Faculty Issues in Online Education
An Administrator's Guide to Online Education is an essential resource for the higher education administrator. Unlike most books regarding online education, this book is not about teaching; it is about effectively administrating an online education program. Grounded in existing distance education theory and drawing from best practices, current research, and an extensive review of current literature, the book systematically identifies and discusses seven key issues that affect the practice of online education today: leadership and strategic planning, policy and operation, faculty, online student services, online student success, technology and the courseware management system, and finally, marketing. The authors provide case studies, examples, policies, and resources from actual institutions, which further enhance the value of this text.
Kaye Shelton is the director of Online Education for Dallas Baptist University as well as a certified online instructor. Under her leadership, the Dallas Baptist University Online Education program has won multiple awards in exemplary online course development. She also practices as an online education consultant and has served as an advisor regarding online education programs for many peer institutions.
George Saltsman, the director of Educational Technology for the Adams Center of Teaching Excellence at Abilene Christian University (Texas), also serves as an adjunct part-time instructor for the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. He managed ACU's distance education efforts for more than eight years, helping establish the initial strategic planning documents and the university's first online courses.
The book is available from Information Age Publishing (www.infoagepub.com).
Since online education is a new paradigm, many faculty are unprepared for the fundamental differences in the roles required for teaching online. A higher level of involvement by administrators in faculty support is needed to ensure success. Seven issues exist related to faculty that administrators must address: faculty buy-in, policies that address faculty concerns, selection of faculty, faculty compensation, an understanding of faculty workloads, faculty support, and faculty satisfaction. Here, we focus on three of these most widely discussed issues in online education today: faculty compensation, faculty workload, and faculty selection.
Faculty must find reward in teaching online. Most faculty find the intrinsic rewards of online education outweigh the extrinsic rewards; however, faculty must function in a culture that respects their time, efforts, and intellectual output. This is demonstrated most visibly in compensation and how much consideration online participation is given in the promotion and tenure process.
Compensation and incentives encourage faculty to participate in online activities and reward those that participate. Incentive structures and policy need to be examined as online education moves mainstream. Moving the program to the mainstream requires administrators to focus on compensation, incentives, and perks, and how consideration for promotion and tenure reflects participation in online education programs.
Courseload consideration for online instruction is the most common form of compensation. The National Education Association reported 73 percent of NEA members who taught online courses were compensated as part of their normal courseload. This does not mean that courseload reduction was the exclusive form of compensation, as other enticements such as additional compensation, perks, or other incentives may also be offered.
At most institutions of higher education in the United States, faculty load is calculated in the number of semester credit hours taught with courseload reductions or equivalencies routinely given for research or other scholarly activities. The issue of load is often raised when an institution requests an instructor to develop and/or teach online education courses. Policy should clearly define the institution's calculation of faculty load for course development and instruction and should also address teaching load for instruction and the initial creation of the online course. Many institutions attempt fair calculation of teaching loads for online instructors by calculating the online course the same as teaching a traditional class. Calculating load for course development is slightly more complex since it is not always limited to a single semester. Catherine Schifter, writing in the Journal of Distance Learning Administration, notes that faculty are compensated more for distance course creation than for instruction. Many institutions have adopted a policy of also offering courseload reductions for online course development, but that may not always be enough.
Of course, how the institution chooses to address these issues will be largely based upon culture, historical context, and institutional priority. The institution should also outline the expectations of faculty to alter or revise the course once it has been developed. The American Council on Education raised questions regarding not only the creation of the course but also the revision of the course and the amount of time needed to launch the course. In addition to courseload reductions, workload reductions from out-of-class responsibilities may also need to accurately reflect the additional amount of time involved with course creation and modification.
Royalties from course development may be provided as a form of compensation. Payments, based upon predetermined arrangements, vary from institution to institution with many institutions choosing not to offer royalties at all. Institutional policy must directly address all concerns regarding the distribution of royalties by explicitly stating whether royalties will be provided or not.
