online courses (48%), recognized time demands for online course workload (26%), and compensated fairly for development of online courses (27%). This seems to indicate that few faculty teach online and that faculty believe there to be inadequate support for those who do.
It is possible that institutional policies and practices that address support, resource allocation, and faculty teaching have not kept pace with the rapid growth of online education. Policies and practices that were in place when online education began were based on classroom teaching where faculty and students came together at a set time and in a specific location, and faculty used tangible teaching tools, such as hard copy textbooks, chalk boards, and overhead, film, and slide projectors. Current policies and practices need to encompass teaching that occurs in virtual classrooms using hardware, software, and intangible tools in learning management systems to facilitate learning. For this to happen, there needs to be an understanding of online teaching; however, there seems to be little known about this experience. This is particularly true in nursing education, where the number of online programs has increased, but little has been done to understand what it is like to teach online. The aim of this study was to understand what it is like to teach online in nursing education. Understanding this experience could facilitate the development of policies and practices that encompass the intricacies of online teaching leading to the provision of adequate support and resources and potentially an increase in the number of faculty teaching online in nursing and across all disciplines in higher education.
The purpose of this study was to uncover the single lived experience of teaching online in nursing education from the perspective of the nursing faculty members who lived the experience. Therefore, a hermeneutic phenomenological approach was used for the study. Hermeneutic phenomenology, based on the philosophical views of Dutch phenomenology at the Utrecht School, combines characteristics of descriptive and interpretive phenomenology (Cohen, Kahn, & Steeves, 2000). The aim of the method is to describe and interpret a specific experience being lived by the individuals.
The researcher used multiple strategies to establish trustworthiness of the study and to open up the inquiry. The researcher's presuppositions about online teaching and decisions made during data analysis were documented in a reflective journal. The journal served as a component of the audit trail. The author conducted all interviews to build a trusting relationship where informants could volunteer information about the experience of interest. All transcribed interviews were compared with the original audio recordings to ensure accuracy of the transcription. Opening up the inquiry (Cohen et al., 2000) occurred through member checking, where the researcher returned to informants to verify interpretations of the data.
Informants. Institutional review board approval was secured prior to initiating the study. Inclusion criteria consisted of nurses who were full-time nursing faculty in a BSN, RN-to-BSN, master of science in nursing (MSN), PhD in nursing, or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) programs and who completed at least 50% of their teaching workload assignment in the previous year in fully online courses. Faculty who met the inclusion criteria could potentially provide the richest description and interpretation because they lived the experience and worked in environments where online education flourished.
Sampling. Purposive and snowball sampling were used in the study. An e-mail about the study was sent to the chief nursing administrator of the BSN, RN-to-BS, RN-to-BSN, MSN, PhD, and DNP programs listed on Johnson and Johnson's Campaign for Nursing Web site ( http://www.discovernursing.com/schools#types=online). The e-mail included a brief description of the study, the inclusion criteria, and the contact information of the researcher. The administrator was asked to forward the message to faculty who met the inclusion criteria. Informants, or those who volunteered to take part in the current study, were also asked to share information about the study, including the researcher's contact information, with colleagues who met the inclusion criteria.
Data were collected through use of a 10-item electronic demographic questionnaire, an initial unstructured personal interview, and a semistructured second interview. The researcher's field notes also served as a data source. Data collection occurred over an 8-month period.
Informants who had signed a written consent to participate were asked to complete the electronic demographic questionnaire. The first interview was scheduled after the informant completed the questionnaire. Informants chose to participate in the interview via telephone or through use of password-protected Web conferencing software. Two initial interviews were conducted via Web conference and were audio and video recorded. Twelve initial interviews were conducted via telephone and were audio recorded. Pseudonyms were assigned to each informants by the researcher and were used on the demographic questionnaire and throughout the interviews.
All initial interviews began with the broad opening statement, “Tell me what it is like to teach online in nursing education.” Probes were used to facilitate a richer discussion of topics raised by the informant. The initial interviews lasted approximately 60 minutes and were transcribed by a trained transcriptionist who had signed a confidentiality agreement. All potential identifiers were deleted at the time of transcription. All informants received the preliminary themes, descriptions, and interpretations to review and were invited to participate in a second interview via telephone or in writing to seek clarification and validation of preliminary data analysis. Second interviews were completed 3 to 6 months after the initial interview. Eight of the 14 informants took part in the second interview and submitted written comments that clarified, validated, or refuted the preliminary findings. Their comments were included in the data analysis process.
