December 2010 Issue • Volume 38 • Issue 9

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Emerging Ethical and Academic Issues in the
Teaching of Online Sociology Courses

Thomas P. Dunn and Manfred F. Meine, Troy University

By the change of the millennium, the Internet had clearly evolved to be the new revolution in educational delivery. Online learning at the post-secondary level has come of age. A 2008 Sloan Consortium report on the state of online education in the United States revealed some startling information. For example, at the turn of this century approximately 10 percent of post-secondary enrollments at degree-granting institutions were in online courses or programs; but, by 2007, the number had grown to over 20 percent. This growth translated into an average annual increase of nearly 20 percent at a time when overall enrollment growth in higher education averaged only around 2 percent. Schools recognized that students were voting with the click of a mouse, and, by 2007, the percentage of schools defining online education as critical to their long-term strategy had grown to more than 70 percent of public institutions and more than 53 percent of private colleges and universities. Online courses and programs are now offered by universities large and small, including many of the nation’s most prestigious schools.

Another major change in higher education has been the growth of competition. The limitations of geographical location have largely been erased via the Internet. Competition for students in online courses as well as the proliferation of online offerings has been especially intense among schools providing educational opportunities for enlisted members of the military. Due to their deployment challenges, the military relies on online programs, which are used to support military recruiting and retention and to provide crucial professional development for service members.

Schools throughout the nation have looked to this evolving technological medium as a solution to education delivery challenges and as a way to expand existing education markets. The focus on technology and its inherent flexibility has evolved to the point where some schools offer courses to be completed on handheld personal digital devices. Despite this rush to distance learning, the medium and its accompanying technologies have evoked mixed reactions among students, administrators and faculty.

It is clear, that regardless of the reactions to online distance learning as a delivery system, its use is expanding at an extraordinary pace.

"Internet-based education has transitioned
from its initial status as 'the classroom
of the future' to the pedagogical mainstay. . ."

As Internet-based education has transitioned from its initial status as "the classroom of the future" to a pedagogical mainstay, it has been subjected to significant scrutiny by its proponents and detractors alike. Unlike its most prominent predecessors in distance education (e.g., telecourses and correspondence courses) the pervasiveness and visibility of online instruction has served to magnify its strengths (e.g., the benefits that accrue to an asynchronous format) and weaknesses (e.g., maintaining academic/ethical integrity, especially in online testing).

For the delivery of academic information online to have become not only a viable, but highly regarded and widely utilized pedagogy, the technology had to be affordable, efficient, and user-friendly for all stakeholders. As a result, and by necessity, the initial concerns were focused on the efficacy of such entrepreneurial systems as WebCT and Blackboard. Once the majority of those concerns were resolved, numerous ethical and academic issues emerged.

Ethical Issues and Concerns

Having been actively involved for 15 years with the proliferation of Internet-based, post-secondary instruction, as both online instructors and administrators responsible for development and supervision of online courses and programs, it is our opinion that several important ethical/academic issues need to be addressed. Those issues include:

Oversight for Online vs. In-Class Courses

Faculty Concerns

  1. An overriding belief that faculty autonomy is being routinely subjugated to administrative imperatives in the oversight of online courses vis-à-vis their in-class counterparts.
  2. Differential criteria for evaluating instructors.
  3. Problems and inequities in the process of obtaining and interpreting student evaluations.
  4. Differential processes for the handling of student complaints.
  5. Differential processes for academic advising.
  6. Inequities in the use of "Administrative Privileges" for observing an instructor’s performance in the "classroom."
  7. Administrative influences on course content (e.g., the requirement that courses have "group projects").
  8. The imperative that distance learning instructors undergo multiple trainings complete with competency testing, for technological "innovations," some of which prove to be faulty and are effectively discarded before even being fully implemented.
  9. Inequities in course scheduling and student enrollment, for example, online posting of individual syllabi for multiple sections of the course, which enables students to opt for sections with less rigorous requirements (some of which may be taught by part-time faculty who may be of the opinion that maintaining their popularity with students is a necessity for their continuing employment).

Administrative Concerns

  1. The invasive need to ensure comparable quality of all courses, regardless of delivery format, in order to satisfy regional and specialized accreditation criteria, oversight from funding sources, etc.
  2. The potential need for standardization of course content.
  3. Administrative policies for ensuring that online and in-class instructors are comparably involved with their students in the teaching-learning process.


Below are our suggestions for actions the discipline should take to help resolve these issues:

  1. A review of the ASA Code of Ethics with a view toward revisions dealing specifically with ethical issues in online courses might be in order.
  2. A review of the ASA Task Force on Teaching Ethics Throughout the Curriculum Working Annotated Bibliography to address whether additional resources dealing with the ethical issues in online education need to be solicited and included.
  3. A review of the ASA Task Force on Teaching Ethics Throughout the Curriculum 103 Ethics Cases to determine whether soliciting the submission of new ethics cases that illuminate the ethical issues deriving from the teaching and administration of online sociology courses might be appropriate.
  4. A data-gathering initiative designed to determine the current status of online sociology courses, including, an estimate of the number of courses (by subfield), the demographics of faculty who teach the courses (adjunct or full-time by rank), the online availability of sociology majors and minors as well as ascertaining the attitudes of faculty, administrators, and students regarding the proliferation of online sociology courses. logosmall


Allen, Elaine and Seaman, Jeff. 2008. Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008. Needham, MA, Sloan Consortium.

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