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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.

About the Author

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.

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