I have just finished skimming an article on what the author calls ‘tenuous track’ faculty. The reality of this situation will not go away soon given the financial situation in the Humanities and Arts at Canadian and American universities. I am posting the link here, and thinking about it in this space, not because of the issue directly addressed, rather because of the impact of the use of Sessional lecturers (Adjuncts in the States) on teaching online.
The article deals with ethics and the situation of temporary long term faculty. Sessionals often teach the online courses at schools I believe as tenured and tenure track faculty prefer face to face, in class, teaching. This is a double financial benefit for schools as online distance courses are cheaper to run (there is no need to schedule classroom space, and the numbers taking such courses are larger, giving more bang for the buck), and Sessionals are paid less. At my primary institution, $60,000 per year is a starting salary which is paid for a course load of four courses per year. I earn $9000 per course, so if I taught four, I cost the institution $36,000 per year for the same work. Actually more work, as I provide my own office space at home and pay for my own internet connection.
But, what about the students in these courses? They get the same credit for an online course as they do for one taken in a classroom. To make the quality of an online course equal that of a f2f experience there are a number of things that can be done. If done, it is possible that a student will have a better educational experience than in a classroom. One course I teach is capped at 90 students, the other usually has about 150 enrolled. This term, I have two teaching assistants with the 150 student course, and none with the 90. If I were a student sitting in a classroom of 90, my chances of getting personal, one on one time with the instructor are far less than in an online course. Students have my email and they also have my Skype address. They can send detailed questions which I answer within 12 hours or less. If they want to chat, they can IM me using Skype, or chat on a video link. In a classroom course, they have to wait until the weekly office hour to talk to the instructor or to a Teaching Assistant. With my online courses they may get an answer at 1 a.m. or 9 a.m. on a Monday or a Sunday. Of course online instructors can limit the times, but it is a foolish online instructor who attempts to squeeze traditional forms of student/instructor interaction into the new wineskin of online work of a one hour office portal. This means of course, that the online instructor spends much more time interacting, or does it? I have to think about that for a minute. Typical classroom instruction has three lecture hours plus one office hour per week. Four hours of possible direct interaction. I imagine I have about four hours a week of direct contact, but spread over 7 days at diverse times. The advantage for the student is to be able to ask that burning question when it occurs and not at a pre-determined time of the day and of the week.
Well, I haven’t really got anywhere in this post, other than to conclude that f2f and online instruction are apples and oranges. Universities tend to load online courses with more students because classroom space is not a factor. My own experience is I can handle grading of 200 students in a semester on my own, and give roughly equivalent quality to the 60 student f2f courses. None of this is as good as my own first year History class back at the University of Windsor (Ontario) in 1969. I was one of 27 students studying History 15, Modern European History. A mid term, a major essay and a final exam – the first two with full comments, and plenty of opportunity to interrupt a lecture to ask questions. Those days are gone, of course. They may return but I doubt it. So, in terms of large classes, online is the way to go.