What Do We Know about Teaching Online?

What do those who work in online higher education think of what they are asked to do? A new survey provides some answers.
By Helena Worthen

Headlines about online instruction change quickly. Six months ago, massive open online courses (MOOCs) were news. Now, the news is no longer about the wonders of technology or access—the focus instead is on the potentially negative effects of online working conditions.

What is it really like to teach online? What kind of professional life does an online faculty member lead? Does the art of teaching survive online delivery? Faculty working conditions, after all, are students’ learning conditions.

COCAL, the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, authorized a survey to find answers to this question at its August 2012 conference in Mexico City through a joint project with the Online Learning Working Group of the United Association for Labor Education (UALE). The survey, distributed in early October 2012 (and available at https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/M8DYDMH), was picked up by various academic organizations and discussion lists and rolled from one online academic community to another. By early December, with 131 respondents, I began to analyze the results with my colleagues at COCAL and UALE.

Who Responded to the Survey?

The responses to the survey reflect the range of online teaching contexts, coming from a variety of institutions (107) from different states (thirty-six) and different countries (seven, including the United States) and from public, private nonprofit, and for-profit institutions. Of our respondents,

  • fifty-three came from state colleges and universities;
  • twenty-two came from community colleges;
  • eleven came from private nonprofit institutions;
  • twenty-nine came from private for-profit institutions; and
  • sixteen declined to identify their institution by name.

Forty-nine respondents were full-time faculty members—tenured, tenure track, or contingent—and some taught their class as part of a regular faculty load. Eleven were teaching in adjunct positions in addition to full-time ones. Thirty-nine were part-time faculty members who were teaching at only one institution: some were teaching one course, some were teaching two. Thirty-two were teaching part time at more than one institution. This final group included people teaching three or more classes at a time.

We divided the responses about online working conditions into “professional concerns” and “pay and benefits.”

Professional concerns centered on control of the work. The academic freedom to teach what and how you believe to be right, within the bounds of your discipline and your expertise, has concrete implications for online teaching. It matters whether you teach a class someone else designed or you designed the class and someone else teaches it. It also matters whether you are allowed to change the class.

Job security is a professional concern as well, as is ownership of copyright and evaluation. We asked respondents if they designed the class they taught or if it was a collaborative project, if they could expect to teach the class in the future, and if they were required or allowed to update it. We also asked about professional development, access to research assistance, and availability of readers or graders—types of professional support that are not uncommon in other academic contexts.

Table 1. Reasons for Teaching Online
Number of responses Reason
70 To reach a geographically dispersed population
68 To bring in new sources of tuition revenue
50 To supplement face-to-face traditional education
40 To solve budgetary problems connected to brick-and-mortar classroom costs (replacing physical classrooms)
35 To expand course offerings beyond the core curriculum
25 To increase class size over what is possible in a face-to-face class

Table 2. Course Authorship by Faculty Status
Status Did you develop the class you teach?
Full-time (n=49) 35 said yes; 4 said it was a collaborative effort; 10 did not respond
Part-time (n=71) 34 said yes; 8 said it was a collaborative effort; 29 said no
Part-time with other full-time job (n=11) 8 said yes; 3 said it was a collaborative effort

Control of the Work

“Academic freedom” and “the art of teaching” may sound as if they are unrelated to “control of the work.” Control of the work—workers’ rights to conditions that enable them to do their best and produce work of which they are proud—is a concern shared by all. As faculty members who teach online see themselves more and more as routine workers, “control of the work” is becoming a bigger issue.

Because status in an educational institution is closely linked to control of the work, we sorted survey responses by status, distinguishing between full- and part-time faculty members. Generally, the lower their status, the less control of their work faculty members had.

Are faculty members who participated in this survey cynical about online teaching and learning? No. We asked several questions intended to allow respondents to discuss their attitude toward the work they were doing. Since there are many arguments in favor of distance learning, we asked respondents to indicate why their course is taught online (see table 1).

We also asked for a true-or-false response to the statement “I believe that this course, and the expertise that I bring to teaching, is an indispensable contribution to the mission of the institution where I teach.” Of the 121 who responded, 81 percent answered “true.” “Indispensable” implies mutual commitment. The belief that one is making a unique and valued contribution can mask a lot of dissatisfaction. Among the twenty-three who answered “false,” part-time faculty members outnumbered their full-time colleagues thirteen to ten.