Incentives and perks are also used to encourage faculty participation. In the book Building a Working Policy for Distance Education (Jossey-Bass, 1997), Patricia Kovel-Jarboe noted, "When distance learning is a marginal aspect of campus life, it is tempting to offer incentives (often monetary) to entice faculty to design and deliver distance education offerings." Incentives are most frequently offered in the form of cash stipends. Other incentives institutions offer are listed below:
Higher pay for teaching an online class (than for a traditional class)
Reduction in other workloads (committee, governance, administrative)
Provision/reimbursement for residential broadband or dial-up internet access
New computer hardware or software
Ability to hold online office hours from home
Teaching or graduate assistant
National conference fees
Discretionary spending account
Schifter found, in a study of 160 institutions, the cost of the residential internet was provided as incentive the most, and the provision of a graduate assistant and faculty release time was provided the least.
When tenure is awarded to faculty, it is usually done according to formal institutional policy and predefined criteria. The institution's policies toward tenure and promotion communicate the institution's preference for faculty activities, which, in turn, will affect the level of participation by faculty in institutionally approved activities.
S. Kay Rockwell and colleagues, writing in the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, noted that faculty must comprehend how teaching online affects promotion and tenure. In his book Distance Education: Strategies and Tools (Educational Technology Publishers, 1994), the University of Idaho's Barry Willis states, "If the institutional reward structure lacks the flexibility to recognize the role played by distance educators, it should be modified before faculty interest and enthusiasm wanes."
Consideration of online course development and instruction in the tenure and promotion process is a powerful way to encourage participation; not recognizing this will present a sizable barrier. To be effective, online administrators should strive to make sure faculty are evaluated fairly.
Closely related to faculty courseload is the issue of the daily time required to teach online. Workload is not a discussion of how courses count in faculty load calculations, but the number of hours needed each day to teach online. Many faculty are concerned about workload in online courses and that concern has quickly become one of the largest issues in faculty participation.
In an online article titled "Factors that Deter Faculty from Participating in Distance Education," Lisa O'Quinn of Northern Virginia Community College and Michael Corry of George Washington University (D.C.) surveyed faculty and division chairs at a community college on 30 factors related to participation in distance education. "The factor which posed the greatest concern to all faculty and division chairs regarding their participation in distance education was the workload that faculty incur as a result of participating in distance education."
Many faculty would quickly agree with this assessment; however, in a recent study published in The Internet and Higher Education, Drexel University (Pa.) professor Gregory W. Hislop and Heidi Ellis of Trinity College (Conn.) found "instructors worked an average of six more minutes per student in an online course than in a classroom. In a course with 30 students, that's about three more hours per semester." Hislop believes the misconception may result from the pacing of online instruction: preparation time is significant before the course, but slows throughout the duration.
Another study, conducted by Melody M. Thompson comparing workload in the online environment at the Penn State World Campus, found similar results in that workload "was comparable to or somewhat less than that for face-to-face courses ... [noting that] a differential 'chunking' of productive time contributed in some cases to a perception of increased workload."
This research and other observations suggest that the type of activities a faculty member might be involved in when teaching an online course are different than traditional classroom activities. Rather than spending time in class prep and lecture, an online instructor's time is spent in the discussion boards and responding to e-mail.
A focus group conducted with full-time faculty teaching online for the first time at Abilene Christian University revealed that the majority felt they were spending more time grading and less time in direct instruction. Drexel's Hislop says, "The hours spent teaching in a classroom tend to come all at once." Unlike traditional class prep and delivery, online coursework is more evenly paced. "The frequent contact with online students can interrupt a professor's research or other projects, making it seem that teaching in cyberspace takes more of the professor's time," he adds.
Teacher-student interaction should be encouraged, as it plays a significant role in student attitudes toward online learning. Online instruction requires increased personal interaction to engage with students and effectively ascertain if they are learning and progressing at a desired rate. The time a faculty member spends in interaction per student is higher in an online course than in a traditional setting. The best solution to encourage faculty-student interaction, and to obtain the rewards of lower course attrition and greater student performance, is to keep class sizes small.
