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Defending the Accountability of Online Faculty

Online learning comes under a lot of scrutiny due to the number of courses adjunct instructors teach but instructors in the online medium tend to be held more accountable for their programming than instructors in traditional, face-to-face classrooms. Photo by Natalya Guskova.

As online learning grows at increasing numbers of institution, its value is consistently being called into question. Articles like these lament the lack of accountability of adjunct instructors, bringing up the difficulty of teaching a number of institutions. In my 22-year experience as an instructor, my last three years as an online adjunct instructor have proven to be the only period I can claim to have been held accountable for teaching.

Adjunct faculty have always been in place, but now the Department of Higher Education estimates 75% of faculty currently teaching are adjuncts. I have spent 22 years teaching in higher education; working as both a full-time and adjunct instructor. I have had the privilege of being adjunct in diverse subjects for 14 colleges and universities over the course of my career. I never taught for less than 3 institutions at a time. I now teach entirely online for more than two universities. I also have been full time at four colleges and universities, serving a short period as a Dean. For the first 19 years of my career in traditional higher education, professors and educators routinely missed classes and it was rarely noticed. For some universities I was held accountable for being on campus, but only in one college did that have any bearing on any type of performance evaluation. It was also rare for administrators to follow up on the course material of classes taught. I often saw students just float upwards through the college system, ready to collect a degree seemingly without learning a thing. Student course evaluations played little role by administrators in determining adjunct performance, if they even chose to monitor the performance of their instructors.

Then a year and a half ago I moved into online only adjunct faculty. I have never been held so accountable in my career. Levels of monitoring and feedback vary from university to university; but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind of who holds me accountable, who judges my performance, and what I am accountable for. This accountability is similar to the way my employment was structured as a learning officer in the private sector. In the online programs I have experienced, the instructional design is excellent and specific, roles are very clear, and expectations are clearly defined—for students and instructors. Everything is monitored and acted upon; differing greatly from my in-class experience.

I have also been adjunct and full time for a variety of subjects in face to face settings. I have not been a student in a face to face setting in many years; however, I have been teaching. I also had the opportunity to be a program evaluator for one college and to serve on the accreditation committee for another university. The question of accountability really did not pass beyond the syllabus or in one case the use of pre and post tests for a few classes. Student evaluations were used in a more meaningful way than I had ever experienced, in that they were tracked by the schools and given to the department heads to use, if they chose, in performance evaluations of faculty.

Teaching load in online classes was a major point of the article I raised earlier. The author maintained that one class per semester was all that could be managed effectively while teaching full time. She also maintained that teaching for more than one university would seriously negatively impact adjunct teaching effectiveness. When I was full time in university I taught adjunct at two others at night. My standards never deviated, particularly while teaching English composition. No student has ever passed my composition class unless he or she demonstrated the ability to effectively write a well-organized paper with no major grammar errors while using multiple rhetorical styles. There is more, but this is my bottom-line in terms of accountability. I will do whatever it takes to tailor my instruction to the individual’s personality, learning style, and multiple intelligence level as well as experience level.

The answer is that many faculty members, adjunct and full time, online and traditional campuses, do not belong in the teaching profession. I base this on many I have taken classes from, many I have supervised, many I have spoken with over the last thirty years and the LinkedIn discussion boards. I also listen to my students and other students. I still hear professors complaining that they “hate” the students. I can honestly state that I have only had three faculty members that were horrid teachers/facilitators in a total of 36 post graduate hours online. One of the three was full time and taught both face to face and online; the other two were adjunct teaching at multiple universities, but I do not know the course load was the issue. I have had 7 adjunct faculty members online who were fantastic teachers exceeding my expectations. That is not a bad ratio and three universities were involved. Only one of those universities was for profit; none were online only.

There is no direct correlation proven that a certain number of courses at multiple universities contributes to the ineffectiveness of the adjunct faculty member. I will admit until I began teaching at multiple universities online I felt much the same way as the author. Some adjunct faculty boast teaching at as many as 7-8 universities simultaneously. I do not know that is true; however, there are many factors which affect the performance of the faculty member who does this.

I do not condone the “cut and pasters” in online, but there are equivalent “short cutters” in traditional classes also. Instead of grabbing issues to use to condemn fellow faculty members, we all need to seriously consider the “soft skills” that make effective teachers/facilitators and work to enhance those skills in all faculty through professional development. I do agree, though, that awarding degrees to those who cannot demonstrate the basic skills we require of graduates hurts each and every one of us who has a degree and our credibility in the global economy.

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