Study Examines Whether Online Adjuncts Have it any Better Than Their On Campus Counterparts
by Meris Stansbury
According to a new report, online adjunct faculty are experiencing many of the same challenges as on-campus adjuncts, mainly because the same policies governing on-campus adjuncts are used for those in online programs. But that’s only the tip of the online adjunct practice iceberg.
According to the report—a joint project of WCET and The Learning House, Inc., and written by Andrew Magda, manager of Market Research of The Learning House; Russell Poulin, director of Policy and Analysis at WCET; and Dr. David Clinefelter, chief academic officer at The Learning House—over 200 deans, directors and provosts at two- and four-year higher education institutions who were familiar with the online learning practices at their respective institutions were surveyed to gather information around the hiring, expectations, policies and support of adjunct and part-time faculty members for online courses.
Researching practices relating to online adjunct faculty is important, notes the report, since adjunct faculty members have been key in the exponential growth of online programs over the past decade. And though National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2015) data shows that college enrollments declined close to 2 percent over the past year, the number of adjunct faculty continues to rise, performing duties in both face-to-face and online programs; allowing institutions to grow or scale their online operations.
“The Coalition on the Academic Workforce (2012) reported that 75.5 percent of faculty members at two- and four-year institutions were in ‘contingent positions’ off of the tenure track,” write the report’s authors. “Of this large group, 70 percent were part-time or adjunct faculty members, making roughly half of all instructors in higher education in 2011 an adjunct or part-time faculty member.”
The authors cite research that predicts this population will only continue to grow in size and proportion. The survey similarly found that more than half of institutions reported that their adjunct population that teaches online has grown over the last year.
“The percentage of adjunct faculty members who teach partially or only online is an increasingly significant group, contributing to the tremendous growth of online education,” the authors emphasize.
Due to such a large population of online adjunct faculty, with the number expected to grow, the authors feel it’s critical to better understand the policies and practices that affect this group. According to the survey’s findings:
1.It’s a one-size-fits all: Policies that were designed for on-campus adjuncts were frequently applied to those who are teaching online, notes the report. Only 74 percent of those surveyed have written policies in place for how often faculty members are expected to interact with students, 42 percent for policies on responding to student inquiries, and 76 percent for policies on how often they must hold office hours. However, the delay in formal policy, say respondents, is usually due to thought put into designing such policies.
2.More responsibility, but more flexibility: Online adjunct faculty are often given responsibility for course design (31 percent), but there is a large percentage of customization permitted in the courses they instruct (21 percent allow total customization), says the report.
3.A divide in online course development: College and universities usually use one of two differing philosophies over whether to use a “master course” (institutionally-developed) or “full development/customization (faculty member develops the course) for online courses taught by adjunct faculty. Only 23 percent of institutions allow little or no customization.
4.Training and PD not guaranteed: Though online adjunct faculty tend to receive high levels of tech and instructional design support (84 percent), professional development and training requirements varied, state the authors. “Responses from institutions note that online faculty adjuncts are often allowed to participate in similar training offered to all faculty members; however, this training often is face-to-face or offered on campus.”
5.Recruiting hasn’t changed: After analyzing the advertising and screening methods used, the authors found that online faculty adjuncts are hired in the same way as on-campus adjuncts.
“Adjunct faculty members have played a key role in enabling the rapid growth of online learning programs over the last ten years,” said Clinefelter. “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.”
“Online education can be every bit as good as face-to-face education, but it is a different environment” said Poulin. “While many colleges provide extensive orientation and on-going support services, some will allow a new faculty person to find their own way. 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 authors hope that the report will aid in benchmarking policies and procedures that colleges and universities are using in supporting their online adjuncts and that the recommendations also included in the report will help inform and guide institutions toward best practices in recruiting, orienting, and supporting online adjuncts for online courses, as well as benchmark their current operations against a larger sample.
For a more thorough analysis of findings, as well as recommendations, read the full report “Recruiting, Orienting, & Supporting Online Adjunct Faculty: A Survey of Practices.”
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