It's Time to Stand Up for Online Instructors
At most colleges and universities distance learning programs began as small
experimental activities involving a few faculty members and, frequently, a special
campus organization to administer the courses. As these programs became popular
with students, administrators had to figure out a way to accommodate the growing
enrollments. All too often this was done by hiring qualified individuals who
could teach an extra section of the course when enrollments reached whatever
was determined to be the maximum class size. These might be called adjunct or
part-time faculty members, graduate teaching assistants, tutors, or any number
of different titles. However, their numbers have soared and the ways they are
compensated and supported by most of campuses do not fit current realities.
Here is a fairly typical scenario. The part-time instructor agrees to teach
a section of a course that has been developed by someone else. In most cases
the development involved a single person using a standard course management
software package with little, if any, instructional design support from the
campus. Rarely d'es anyone else review these course materials before they are
used in a course. The course materials may, or may not, be well designed and
integrated. Regardless of the quality of the course materials, the part-time
instructor inherits them. In entry-level courses, which are frequently the most
popular and likely to need extra sections, the students are quite heterogeneous.
Some are taking their first college class. Others already have graduate degrees.
Many are taking their first on-line course. Our instructor is likely to spend
anywhere from 10 to 18 hours a week monitoring discussions, answering student
e-mails, grading tests, and correcting problems with the course materials.
Our instructor is expected to have his or her own computer and Internet service
provider (ISP). If he or she uses a high-speed connection service, this can
cost anywhere from $40 to $60 a month. I do know of a few cases where campuses
actually offer a subsidy to the instructor to help with those costs, but this
seems to be an exceptional practice, not the usual one.
Based on a survey of online instructors’ pay done two years ago, the average
rate was $480 per credit hour. Thus teaching a three credit hour course would
generate a salary of $1,440 for a 15-week term. If we consider the ISP fees
alone (ignoring the cost of the computer), that means we are compensating these
instructors at a rate of $8.60 per hour (in a best case scenario) or $4.70 an
hour (in a busy week).
Unless these people are getting some other rewards from their campuses (exceptionally
good staff support, recognition for service, etc.), it is easy to see why the
best ones will shop for better deals, leaving many campuses to scramble to find
well-qualified instructors for their distance learning students.
It may well be time to rethink this model. After all, it is based on the simple
exportation of the classroom. The standard setup is a fixed number of students
working with an instructor on textbook-based materials, coupled with online
discussions, multiple choice online quizzes, and some essay questions on the
final exam. Now we need to reallocate the resource pool to ensure the quality
of the course materials and student activities, offer greater support to the
online instructors to enable them to accommodate greater numbers of students,
and recognize these individuals as real members of our campus communities.
Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.