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Online Program Retention: What About the Faculty?

One of the greatest potential benefits of online education is extending the reach of expert faculty members to a wide audience of learners. Recruiting and retaining these instructors is costly for schools in terms of time and resources, and with a rise in adjunct teaching, there are growing concerns from all sides about making sure that highly qualified and engaging instructors are hired and supported in their work with students. In her article titled "The Professional Adjunct: An Emerging Trend in Online Instruction," educator Laurie Bedford reports that "as institutions continue to rely on adjuncts, they will find it necessary to be able to differentiate among the commitments and motivations of these diverse individuals to determine the best organizational fit."

What does it take to retain talented adjunct instructors?

From the institution's side of the table, there are steps they can take to retain the best faculty. Educators Richard Leblanc and Sandra Scott outline 10 areas in which administrators can work with faculty to enhance teaching and the curriculum. But what should adjunct instructors look for when considering employment opportunities? This question emerged from a recent LinkedIn discussion in which adjunct instructors weighed in on what's important when considering a new online teaching opportunity. Beyond criteria related to financial compensation and benefits, here are the primary concerns mentioned by the LinkedIn discussion participants:

  • Work environment: Conducting a self-assessment of work values is a common component of career decision-making and planning, and many of us find that we value a positive work environment. In the context of online teaching, this environment may include organizational culture, how and when communication takes place, expectations related to work deadlines, and the availability of support personnel and resources. The University of California, Berkeley recommends answering the following question: "What working conditions provide an optimum environment in which I can do my best work?"
  • Instructional design: The ways in which individual courses are designed and developed varies by school, and can range from each instructor creating his or her own courses to teaching those developed by a team to be delivered by multiple instructors. While schools don't usually allow adjunct instructors to modify core components of an existing course, there may be flexibility to supplement the materials and share their expertise in other ways. Having input in the design of courses, including selection of materials and learning activities, is important to many adjunct instructors.
  • Professional development: Adjunct instructors are usually teaching part-time and often not included in a program's budget for professional development opportunities such as conference attendance. But the discussion group emphasized the importance of receiving support in the areas of training and orientation. How will you become familiar with, and keep current with, an institution's policies and procedures, technologies, and resources? Many schools provide formal training for new faculty as well as continuing education options, sometimes requirements, such as workshops offered by an in-house teaching and learning group. Mentoring received by a more experienced instructor can also be helpful for those just getting started with their first online courses.
  • Reputation: Some online schools, especially those in the for-profit category, have received notoriety related to problems ranging from financial aid to student recruiting. Problems with accreditation, low student performance on national and state licensing exams, and a perceived lack of institutional focus on needs of the students, could also adversely impact a school's reputation. Could taking a position at one of these schools harm an instructor's reputation as well? Several commenters stated that this kind of concern might prevent qualified individuals from applying to jobs with these institutions.
  • Academic freedom: "Academic freedom gives faculty members substantial latitude in deciding how to teach the courses for which they are responsible." This is just one aspect outlined in an article from Inside Higher Ed that defines academic freedom in terms of what it does and what it doesn't do in the context of higher education. For online, part-time instructors there has been debate in recent years about whether or not they are afforded the same types of freedoms experienced by full-time faculty members.

Motivation to Teach Online 

Many of the concerns mentioned by the LinkedIn group are related to instructor motivation. The list of pros and cons of any specific teaching opportunity may be described and weighed differently by each job seeker. Employment needs and preferences will be unique to each of us. Why do you want to teach online?

Educational researchers Tim Green, Jeffery Alejandro, and Abbie H. Brown asked online instructors to provide information about their motivation to teach online. The majority of those considered adjunct or part-time, were driven by opportunities related to:

  • finding flexible working conditions,
  • sharing their professional knowledge,
  • using technology,
  • gaining teaching experience,
  • engaging in career development and advancement activities, and
  • experiencing intellectual challenge.

Finding a balance between workload and compensation, receiving support from the school, and being able to assist with the design of courses and programs were also important factors that encouraged their work.

Sharing Lessons Learned

There are, of course, many more variables to consider, such as access to tech support, the details of contract terms, involvement in governance decisions, and feeling like part of a teaching community. What is important to you? Assess your reasons for pursing online teaching positions and create a personalized checklist of factors to research as you navigate interviews, placement, and eventually, teaching new courses. Share your advice and lessons learned in the comments area, and help guide those exploring their first online teaching opportunities. You may also be informing those responsible for hiring online instructors about what it will take to retain your expertise. 

Image credit: the Italian voice, Flickr, CC-BY