Sampling was guided by data saturation, or the point when no new dimensions of the experience were uncovered. The sample included 14 full-time nursing faculty who completed at least 50% of their teaching workload assignment in fully online courses in an BSN, RN-to-BSN, MSN, PhD, or DNP program. The informants were from 10 different institutions located in nine different states in the United States, including four northeastern, two northern, and three southern states. Table 1 includes demographic information of the sample, which can be used to determine the transferability of findings to other settings and contexts (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The study group included a higher percentage of male faculty (14%) than are found in National League for Nursing (2016) member schools (6%), and more faculty (86%) over the age of 45 years (70%).
Informant Demographic Information (Full-Time Faculty, N = 14)
In terms of teaching workload, informants taught between 3 and 60 credits hours during the contract term of the pervious academic year (mean = 20.6; median = 21.5; mode = 24). Teaching workload specific to online teaching also ranged from 3 to 60 credit hours (mean = 18.9; median = 17; mode = 3 and 24 [bimodal]). Eleven informants taught class sections with 30 or fewer students, whereas three taught sections with 31 or more students (mode = 16 to 30 students per section). Table 2 details the total and online teaching workload.
Teaching Workload for Contract Term in Last Academic Year in Credits
A 5-step process identified by Barritt, Beekman, Bleeker, and Mulderij (1984) was used to analyze the transcribed interviews. The steps included (a) reading the narrative and identifying important elements; (b) assigning tentative theme names to similar elements; (c) member checking to seek clarification and validation of analysis from informants; (d) comparing narratives of all informants to identify commonalities, unique themes, and variations; and (e) reviewing the literature for information about the experience of interest. The goal of data analysis was to identify the common themes about the experience of teaching online in nursing education.
Four themes emerged from the data, including (a) Looking at a Lot of Moving Parts, (b) Always Learning New Things, (c) Going Back and Forth, and (d) Time Is a Blessing and a Curse. The following description of each theme includes exemplars from informant interviews. Pseudonyms protect the identity of the informants.
Looking at a Lot of Moving Parts
According to all informants, faculty who teach online in nursing education are attentive to and manage multiple variables that can influence teaching in online courses. The variables include specific student attributes, the number of students in a course, course length, or the tools available for use in online teaching. These variables and their level of influence on teaching changed over the course of the faculty member's tenure as an online teacher.
The students' geographic location and life schedules were two attributes that influenced online teaching. In an online course, the informants taught students who resided in a variety of time zones and engaged in course activities at any hour of the day or night, and on any day of the week. Cari, who taught online for 11 to 14 years, stated, “It [teaching] can be a big challenge, especially if you have students that come from across the nation with different time zones and different levels of skill.” The wide range of technical abilities of students in an online course was also addressed by Pamela, who said, “We've got your super users down to people who are still afraid of computers. We've got nurses that are 55, 60 years old and have resisted computers throughout their careers.”
Those who saw changes in online class size and course length currently taught a higher number of students than in the past, in a fewer number of weeks. Class enrollments changed frequently, at various times, and without regard for enrollment caps that were linked to course design. This required adjustments by the faculty who had to teach a higher number of students. This is best exemplified by Emily's experience, who stated:
When I started off in 2011, our class sizes were capped at 20. Then, the following year they went to 25. The last year, we were capped at 30. But this semester, I have one session has 38 kids and the other one has 35, so if they've got students, they're plopping them in.
Diane spoke about the accelerated semester, stating:
For a long time we did them [nursing courses] online in 16 weeks…. Now, we're to the point where all of the courses are eight weeks…. You're condensing the time, but accelerating content.
The informants used synchronous or asynchronous approaches to deliver courses and engaged in continuous improvement to enhance the course and their teaching. The tools available to them for use in online teaching, such as the learning management system, had improved over time, and the number of software applications had increased. Esther, who stated she saw significant changes in online teaching over the past 10 to 12 years, stated:
You're watching not only the structure of the class…you're constantly looking at the layout of the class, the content of the class…. You're looking at a lot of moving parts…. There's a lot more developing expertise on building community with online tools than there was 12 years ago, when, really, we just put PowerPoint® up and said, “Here. Have at it.”