According to The Survey of Distance and Cyberlearning Programs in Higher Education, 2002-2003 Edition (Primary Research Group), class sizes range from 2 to 100. As for national statistics on average class size, the literature varies from 12 to 15, to 20 to 25. This could be related to sampling errors, exclusion of other distance modalities, timing of the survey, or it may be related to the inclusion of for-profit institutions into the calculations. Interestingly, some of the for-profit institutions, which constitute a sizable number of online enrollments, have lower student-teacher ratios. The for-profit University of Phoenix caps classes at 13 students and has a typical class size of 11, and Cappella University, another for-profit institution, has an average class size of 12 students.
The classification of the university and level of the course have more to do with predicting class size than anything. In general, the larger the school, the larger the class size. According to experts at Primary Research Group (which publishes benchmarking studies), "Colleges with more than 8,000 enrolled students (in all programs, not just distance leaning) had an average distance learning class size of nearly 36 students, while all other colleges in all other size categories (all smaller) hovered around 20 per class." The same survey also concluded that graduate courses often have lower class sizes than undergraduate courses.
As far as the ideal class size, for educational outcomes, the smaller the better. Student attitudes are driven by the level of interaction with the instructor and can affect their satisfaction with the course. Dropout rates are significantly higher in programs with higher class sizes as well.
The heart of any distance education program is its faculty, for without them a program could not exist. Programs must select the most academically qualified faculty available to support the authenticity of the program. For traditional degree programs, faculty selection is carefully considered, taking into account research, teaching qualifications, and publications. Online faculty selection should be principally the same academic review, but some consideration must be given to the technical and instructional skills.
Those who are recognized for outstanding teaching in the traditional classroom may not necessarily excel in the online classroom. Online instructors need additional skills to teach in a technical environment where nontraditional instructional methods are often used. The fact that faculty members have excelled in one aspect of scholarship does not guarantee they will equally excel in teaching online.
The selection of online faculty, however, should not be based on computer proficiency alone. Potential online instructors should be comfortable in the use of technology; however, some of the best and most effective online instructors identify themselves as "technically challenged." Usually, the technology for teaching online can be learned but creating a desire to engage students or increasing the instructor's academic qualifications cannot. The level and quality of the training faculty receive to enrich technical and instructional skills are also directly tied to the success of the faculty members' efforts in teaching online.
Similarly, instructors with high levels of technical proficiency may not necessarily enjoy teaching online. Teaching online requires a certain interpersonal communication style that enables and challenges online students. Faculty who are heavily involved in research, service learning activities, or other time-intensive tasks may not find it feasible to allocate the amount of time required to be truly effective. In such cases, those faculty members may be able to serve the institution best in their current roles.
The dramatic growth in the number of online courses has created a dilemma for many institutions. When the need for courses surpasses the instructors available, the solution is to cap enrollment, pay faculty overload time, or add additional instructors. Most institutions have chosen to hire additional adjunct instructors, as the thought of closing classes to interested students is neither popular nor economical. The need to recruit additional instructors is frequently met by hiring adjuncts. Some institutions with large online programs such as the University of Phoenix have staffed a large percentage of their program with part-time instructors.
Staffing large percentages of online courses with adjunct faculty raises important questions regarding the usage of adjuncts in online education. The American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.3 million professors and teachers, is concerned that colleges are taking advantage of adjuncts in online courses and this overuse of adjuncts will cause academic quality to suffer. Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the American Federation, recently explained in The Chronicle of Higher Education, "It's not that online adjuncts don't have the credentials to teach but that instructors ought to be connected with a campus, interacting with other professors and holding office hours."
The use of adjuncts in online instruction is an issue that all institutions must address. Encouragement, modification of policy, and creating incentives are all ways to persuade traditional faculty to participate. Even if institutions are successful in persuading full-time faculty to teach online, the institution must still fill the void left by those faculty who are now participating in online courses. Online program leadership should be proactive in seeking approval and advice from the faculty senate or similar governing body in dealing with the need to hire additional instructors. Failure to do so places the program at risk of criticism and brings up questions of legitimacy, quality, and alignment with the institutional mission.