Adjunct Faculty Members’ Perceptions of Online Education Compared to Traditional Education

Adjunct Faculty Members’ Perceptions of Online Education Compared to Traditional Education

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I am often asked to give my opinion regarding online education versus traditional education.¬† Because it is such a popular topic, I decided to conduct some research to determine how online instructors’ perceive online versus traditional degrees. The following is an abstract from my most recent study published in the Journal for Online Doctoral Education.

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Online Classes Offer Balance

 

Online classes offer a variety of advantages for working adults who have enough on their plate without adding the stress of finding time for an education.  Probably the hardest part of attending a traditional university, for me, was finding time to fit it into my schedule.  I worked the traditional workday and then I had to make it to three-hour class four nights a week.  This was brutal because by the time I drove home and got to bed, it was close to midnight.  I would have to get up at 6 am and start all over again.  Thankfully I was in my early 20s at the time.  I honesty do not think I could handle that sort of schedule now.

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Advantages of Peer Interaction in Online Learning

One of the most important ways students learn in online courses is through peer-to-peer interaction.¬† In my experience with traditional classrooms, there were far more lectures and much student involvement.¬† The professors spoke ‚Äúat us‚ÄĚ in traditional courses. In online courses, there is more of a group discussion. Students receive the professor‚Äôs perspective as well as viewpoints from every student in the course.¬† In my opinion, this makes for a much more interesting and interactive classroom.

Not all students are fans of lecture-based learning.¬† MOOCs may experience high dropout rates due to their lecture-based format. According to the article MOOCs: Will Online Courses Help More Students Stay in School, ‚ÄúCritics of MOOCs are quick to point out their low completion rates (fewer than 7% of students complete the courses on average). They also note that the courses take the ineffective lecture format and make it the primary mode of learning.‚ÄĚ

The types of online courses I have taught rely very little, if at all, on lectures.  The courses include more peer interaction and written assignments. The peer interaction revolves around discussion questions.  There are usually at least two discussion topics posted each week.  Students must respond to the initial question and respond to their peers’ postings as well.  This requires students to address the question, discover other students’ perspectives, and develop critical thinking skills.

Students’ responses to their peers must include substantive comments and well-constructed follow-up questions.  These questions often develop the conversation and create a dialogue.  Every student can see these discussions.  Every student can interject their comments.  It creates a pool of information that would not be provided to students in a lecture hall.  It allows for much more depth to the exploration of the topic.

In a traditional course, the professor may give their insight and opinions about a topic.  In an online course, this is possible as well. What is different is the amount of interaction required by the students.  Granted, things may have changed since I took traditional courses in the 80’s.  However, based on what I read and what I hear from my students, traditional college courses have not changed that much.  I believe that is why there is such an interest in MOOCs.  They add a new dimension that traditional courses have lacked.  However, MOOCs may not provide the peer interaction is the same way that regular online classes can.  The reason for this is due to the number of students in class.  MOOCs are massive.  Most online courses I teach include fewer than 20 students. When there are too many students, the discussions become overwhelming and no one takes the time to read all of the postings.

The best part of peer interaction is that students can learn from everyone’s experiences. Many online students have had decades of experience. This provides a wealth of knowledge that may be added to the professor‚Äôs perspective.¬† This allows everyone, including the professor, to garner important insight.

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What to Expect in Online Doctorate Degree Courses

As a doctoral chair, it is my responsibility to help guide students through their doctoral dissertation process.  In order to receive a doctorate through online courses, there is a series of courses that students take prior to the time they begin writing the proposal for their dissertation.  Each online program varies to some degree.  Based on the two programs I have either taken or taught, I can say that they were pretty similar.  The following is what students might expect from an online doctoral program.

Students must first complete a series of online courses that address their field of study. For example, I received a degree that is titled: Doctor of Philosophy in Business Administration with a Specialization in Management.  That means that those initial courses included a specific focus on business management.  Some students may combine their Master’s with their Doctorate.  Assuming that students have already taken the thirty or so credits required for a Master’s degree, there may be another 10 or 15 courses required in the field of specialization. In this case, it would be to study business management.  These courses are not that different from taking graduate-level classes.