Always Learning New Things
All of the informants described how they learned new tools and approaches to teaching, including the use of new technology, software, and teaching strategies. The approaches were new to them or newly available in online education. Learning about and how to use these approaches was an ongoing process. They taught themselves, participated in formal or structured courses or sessions, or learned from others who taught online.
Informants who independently learned how to teach online did so by looking for and trying various tools and approaches. They willingly learned new technology, such as the use of virtual classrooms, software applications, and teaching strategies. Pamela, an associate professor with 11 to 14 years of online teaching experience, explained:
There's a lot of stuff out there that is open source. So, if you're looking for something, just see what you can find. There are so many resources out there. It's a matter of sharing when you find something really cool…trying it out.
The first time a new tool or approach was used, it was often by trial and error. Patricia, a professor who has been teaching online for 7 to 10 years, said, “You're always learning new things and some new technology, but on the whole, it was just ‘figure it out.’” It was common for informants to attend formal courses and training sessions about online teaching. They also learned about tools from other faculty who taught online, were willing to share their courses and experiences with them, and were willing to mentor them over time. Diane described how this worked, stating:
I would have a week where I would have access to that other faculty member's online course. And then we'd skip a week, and then another week I'd have access to the third faculty member's online course, and that kind of thing…just to see how they're handling it…sharing what works and what doesn't work and best practices with other faculty.
Going Back and Forth
Faculty who teach online use a pedagogical approach that consists of a constant back-and-forth interaction between teacher and student. All of the informants described engagement over time, between teacher and student, as part of online teaching. They described being present in the online teaching–learning experience, and how they provided opportunities for students to engage with faculty, classmates, and the content. They monitored for and ensured students engaged in the course and contacted those who did not engage at the expected level.
Christina described how the teacher–student interaction occurred in an online course. She said:
It's much more of a Socratic method, where you're back and forth and back and forth that way, because you're not with them and throwing out a case study. It's completely different online from sitting with them.
Esther, an assistant professor stated:
It's [online teaching] a totally different ballgame [than face-to-face teaching]. If you really want to do online well, you have to come up with new ways of engaging the students. It's often over several days of the week, not just going in and doing your lecture and leaving.
Michelle, a full professor with 11 to 14 years of online teaching experience, interpreted the effects of the back and forth between teacher and student in this way:
There's a level of intimacy in an online setting that cannot be reached in a classroom setting. That's one difference. It's kind of like the difference between hospital nursing and home care nursing. I've done both of those, too, and hospital nursing, that would be your face-to-face teaching. You're in a controlled environment, they show up, they're in this room, you do your thing, you have your time with them, and then, you leave and they go home and then you see them again when they come back for whatever they need next time. When they're in home care, it's different. You're on call for them, you go see them several times a week, you get to know their family, you get to know their dog, you get to know where they live, what they do, how they're feeling, and it's an ongoing situation. They couldn't be more different, and I think a big folly of comparing the two for people that don't know is that they think you can just take a face-to-face class and transplant it into an online setting by using a lot of good technology, and that it's going to work, and it doesn't.
The back and forth between faculty and student extended beyond the online classroom and often occurred asynchronously via e-mail, but was also conducted through telephone and virtual means. Christina explained:
You can be sitting with a group of 10 students and by their natural response, they can see that you are encouraging them because you're smiling at them, you're encouraging them to communicate with you. They don't see that on an e-mail, so there's a lot more in your e-mails that has to be verbally encouraging. That takes an extra umph…. I do a lot more verbal communicating of “you're on the right track” when I'm doing it online, because that's all they have to go to. They're not looking at you, waiting after class, being willing to talk, that kind of stuff.
The informants described the importance of faculty-to-student engagement through the use of course assignments, learning activities, instructional methods, data available in the learning management system, and student performance on assignments. Pamela interpreted the back and forth as a distinguishing component of online education. She said:
Engagement is a key component of any online course because if you are not engaged with your students, then it just turns out to be a…what did they use to call them in the old [days]? Correspondence courses?