Table 3. Course Ownership
Status I own Copyright The institution owns copyright Don't know
Part-Time 6 19 27
Full-Time 9 12 12

An example of an “indispensable” contribution comes from a full-time faculty member at a private nonprofit university whose students were dispersed by Hurricane Katrina: “Ours is a graduate program. Since Hurricane Katrina some of our students are STILL dispersed. That is why each course in our program is on campus as well as online. [Our students] visit the city from time to time and so they get to meet their faculty members and other students. The two [versions of the class] count as one class. We designed this ourselves.”

A part-time faculty member teaching at the University of Phoenix describes a lack of institutional support:

I love the students. They are diverse and many are hardworking, although often seriously underprepared for college-level courses. I feel that the quality of education they receive at the University of Phoenix is inferior to what they would get in a public university, community college, or in faceto- face classroom settings at another institution. University of Phoenix delivers a formulaic, cardboard cut-out style of education. In spite of this, I do my best to create a dynamic learning environment for students and to help them as best as I can. As far as working conditions go, I feel entirely disconnected from the University. . . . I know no one there personally and would have no idea who to ask for a reference. I feel extremely “used” by the system. . . . I am permitted to make changes, but there is a lot of pressure to strictly follow the university’s guidelines.

As table 2 indicates, full-time faculty members were likely to have authored their courses. Half of adjunct respondents did not design the courses they taught.

Nearly all respondents said that they could make changes to a class, but part-time faculty members, especially those at for-profits, reported that the updates they could make were minimal because the courseware was proprietary. Among those who authored the courses they taught, ownership of copyright to the courses varied, as table 3 illustrates. What is striking here is the high number who responded “don’t know.”

We also asked faculty members if they expected to teach their classes in the future. Many believed they would keep their classes because of “past practice,” but without union representation, past practice is unenforceable. Thirty-five of those who answered this question said they had expectations of keeping their class in the future despite not having union representation, as did thirteen who may have a contract but do not have a seniority right written into it.

Evaluation and Compensation

Online instruction is, unfortunately, well suited to the “black-box” approach to evaluation, which measures input and output but ignores what goes on in a classroom. Input includes class size and any preclass selection process, such as prerequisites. Output includes attrition, grades, and student complaints or feedback forms. Table 4 illustrates the predominance of the black-box approach.

Table 4. Evaluation of Online Teaching
Evaluation Type Full-time (n=49) Part-Time (n=82)
I am not evaluated 2 3
Students fill out a feedback form (for 48 respondents, this was the only form of evaluation) 37 62
My supervisor spot-checks the course and reviews student evaluations 9 23
The course is evaluated only when there is a problem n/a 11
Individual instructors and courses, including student feedback, are reviewed and evaluated by administration 16 11
Faculty meet together and evaluate courses and instructors 5 0

Black-box evaluations are not good measures of what goes on in a class. When the only measure is student evaluations, the instructor has an incentive to pander to students. A visit to a website by a tech administrator produces an evaluation of the website but not the teacher.

When we asked what happens when a student makes a complaint, only one person responded, “I am not rehired.” The rest of the responses, from both part- and full-time faculty members, were “nothing” or “my supervisor talks it over with me and we resolve it in a positive way” or “my supervisor backs me up.”

Pay per class for part-time faculty members, illustrated in table 5, varies more by institutional sector than by status. Those at public state universities made the most, with the majority receiving between $3,000 and $5,000 per class. Pay at for-profits was the worst, with pay at community colleges and private nonprofits almost equally bad.

Access to health insurance, contributions to retirement, vacation accrual, holiday pay, and paid sick days were rarely provided to part-time faculty members. Some received a contribution toward retirement.

Some costs associated with teaching online are not incurred in face-to-face teaching. There are the costs of access to the Internet, keeping software updated, and purchasing and maintaining a computer as well as basic overhead expenses. Since maintaining a computer and Internet service, and having a room or at least a desk to serve as a home office, are essential, not making enough to cover these costs, or the cost of replacing a crashed computer, can be devastating.

