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What Makes an Online School a Great Place to Teach?

The competition for online teaching positions is steep – even as schools see lower enrollments, more people are seeking opportunities to teach. Most of these jobs are as adjuncts, part-timers, included in a category of non-tenure track positions that make up, according to a 2012 report from the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, 75% of instructional jobs in higher education. This study also found that 22% of these part-time instructors are “teaching multiple courses at multiple institutions.”

Flexible schedules and the convenience of online delivery, in addition to a calling to teach, draw interested applicants, but many of these teaching positions are far from ideal in terms of working conditions. Groups like the New Faculty Majority and initiatives such as the Adjunct Project are bringing awareness of industry norms to larger audiences. And educators are sharing their experiences and providing feedback, sometimes quite candidly, in online forums.

There are a lot of ongoing discussions about what is currently negative and positive about online teaching. As an employment opportunity, what makes a school or program “a good one” from the instructor’s perspective?

  • Administrative support: From first hand experience, I know how overwhelming the paperwork associated with teaching an online course can become, even when most of it is digital. The tasks range from issuing course permits and finalizing contracts to cross-checking rosters and submitting grades. Having a skilled coordinator, a “go to” person, that can answer questions and clarify deadlines makes tackling this work that much easier.
  • High quality courses: Adjuncts often find themselves instructing standardized courses with syllabi and content that is developed in advance. Fortunately, many schools are implementing quality control measures to address evaluation and accreditation issues that result in well-designed, effective courses that allow instructors to focus on teaching, instead of addressing problems with the site and materials.
  • Student support: Online courses are often accelerated, leaving instructors little time to provide extra assistance. Through an increasing variety of services, students can get help with writing and math, research, technical troubleshooting, counseling, advising, and more. Instructors come to rely heavily on these services and work with their students to make the connections, resulting in more productive time spent in the course site.
  • Positive working environment: Online instructors want to teach in collegial and encouraging environments. Individual educators have different preferences and expectations, but many are calling for more academic freedom (to customize content and their approach to the courses they teach), an absence of office politics (which often still exist even in a virtual office environment), and increased levels of respect (from peers and full-time faculty members) for their expertise and the results they achieve with students in their online courses.
  • Good management practices: Online instructors want to know that their academic departments support their decisions and actions when it comes to upholding policies and interacting with students (e.g., enforcing honor codes). Proactive scheduling and placement are also appreciated, as well as quick communication of changes. Access to resources and support (e.g., library databases, technical help desk) also allow online instructors to more productively conduct their courses.
  • Benefits and compensation: Health insurance options and retirement plans are rare, but some institutions are offering them to part-time instructors. Compensation can also include time to engage in professional development activities and funding for conference travel.

Looking back at this list, support is a common theme. Some institutions do it better than others, and as with most employment situations there are going to be pros and cons with each online teaching assignment. Evidence of the items included in this post all indicate a school’s proactive approach to supporting online instructors.

Higher education administrators are starting to feel the pressure from groups of educators demanding improvements in support and overall working conditions that should be standard across the industry. What makes your program a great place to teach? Help us develop this list of what is important for those pursuing new opportunities.

Image credit: apdk, Flickr, CC-BY

October 1st, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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