Laura compared engagement in online with that of face-to-face classes. She said:
Sometimes I feel like I'm even more engaged with my students in the online environment, especially students that are not doing well, than I ever was in a classroom environment. Especially those that might be struggling a little bit…. I feel like I know them very well, and I know their struggles because I follow up with them. I…try and give them more guidance, so sometimes I feel like I'm actually more connected with the students than I was in a sea of faces in the classroom environment, because I know every word they've ever typed…. You almost have to have some sort of engagement to see if the students are getting it because you can't see their faces. You can't see their eyes.
Regardless of how the back and forth occurred, the informants monitored the level of engagement by being present in the course and using data that were available in the learning management system. Christina continued:
We have a record of how many times they have gone online and looked. It does occasionally happen where we can say to the student, “You are barely skimming, because I can tell that just before the deadline you went in, looked at everybody's notes, came up with a blurb, and wrote something; so, you were only online once….” We can actually talk with them about [it]: “But I can see that you didn't access anything online.” You can actually see how often they look at the other postings.
Time Is a Blessing and a Curse
All informants spoke about the time required to teach online. Teaching fully online courses required time in terms of hours and took place during undefined hours and in undefined spaces. The informants could engage in teaching at any hour of the day or night, and this allowed for flexibility in their work schedule, which was viewed as a benefit of online teaching. Conversely, the informants felt they had to be accessible and available to their students who engaged in course activities during all hours and on all days of the week (i.e., 24 hours per day, 7 days per week).
The time involved in online teaching included the time needed to prepare and deliver courses, to be accessible and available to students, to read and respond to submitted student assignments, and for one-on-one interactions with students, which primarily took place via e-mail. Cari's comment exemplified the time involved in preparing a course. She stated, “I probably made $1 [per] hour or something like that because I spent a month redoing the course and getting the course set up.”
A majority of the informants indicated that teaching online took more time than face-to-face teaching. Emily, an assistant professor with 4 to 6 years of teaching experience, described the time in this way, stating:
Overall, I spent a lot more time teaching online than I did when I was doing just classroom teaching. Basically, with classroom teaching, I would have my office hours, they would come or they would make an appointment, but basically I was done then…. I find with online [teaching], I'm online all day long.
This was echoed by Chad, who was also an assistant professor with 4 to 6 years of online teaching experience. He said, “I am always on the e-mail.” He also explained that online teaching afforded schedule flexibility, which was not available in classroom teaching. He said:
Teaching [online] allows me to work in the clinic 3 to 4 days [per] week, whereas if you are not online faculty, our faculty handbook says you can't have a full-time job taking more than 2 days away from the university; so it allows me to not to have to choose.
William, an instructor who taught graduate-level courses online, also appreciated the flexibility associated with online teaching. He explained:
All the faculty [teaching in the program] are online [and] can live anywhere. I moved out of [the city]. Now, I live not a mile and a half from the ocean [in] a beach resort town, much less expensive, and I'm doing what I love, which is doing the teaching and directing this program, all from my home office here. I've got to tell you, that's the best feeling in the world for me.
Patricia described the flexible nature of online teaching and said:
I like the flexibility of it. I had to go to a meeting and present in Montreal a couple of weeks ago. I was online, but I just lugged my computer along with me and I could do it. I like that convenience. That's nice. I can do it anywhere that you can get Internet access.
Finally, informants explained how they were accessible and available to students for an indefinite period of time through the course site, e-mail, or telephone, including personal cell phones. Susan, as associate professor with 7 to 10 years of online teaching experience, stated:
You just do it [teach] in the classroom. You're standing there. Online, I have to type that in. I have to respond to each student, as opposed to responding one time to 20 [to] 40 students. I'm doing a lot of typing and responding and thinking, so it requires more time, online, for me. Sometimes it's frustrating [being available all the time]. We all have smartphones here, and sometimes it's frustrating because we're in the middle of something when a student e-mails us with a problem that we feel we should address and we're in a place where we can't do that, or we have other personal commitments. It requires a balance.