Table 5. Pay per Course
Sector Pay for teaching (part time) per three-credit class
Community colleges (n=22) 3 made $4,000–$5,000
2 made $3,000–$3,999
9 made $2,000–$2,999
6 made less than $2,000
2 did not respond
Public state universities (n=54) 1 made $8,000
18 made $4,000–$5,000
17 made $3,000–$3,999
9 made $2,000–$2,999
9 made less than $2,000
Private nonprofit colleges and universities (n=16; some people responded for more than one class at different institutions) 1 made $6,800
1 made $5,500
8 made $2,000–$3,000
6 made less than $2,000
Private for-profits (n=18) 12 made $2,000–$3,000
6 made less than $2,000

Working Conditions

The typical class size for our respondents, regardless of sector, was twenty to forty. One or two people taught classes of fifty to one hundred students. This survey did not reach anyone who was teaching a MOOC. Although faculty members who teach composition or other writing-intensive courses online complained about classes with more than twenty students, class size was generally not identified as a problem. The critical workload issue was hours per day per class for faculty members teaching more than one or two classes at a time. Although responses ranged from one hour per day to six hours per day per class, the bell curves in all sectors centered around two hours per day per class, including weekends.

The revenue-driven business model is the overarching problem that is driving down pay, reducing faculty control of the art of teaching, and breaking full-time positions into multiple part-time jobs. Under this model, students are enrolled without adequate preparation, loan programs are aggressively marketed, and labor costs are suppressed. Faculty members often blame whatever comes to hand: students, individual employers, or the technology itself.

Using the responses from the survey, we can hypothesize an individual who functions at each of the three key points along the range of working conditions. The individual at the high end of the range is the full-time faculty member, whether tenured, tenure track, or contingent. This person, paid a living wage, may teach three to five classes per semester. He or she may get release time to create a class, or may be paid for it and assisted by research assistants, curriculum designers, and technology staff.

The individual who teaches part time at a single institution may, with two classes a semester at $4,000 per class, over three semesters make $24,000 a year before taxes from teaching. We assumed, for the purposes of interpreting our data, that someone who reported teaching only one or two classes at one institution must have other income. This person may be retired with a pension or have a spouse with a good job, income from investments, or another job with time demands that are manageable. Compared to the part-time faculty member who is teaching many courses at many different institutions, this person is relatively flexible and can spend more or less time on a class depending on its demands.

The most difficult professional life is led by the person who teaches five or more classes at two or more institutions. This person is actually trying to make a living in the new higher education workplace. In the context of face-to-face classes, this person would be called a “freeway flier,” someone trying to create a professional academic life out of multiple jobs. For this person, both time and money are scarce resources; there is no margin for error. A computer virus or a loss of Internet access can seem fatal. Buying books or subscribing to journals is out of the question. The pressure of trying to earn a living forces this person to accept as many classes as possible, add as many students as will sign up, and restrict time spent on each class.

No discussion of “quality” in online learning can afford to overlook the extremes of inequality in working conditions in online teaching. One concern of the full-time tenured faculty is that courses designed for small enrollments and rich student-teacher interaction will get passed along to someone who is teaching four or five other classes and has to maximize efficiency above all else.

The lower down the status scale one goes, the more disturbing the tension between doing “indispensable work” and having no control over that work becomes. At a certain point, the tension may be experienced as burnout, but the person has to keep teaching in order to live. Institutions, by increasingly using proprietary curricula, automated grading systems, and black-box evaluations, contribute to this burnout.

Most faculty pushback, at least that which makes headlines, is against the imposition of MOOCs into an existing curriculum. When tenured faculty members express concern that their courses, developed with the support of university resources, cannot be effectively taught by someone who lacks those resources, their worry is really about working conditions across the industry.

Even in unionized institutions, the power to resist is fragmented by extremes of inequality. Full- and part-time faculty members alike are aware of this problem. The “mentors” working the night shift for Udacity may be the future of the faculty in higher education.

Surveys can gather information, but they are not organizing tools. What is needed now is a commitment to organizing from the bottom up and regardless of status, an approach that is “local” in the same new ways as online instruction itself. Such organizing should recognize the material realities of online instruction, defying the corporate culture that the tuition-chasing business model represents, embracing all faculty members, appealing to courage rather than fear, and taking for granted that all teaching is worthy of respect, regardless of how much the person who is doing it is paid.

An expanded report on the findings discussed in this article will be posted on the COCAL International website: http://cocalinternational.org/.


Helena Worthen is associate author with W. Norton Grubb of Honored but Invisible: An Inside Look at Teaching in Community Colleges. She is professor emerita of the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations, where she was a labor educator. Her e-mail address is [email protected].