Published on 2012/02/27

Is Accountability Of Online Adjunct Faculty Realistic?

Is Accountability Of Online Adjunct Faculty Realistic?
The internet allows educators to take on numerous courses across multiple departments and even institutions. More accessibility is great, but how accountable are the educators? Photo by Alegri.

The beauty of teaching online is that it can be done from anywhere, provided the faculty member has a computer and access to internet. There is an ugly side to it, too: Lack of accountability.

The economy is bad, and people need to pay their bills. Those with graduate degrees might pursue online teaching as an option, but the lack of accountability allows them to teach more classes than they can realistically manage.

I have a full-time job, and I will not teach more than one online section of First-Year Composition at a time. If I taught more than one at a time, I couldn’t provide my students with good quality, substantial feedback. I couldn’t participate in the discussion forum by asking my students questions that force them to think. I couldn’t make time for conference calls with students.

If all I did were teach online, I probably couldn’t teach more than three or four classes at a time because, again, it would be unfair to the students. There are online faculty, however, who do not hold to the same standards I do—standards that the colleges and universities who have hired them probably expect.

I know that for some subjects, it’s easier to manage more classes at a time because they’re not as writing-intensive, and therefore not as time-draining, as college writing courses. I don’t think, however, that teaching five or more courses simultaneously, regardless of subject, is a realistically manageable workload for instructors who want to perform at a high level for their students.

Because online courses are usually around 8 weeks in length, faculty members who teach five courses at a time are teaching the equivalent of a 10-course teaching load per standard 16-week semester. Ask anyone who has taught—and taught well—if this is appropriate. The answer would, or should, be a resounding, “No.”

I have known faculty who teach simultaneously at multiple colleges and universities, often teaching two or three courses at each institution. That can add up to more than five courses every 5-8 weeks, depending on the length of classes at each school. Because this is an unmanageable workload, some online faculty will designate unqualified individuals like their spouses and high school- or college-aged children to grade assignments on their behalf.

What kind of feedback are students getting if unqualified people are grading their assignments? What kind of integrity do faculty members have if they can’t honor their contracts? What kind of education are we providing our online students?

Online education is a good thing. It allows people from all backgrounds to pursue an education that previous generations did not think possible. But if we want to provide online students with a good quality education, we need faculty who are willing to facilitate it. This just isn’t possible if the online faculty are overloaded.

Students need faculty who are invested in their education, even if only for the duration of the course, because they are the faculty who will work hard to make sure their students are learning. Otherwise, online students could be paying for a diploma, not an education, and no one wants that.

Online adjuncts need accountability, but does the nature of their positions, which allows them to work from anywhere, make it possible? Is there a way to monitor how many courses someone is teaching at different schools, who is participating in the discussion forum as the faculty member, or who is grading and returning feedback to the students? I’m just not sure.

As higher education policies are created, one important aspect of online education that shouldn’t be overlooked is the accountability of online faculty. I don’t know what that might look like in the future, or even if it’s realistic, but if schools with online degree programs want to graduate properly educated students, not just students who have been “pushed through the system,” some form of accountability must be considered.

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Readers Comments

SUSAN LONG 2012/02/27 at 4:46 pm

Interesting. I never considered loading myself up with an inordinate number of classes nor have I ever considered having anyone other than myself grade. Now that you mention it, though, I am sure there are people who do both.

I had a friend tell me that her husband didn’t read everything the students turned in as i took too long, I was surprised.

    Jennifer Brown 2012/02/29 at 4:15 pm

    Susan, It’s sad that people lack the integrity to follow through – follow through well – with their commitments. I hope that policy makers consider the things that can happen “behind the scenes” while faculty are teaching from home. I know that policy after policy are created for different areas of higher ed, but as the saying goes, one person can ruin it for all.

    Thanks for your comment.

Keith Hampson 2012/02/27 at 7:55 pm

A great question to address – thank you.
It’s not often discussed, but the growth of online higher education has been supported by the parallel growth and availability of adjunct instructors.

    Jennifer Brown 2012/02/29 at 4:17 pm

    Keith, How true! Online higher education couldn’t function without the growth and availability of adjunct instructors. I’m one of them. But I hope that policymakers are addressing the issues that come with this as well.

    Thanks for your comment.

Rosa-Fay Milnar 2012/04/27 at 5:47 pm

I am currently in a class to prepare me to teach for another university; one of my classmates currently teaches 9 courses and if he passes this course will add another one or two. I agree with the author of this piece that to do a good job in English composition online does require 20-25 hours per week per course. In f2f classes which I have taught for 20 years, after the first semester, one course required outside of class perhaps 3-5 hours per week to grade papers, in addition to the 3 contact hours per week. Online is much more labor intensive.

With that said, the pay to teach 4 courses per semester will not feed and house a family of 4. This is sad but that is the reality of the situation. Therefore, faculty need to take on additional classes. No one I know who teaches more than 5-6 courses a term planned on doing that. Working in excess of 100 hours per week is no one’s idea of part time work. What happens, however, is that universities do not commit to a specific number of courses for adjuncts in a year; most of us do not know when a class will be assigned and when assigned when it will occur again if refused. Consequently many of us are approved to teach at multiple colleges and universities.

Each university I work with reviews my work on discussion boards and in grading and each has standards which are strictly adhered to. If I forget to respond to one class member on a discussion board or to respond to emails thoroughly within 24 hours I hear about it in writing within 36-48 hours. My style is well known to the univerisites I work with; if I personally did not grade my students or provide feedback, that would be noticed immediately and I would receive feedback and if not corrected I would not be teaching. When I taught f2f absolutely noone had any idea what I was teaching on a weekly basis and in fact unless a student complained did not even know if I showed up for class.

With that said, I also take courses online for my doctorate and yes, I have had instructors who slide to say the least. I have also had cut and paste experts and have found out on LinkedIn that there is software now which makes it easy to cut and paste a compilation of the instructors’ comments. I find this appalling but I do understand. I am very conscious that at least in my courses my students are receiving quality instruction by any standards.

Ms Holmes 2013/02/18 at 5:08 pm

I agree with this article 100% – where is the tranparency and the certification of no Conflict of Interest? As I read this article, I began to think is this considered double dipping in Federal Aid? You have one faculty teaching the same course, using the same resources with seperate institutions as their employer. In my profession and having worked in Higher Ed for over 10 years, this could easily be seen as such.

Kendall 2013/10/19 at 7:53 am

I agree that accountability is an issue. However, this article fails to address the fact that most online adjunct faculty is paid FAR (in most cases by 50% or more!) below industry standard for equivalent work loads to those adjunct faculty who work at traditional bricks and mortar institutions. While I don’t think this is an ethical excuse for doing a poor job with your online courses, it is certainly understandable. If universities want to provide quality education to their students, they should PAY a reasonable rate for it…

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