Discussion and Recommendations
Study findings indicate that for this group of informants, teaching online differs from traditional classroom teaching in several ways. Although findings can transfer to similar settings and contexts (Lincoln & Guba, 1985), it is imperative that policies and practice guidelines that address support, resource allocation, and faculty teaching in online education encompass the intricacies of online teaching in all settings.
The pedagogical approach described by the informants in this study involved a back-and-forth interaction between teacher and student that occurred over time and in undefined spaces. This fundamental difference between online and traditional classroom teaching requires online faculty to be accessible and available to students, to have the time and expertise to design and implement learning activities that facilitate the back and forth, and to have access to resources to support them in their teaching. This approach has not be addressed in the research and requires additional evaluation.
Findings indicate that students can potentially interact with faculty, classmates, and content during any hour of the day and any day of the week, and faculty who teach online are available within the learning management system via e-mail, telephone, and personal cell phone. These findings are consistent with those of Wingo, Peters, Ivankova, and Gurley (2016). Having access to tools that effectively and efficiently help faculty to engage with students and monitor student participation would be beneficial.
Faculty workload allocation and schedules should facilitate the back and forth that is part of online teaching. The common practice of using course credit hours, including seat time, as the basis for calculating faculty teaching workload does not fully account for the back and forth. A credit hour is based on the amount of student work required to achieve course objectives (Higher Education Act, 2010; U.S. Department of Education, 2016), which differs from the amount of faculty work required to teach the course. Therefore, it is important to explore appropriate methods for calculating faculty teaching workload that accounts for the unique nature of online teaching
Although evidence exists that indicates online teaching is more time intensive than classroom teaching (Johnson, 2008; Mancuso, 2009; Wingo et al., 2016), there can be variability in the time and frequency of instructor involvement in online teaching (Mandernach, Dailey-Hebert, & Donnelli-Sallee, 2007). What is most concerning is that time involved in the design and delivery of online courses, whether real or perceived, can deter faculty from pursuing online teaching (Shea, 2007). Further exploration of the time involved in online teaching could provide clarity around this issue and either reverse the perception that online teaching is more time-intensive or uncover strategies that ensure time involvement is at a reasonable level for the allocated teaching workload. In addition, the convenience and flexibility of teaching online could be used to attract additional faculty to online teaching.
Variations in class size and the number of weeks over which to deliver a course can also influence time involved in online teaching. Faculty who design and deliver online courses work in dynamic environments where class size and length often change. Class size can influence the instructional approach used in an online course and ultimately, instructor effectiveness (Sorensen, 2014) and student learning (Taft, Perkowski, & Martin, 2011). Learning activities that are teaching intensive require more faculty time. Therefore, class size must be considered when designing and delivering an online course. Including faculty in planning and governance of online courses and programs could help to ensure that courses are designed and delivered in a way that facilitates student achievement of course outcomes. Additional research to better understand the time involved, the effectiveness of back-and-forth in learning, and the relationship between teaching intensity and student learning is recommended.
Understanding online teaching seems to be an important factor to those who are considering the possibility of teaching online. Shea (2007) reported that faculty who were unfamiliar with the delivery method were dissuaded from teaching online. Being able to observe online teaching before trying it, experiment with technology before adopting it, and have time to learn about online teaching can positively influence a faculty member's decision to teach online. The importance of ongoing development was also reported by Vaill and Testori (2012), who used a three-tiered approach to faculty development, including initial training, peer mentoring, and online support. Wingo et al. (2016) identified the challenges, including limited faculty availability to attend training, associated with providing much needed development and support that could introduce faculty to new online teaching tools and the variation in development needs of faculty who teach online. This seems to indicate that to attract and retain online teaching faculty, faculty development programs, including mentoring, are needed and must be integrated into the work schedule of the faculty who teach online. Research that examines the effects of development programs on attracting and retaining faculty in online teaching is warranted.
Finally, online teaching requires a support system for faculty. For example, students who enter online courses have varying levels of technical competence. Button, Harrington, and Belan (2014) recommended the structured development of computer skills in nursing students throughout the time of enrollment in a nursing education program. Ensuring that students who enter an online program have the minimum skills needed to effectively function in the course and access to technology support would allow faculty to focus on facilitation of learning as opposed to the provision of technical support.