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The Truth About Your Online Instructor

You may not realize it, but there’s more to your online instructor than meets the eye. Your impressions may be limited to introductory bios, discussion boards, and a few emails as you work through each busy term.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “non-tenure-track positions now constitute almost 70% of all faculty appointments.” These non-tenure-track instructors are often adjuncts, meaning they are part-time employees at your school usually working on temporary contracts, but possessing similar credentials to their full-time counterparts. And adjunct numbers are rising at many institutions – on-campus and online, at both for-profit and not-for-profit schools – as one way for colleges to address shrinking budgets.

From the student perspective, you should be aware that adjunct faculty are facing challenges in their jobs, but also bringing diverse experiences to your courses. Some of the most influential instructors in my academic past, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, were part-time, adjunct professors. I caused a minor wave by stating something similar at a recent alumni event – it was these teachers who were working in their fields off-campus, and bringing this experience back to the classroom, that made a lasting impression.

Many Roles and Responsibilities

At the course level many students don’t realize that there are different hiring categories or ranks among their instructors (e.g., tenured or tenure-track professors, lecturers, visiting instructors, and adjuncts). All perform similar duties in the classroom, whether it is a traditional or virtual one, to help students reach their learning goals. However, full-time faculty members traditionally have additional academic duties and responsibilities beyond teaching, which include conducting research, serving on university governance committees, and advising students.

Research conducted in 2009 and reported in a related study by University of Maryland University College, identified different categories and motivating factors for over 600 online adjunct instructors. Adjunct categories include: work full-time in addition to teaching (43%), teach part-time at multiple universities (27%), are nearing the end of their academic careers (9%), are interested in full-time academic positions (8%), and “other” (13%). The top three motivators for instructors in all of these categories were the same: “(1) the joy of teaching, (2) personal satisfaction, and (3) the flexible work schedule.”

Challenges Ahead

No matter their category or motivation, there’s no denying the fact that your adjunct instructors are busy – and often underpaid and underappreciated. A recent study published by the Center for the Future of Higher Education [PDF] identified a host of areas in which part-time instructors are facing serious challenges. Of the 500 instructors surveyed, three key issues were identified:

  • “Just in time” hiring practices lead to almost two-thirds of adjuncts not knowing they will be teaching a course until three weeks, or less, before the course begins.
  • “Just in the classroom” employment means that they aren’t involved in other aspects of program administration, such as course or program development, or included in the institution’s broader “academic community.”
  • Limited access to resources. Adjuncts want better access to library privileges, curriculum guidelines, and technology resources (i.e., hardware, software, training).

As is true with all industries, some employers are better than others in terms of how they treat and compensate their employees. Academic institutions are no different, with widely ranging pay scales, benefits, support, and professional development offered to part-time instructors. Groups such as the New Faculty Majority are emerging as adjunct instructors unite to improve their working conditions and increase awareness of their growing role in facilitating higher education opportunities.

What do you know about your instructors?

One of benefits of distance education is the potential for making connections with talented faculty members from all over the world. And chances are that your instructors are doing much more than teaching. As authors, researchers, and working professionals they are making an impact on your field of study, as well as your institution. Your research of prospective onlinemprograms should include the faculty, full- and part-time instructors, teaching in the program you are interested in pursuing.

Where are your instructors’ qualifications? Look for faculty rosters and webpages on your school’s website. Kaplan University, University of Phoenix, and University of Maryland University College provide examples of the information you may find. Your instructors may also have personal sites, blogs, and profiles that you can review for information about their careers and the paths they’ve chosen. The combination of academic credentials and practical experience they bring to your course can enhance the experience.

How is the work of instructors supported? From technology assistance to professional development, your institutions can provide a wide range of support services to help your instructors both fulfill their responsibilities and meet your needs as an online learner.

Reach out. Are your instructors open to professional networking? Ask for suggestions about associations and groups that may help you find out more about your career field. They may also be able to make introductions and assist you with career-related questions – but you won’t know unless you ask.

As an enrolled student, you should take the time to get to know more about your instructors and their many professional roles. And become an advocate for your instructors as you move through your online programs.

Image credit: Jason Riedy, Flickr, CC-BY