Prioritizing Faculty in Online Education

Is your school developing new online programs?

What are the new online courses or degree programs that your institution is planning?

Is your university looking at converting existing face-to-face degree programs (likely masters) into an online format?

Or maybe your school is planning to roll-out non-degree online programs, perhaps as part of the new admissions funnel?

Today, about a third of all enrolled students take at least one online course. And while only 14 percent of undergraduates study exclusively online, 30.7 percent of graduate students (932,845) are studying entirely online.

While online enrollments are growing at a modest pace (outside of masters degrees), the number of colleges and universities that are getting into online education is growing.  For master’s programs, some of the fastest growth in online education is occurring at highly selective institutions.

While “mega-universities,” such as SNHU and ASU and WGU, get much of the ink, it is the growth of online education across the entire postsecondary ecosystem that is the real story of how higher education is changing.

Given all this growth in online learning (at the institution, program, and student level), why is it that the role of faculty is so seldom discussed?

We often hear about the benefits of online education for students (flexibility, ability to work, etc.) and schools (enrollment and revenue), the advantages of creating new online programs for faculty gets less attention.

Seldom do we hear university leaders saying things like:

“We plan to grow our online education programs so that our professors can make more money, enjoy more flexible professional lives, and learn new skills to enhance their teaching.”

There is a general recognition that professors are one of the stakeholders in the online education equation, along with students and the schools/departments. But it often seems as if creating online programs with the explicit goal of benefiting the professors is lower down on the list of priorities.

What would happen if we were to change how we think and talk about online learning, and put the needs of the professors on par with those of the students and the schools?

Can we imagine developing new online programs with the expressed and explicit goal of increasing the security, autonomy, and compensation of the professors already at our institutions?

Would a “faculty-first” orientation to online learning compromise our other values, such as creating student-centric learning environments and developing sustainable economic models for new online programs?

I’ve come to believe that everyone, including students and universities/schools/programs, would benefit if we put faculty needs first in our online program development.

Much like how companies benefit their customers and investors if they follow a good jobs strategy, both students and institutions would profit if they follow a “good for professors” online education strategy.

Why is this so?

First, we have to remember that a quality online learning experience depends on many variables (learner support, quality instructional design, affordability, etc. etc.). Still, quality depends most critically on the relationship between the learner and the educator. Excellent online education is a relational, as opposed to a transactional, activity.

A relational model of teaching and learning requires that professors are well-supported and well-compensated. The more tightly bound the professor is to the values of the institution, the better aligned her teaching will be to the educational mission.

Any university that depends on poorly paid adjuncts, and other insecure faculty, will get in quality that it pays for. The more a school invests in the professors, the more professors will invest in their students.

There are more practical reasons for universities to put the needs of the professors first when designing online programs.

Given how the vast majority of non-profit institutions are actually run, with decentralized operations and traditions of faculty autonomy, it is critical to ensure faculty enthusiasm for new online initiatives.

A provost or a dean might be able to jam a new online program down the throats of professors, or perhaps create an autonomous unit to bypass the faculty. That strategy, however, will likely ultimately fail.

It is instead much better, and more efficient, for institutional leadership to grasp what faculty want (security, autonomy, support, respect, etc. etc.) and then design the online programs to deliver on those desires.

This pro-professor strategy is not only about paying professors more for their online teaching (although that would help) or building online programs around tenure track educators as opposed to adjuncts (which is a good idea).

What this pro-faculty approach for developing an institution’s online strategy entails is putting professors at the table for decision making, governance, and leadership.

Professors should be included in the earliest stages of the planning process for new online programs.

On the flip side, any online program that does not benefit professors should not be developed.

If a new online program is likely to overwork and over-stress the faculty, then it should be abandoned. If an institution’s online learning strategy does not result in investments in faculty security, autonomy, or compensation – then it should not exist.

If the people leading online education initiatives are not working for the benefit of the school’s professors, then they should be fired.

I don’t believe that a pro-professor orientation for online education need result in programs that are any more expensive or any less student-centric. Prioritizing faculty benefits for online education may shift how revenues are utilized within an institution.

This sort of pro-professor strategy may require that university leadership work harder in figuring out how they will fund, launch, and manage online programs. And a faculty-centric online strategy will have implications for how schools think about working with partners such as online program managers (OPMs).

Putting faculty at the center (along with students) of an institution’s online learning strategy requires mostly the willingness to publicly, vocally, and continually commit to the needs of the professors.

As a professor, what has been your experience as your school as launched online programs?