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Survey: Not Enough Training, Instructional Support for Online Adjunct Faculty

Colleges and universities are increasingly relying on adjuncts and part-time faculty members to teach their online courses. A quarter of schools have increased the use of online adjunct instructors by five percent or more; 31 percent have increased their use by up to five percent. Yet often, these instructors don't receive training on how to teach online; the schools lack formal policies for faculty expectations; and faculty are expected to create their own online courses with or without institutional help.

Those are some of the findings in an extensive survey on the use of adjunct faculty for teaching online courses, recently reported by the Learning House, a company that runs online programs for schools, and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET), a nonprofit that helps institutions improve their e-learning programs. "Recruiting, Orienting and Supporting Online Adjunct Faculty: A Survey of Practices" relied on responses from 202 deans, directors and provosts at two- and four-year schools who were familiar with the online learning practices at their respective institutions.

The researchers defined online education using the same definition followed by the Babson College Survey Research Group and the Online Learning Consortium: 80 percent or more of the course is taught online.

The survey found that 35 percent of responding colleges use adjunct teachers for business courses; the count is 50 percent at private institutions. The next main discipline is English: Forty-nine percent of two-year schools use adjuncts to teach that subject online, whereas it's 29 percent across all types of schools.

In 31 percent of schools, the online adjunct faculty design their own courses; another 21 percent allow complete customization of existing courses and 26 percent allow some customization.

Nearly four in five institutions (79 percent) place limits on the number of courses their adjuncts may teach online. For two-thirds of respondents (62 percent), that limit was three or fewer courses. The primary concern, the report noted, was that most schools didn't want to put themselves into a position of having to offer benefits or provide full-time status. Yet that didn't worry everybody. As the report pointed out, "A staggering 29 percent limit adjunct faculty to four or more courses, which raises concerns over what is considered 'full-time' status for these part-time instructors."

A related question asked respondents how many students were needed in an online course before it would be canceled for low enrollment. Twenty-three percent reported needing between one and five students; 51 percent required between six and 10 students.

Another set of queries drilled into the topic of policies related to expectations for interacting with students online. Fifteen percent expect adjuncts to respond within 24 hours to student posts in message boards; 26 percent set the turnaround at 48 hours. Assignment grading must be done within a week or sooner at 46 percent of schools. And response to student e-mails or inquiries have to take place within two days at 54 percent of respondent institutions.

Technical support appears widely available at the responding schools; a solid third (35 percent) offer it 24/7 to adjunct faculty. An additional 35 percent provide support on a 9 to 5 basis with some evenings and weekends included. In this area, service at private institutions excels over public schools; 45 percent indicated that they have 24/7 support compared to 27 percent at four-year public institutions.

The researchers found that most institutions require adjunct faculty to participate in some level of training before they teach their first courses. For example, training on effective online teaching methods is delivered face-to-face at 35 percent of schools and in self-paced training at 26 percent of schools. (Researchers were unable to determine whether there was any overlap in those numbers.) Forty-seven percent of respondents said their schools require self-paced training and 31 percent require instructor-led training on the institution's technologies. In the area of instructional design support for customizing courses, 81 percent of colleges offer such support "free of charge" and 45 percent require adjuncts to attend training.

"While many colleges provide extensive orientation and on-going support services, some will allow a new faculty person to find their own way," noted Russell Poulin, director of policy and analysis for WCET, in a press release. "When we look at recent large-scale research on distance education retention rates, it becomes clear that the proper tools to recruit, orient and support these faculty must be implemented."

The report also offered a checklist of best practices for institutions interested in making the best use of adjunct faculty for online courses, including these three:

  • Choose a model for course design and fully develop it, whether that be a "master" course model, a full customization model or something in between;
  • Set clear expectations for faculty engagement with online students, whether that be through committing to responding to e-mails within a certain timeframe or something else; and
  • Provide an ongoing system of professional development, training and performance review.

"Adjunct faculty members have played a key role in enabling the rapid growth of online learning programs over the last 10 years," said David Clinefelter, Learning House's chief academic officer, in a prepared statement. "What these findings show us, however, is that despite a recognition of the importance of online adjunct faculty, many in higher education still struggle with how to orient and support this group. This survey provides a baseline of understanding that can hopefully help institutions in their recruiting and utilization of this important segment within higher education."

Learning House will host a webinar to highlight the findings on Dec. 3 at 2 p.m. Eastern time. Registration for that is here.

The full report is available on the Learning House site (registration required).

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