After finishing those courses, students begin taking courses that are more specific to the proposal and final dissertation.  It is difficult to state how many courses may be required at this point. Some students require fewer courses than others based on how much work they complete within the scheduled time for each course.  I have had some students make it through the dissertation in the process by taking only three dissertation courses.  Others may take a dozen or more courses to finish.  It depends upon how much students have done on their own prior to beginning the doctoral courses, how quickly they work, and the type of research they do.

The steps in the doctoral process include writing the proposal (which describes how the study will be performed, aka chapters 1-3 of the final dissertation), obtaining proposal approval, doing the research, writing the final dissertation (updating Chapters 1-3 and writing Chapters 4-5), obtaining approval for the dissertation, defending the dissertation in an oral presentation, and finally having the doctoral chair, doctoral committee, and dean give a final seal of approval.

The hardest part generally seems to be writing the proposal or the first three chapters.  This is difficult because students have to learn how to write in a very specific and scholarly way.  There are templates that may provide helpful information regarding alignment, content requirements, and formatting.   Students work very closely with their chair during this time.  Students must also have at least two committee members.  Some schools, like the one I attended, required an additional outside member to review the dissertation.  All members of the committee must have a doctorate.

Students usually work strictly with the chair until Chapters 1-3 are ready to submit. At that point, the committee looks at the work to give input and make suggestions.  After all adjustments are made, the proposal goes through several stages of approval.  Students may need to submit more than once if there are changes requested. This is commonly the case.  Once the proposal is approved, students can perform the study, and eventually write the last two chapters that describe the results.  This final document goes through the chair and committee approval process again, and eventually must meet with the dean’s approval.  The last step is for students to defend the dissertation in an oral presentation.  Usually that is the easiest part of the process because students know their study inside and out by that time.  It takes some students just a few years to go through the process.  Others take much longer. Some never finish.  It is a very difficult process.  However, in the end, it is worth it.

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Adjunct Advantages: The Future of Education

 

Professors who work on a contracted, part-time basis are referred to as adjuncts.  There are advantages for universities that hire adjuncts rather than tenured faculty. However, many adjunct professors do not like this option.  Some refer to the way things have changed in the university system as adjunct purgatory, with low pay, few benefits and no security.

There is no shortage of articles that point out the problems with adjuncts.¬† In an article from MindingTheCampus, author Mark Bauerlein stated, ‚ÄúThe practice creates a two-tier system, with tenured and tenure-track folks on one, adjuncts on the other.¬† Adjuncts take up most of the undergraduate teaching, enabling the others to conduct their research and handle upper-division and graduate courses, thus maintaining a grating hierarchy that damages group morale.¬† Also, because of their tenuous status, adjuncts can‚Äôt give students the attention they deserve and they can‚Äôt apply the rigor they should.‚ÄĚ

These problems¬†are more often associated with traditional campuses.¬†¬†However, the future of education¬†is¬†headed toward more online learning.¬† In fact, according to Campustechnology.com, ‚ÄúNearly 12 million post-secondary students in the United States take some or all of their classes online right now. But this will skyrocket to more than 22 million in the next five years.‚Ä̬† In private online institutions, adjunct positions can actually be more lucrative due to the ability that faculty may teach multiple classes for multiple universities.

 

The reason there are so many negative articles about adjuncts is that in the traditional setting, they have a completely different set of issues than those in the online setting.  There are many positives that should be noted for adjuncts in online learning. Some of the positives from the universities’ perspective (online or traditional) include: Not having to offer tenure, having flexibility in course offerings and paying less money per course.

There are even more advantages for online adjuncts from the faculty’s perspective:

  • Ability to work at multiple universities
  • No driving to campuses
  • Less meetings to attend
  • No need to publish research
  • Ability to work any time of the day in asynchronous courses
  • Ability to¬†have other jobs at the same time
  • Ability to¬†travel and still teach without taking time off
  • Option to¬†have some of the same benefits with some universities offering 401k, insurance and reduced tuition costs for the adjunct and their family

For those considering an adjunct online position, a site like higheredjobsis a great place to find teaching opportunities. For more information about adjunct salaries, check out SalaryBlog.org.

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