The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Let’s establish this one fact up front: You will most likely not land a full-time online faculty job right away. Most online faculty are part-time adjunct instructors who teach when there is a need for an instructor, and adjunct work is not especially dependable – at least, not at first. That means that you will not be getting a paycheck every two weeks, all year around.
Between 2002 and 2010, colleges rushed to put courses online. Advertising that a student could get an entire degree online, the underlying element is that the traditional borders for the student body essentially disappeared – you did not have to live near the school of your choice to attend. Some schools even eliminated in-state/out-of-state tuition levels so that regardless of where the student lived, the tuition was the same.
Enrollments increased during this time, and colleges were hungry to find experienced instructors. One of the primary qualifications was not necessarily a teacher’s prowess in the subject, but rather his or her experience in the online environment. If you had even the most basic qualifications in a topic but had online teaching experience, the job was yours.
However, college enrollments have been declining lately. Changes in student loan and grant qualifications and processes have actually had the effect of limiting enrollment. That means fewer classes for the pool of instructors to teach. So the number of online instructors has begun to level out – colleges are not necessarily increasing the number of instructors to the pool since enrollment numbers are not necessarily climbing. So attrition is the the determining factor in whether a particular school has online adjunct openings.
It is no secret that schools have seen a shift in student preference from the traditional classroom to the online environment. Each year the percentage of students opting for online classes is going up. Instead of assigning these students to adjunct professors, this increase in online student population is being absorbed by full-time faculty switching to online instruction from traditional stand-up lecture classes. So again, the rush to hire adjunct online professors is relatively flat.
But let’s assume that you find that first adjunct position as an online instructor. What will your work day look like?
There are two ways that the online classroom is presented to a faculty member. As has been the tradition, many schools allow (or require) the faculty member to create and maintain his or her own curriculum and classroom presentation, and thus the environment in which that curriculum is presented. The individual professor will choose one or more textbooks and create a course around those books while meeting the goals and objectives of the master course outline. Online, that means using the Learning Management System (LMS) to create the course, including all of the activities associated with the class. This can be a daunting proposition for many who are not familiar with the school’s LMS, the instructional design process or the unique requirements and needs of the online environment.
The second method is for the school itself to design the online classroom environment, tasking the instructor to act as a facilitator within this pre-designed course. The instructor has to prepare for the class , including personal information, a welcome message, customizng the syllabus and other housecleaning activities. Instructors also check all the links to be sure they are working, check over the online text for errors or misspellings, and otherwise get the classroom ready for students. Most of the online-only, for-profit and private colleges and universities use this method, and many of the state universities and colleges are beginning to see the benefits of this method. So we have
Rule Number Three: Before accepting an adjunct job, find out how the classes are created online and what the instructor is supposed to do.
Once the class is ready to go, the students are injected into the course and have access starting on a particular day. Almost all college classes today are set up to start and end on certain dates, and the material is set up in lessons or modules. Modules are normally one or two weeks in length, and the students are expected to complete all activities within that time period. Activities open and close on specific dates with access prevented before and after, keeping all students on the same sub-topic at the same time.
Instructors monitor a discussion board (or forum) every day, providing comments to students as they answer each discussion item. For example, good discussions ask students to offer information based on readings or other activities, injecting their own viewpoints. Students read what others have written, offering differing opinions and “discussing” the topic. The instructor guides the discussion, and at the end of the module, assigns grades for student participation in the discussions.
Students may also be asked to complete short written assignments on focused topics. Instructors will grade those assignments at the end of the module week. These assignments are normally submitted with certain format and properly referenced.
Each module probably has a quiz to test material from the readings. Here is a tip – online quizzes are not used to check knowledge since we know that students will use the textbooks and internet to look up answers. So – we use the quizzes to get students to look up the items that we want them to see. Quizzes are normally focused on simple definitions and concepts.
Some schools use live chat sessions that recommend or require that students all log into a chat room and participate in an instructor presentation once a week. These presentations focus on the module topics and provide a one-on-one connection between instructor and student.
Mid-term and final exams are also part of the equation. Again, they are used to direct students towards information that we know they will look up – and in doing so, learning does occur. Most of these quizzes and exams are self-grading with no input from the instructor.
Some also use term papers to get students to extend their understanding of the topics in the course. Students may choose their own topic; they may choose their topic from a list of topics; or they may be assigned to research and write on a specific topic. Instructors must review and grade these papers, normally due several days before the course ended.
Once the course is over, instructors must compile final grades and submit them to Student Records. Then, start all over again.
Students today in the online classroom expect that the instructor will be available 24/7 to
answer questions, help with technical issues, and bend the rules so that they can pass the course. Students tend to use the evening and overnight hours to complete and submit assignments, and if they run into an issue, they will email the instructor – and expect a nearly immediate response. Some instructors will actually do that, while other instructors will respond only during normal working hours, Monday through Friday. However, modules normally start on Monday and end on Sunday, meaning that they are working on class activities on the weekend – and expect the instructor to work on the weekend also. Check your school’s rules and expectations to see where they stand on this.
Teaching online is not for the weak. There are all manors of ways to game the system. Students can purchase assignment files that are “corrupted,” uploading them at the deadline and “resubmitting” when the instructor cannot open the file. This trick buys a couple of days extra time. Students will contend that their computer crashed or the internet gave out in the middle of quizzes and exams, asking for a second chance. Plagiarism is rampant, with schools employing plagiarism detectors such as Turnitin.com to ferret out cheaters.
Yes, you can choose your own daily schedule, teach in your pajamas and take a break whenever you like. But you are also responsible for timely responses to students, timely grading and accurate information. Students and administrators expect it.
Administrations may also monitor YOUR activity online, making sure that you are
responding as you should. You may be responsible for calling and emailing students who are falling behind to get them back involved in the course. Finally, you may be evaluated on the percentage of pass/fail final grades that you assign, since school funding is now tied to course completion, degree completion and job placement. Instructors may feel the heat to pass students even though they may not quite make the grade.
So this is what it is like to teach online. In Part Three, we will explore the education requirements for those who teach online; the hardware and equipment that you will need; the software that is required; and your level of proficiency with both hardware and software. See you then!
Four-Part Series: I’ll Retire and Teach Online!
- Part One: I’ll Retire and Teach Online. In Part One we looked at teaching college online, with an overview of the job. Catch up here!
- Part Three: Teaching Online – Education and Equipment. Getting down to the specifics of education, training and equipment that you need to get selected and make sure that you can keep that new job – teaching in your pajamas.
- Part Four: Getting that Online Teaching Job. In Part Four we will look at what you need to do to get that job, from part-time adjunct to full-time professor.