August 2, 2014

Teaching assistants, adjunct faculty and online learning

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Lecture to hybridI am struggling these days with the issue of who should teach online courses, in terms of qualifications and status, and in particular, the issue of how to scale up credit-based online courses while maintaining or improving quality.

These questions are coming to the forefront because, through blended learning, practices that are common in face-to-face teaching come head to head with quite different practices in online learning.

What has made this an issue for me

Recently I’ve been involved in assessing proposals for funding for large-enrollment online credit courses. Most of the proposals have focused on using several/many teaching assistants working under a professor to provide the learning support. I’m also finding this model being increasingly used where institutions are moving to a hybrid model, combining both online and face-to-face components, especially where a former very large lecture-based course is being redesigned for hybrid learning. Even including the TAs, the instructor/student ratio is often 1:100 or higher for these large enrollment courses (in other words, the same ratio more or less as when the course was delivered solely through large lectures.) In the proposals, and in the reports I am receiving, there is usually no additional training for TAs about how to teach online, although in many – but by no means all – cases, they do get some kind of training in teaching face-to-face.

This is a problem for me, because I have always worked with a model for online courses where the instructor: student ratio has been under 40 for undergraduate courses, and under 30 for graduate courses. Scaling up has been handled by hiring on contract additional part-time adjunct or associate professors, either with a doctoral degree in the subject area, or with strongly related work experience. The adjuncts would be paid to take a short online briefing course on teaching online which sets out the expectations for online teaching. This was an affordable model because the additional student tuition fees would more than cover the cost of hiring additional contract instructors, once the course was developed.

However, this has been possible because most of the online courses I have been responsible for have been aimed mainly at higher level undergraduate students or graduate students. With both blended and online courses now being targeted at large first and second year classes, new models are being developed that I fear will not have the same level of quality as the ‘best practice’ online courses I have been working with.

Why this is not an easy issue for me

This is a particularly difficult issue for me to discuss for several reasons:

  • most of my experience is with fully online courses; when I have taught face-to-face, it’s usually been me on my own, and generally with relatively small groups of between 25 to 200 maximum
  • practices both for dealing with large face-to-face classes and with online classes vary considerably within each form of delivery, and from one institution to another, so making generalizations is fraught with danger
  • decisions about whether to use teaching assistants or part-time, contract instructors, are driven more by financial considerations than by best pedagogical practice, although institutions do their best to make it as effective educationally as possible once a model for TAs and/or adjuncts has been decided on
  • there are other factors at work besides money and pedagogy in the use of teaching assistants and adjunct faculty, such as the desire to provide financial support to international and graduate students, the idea of apprenticeship in teaching, and the supply and demand effects on the employment of doctoral graduates seeking a career in university teaching and research
  • there is no golden mean for instructor/student ratios in either blended or online learning. In the mainly quantitative/STEM subjects, much higher ratios are sustainable without the loss of quality, through the use of automated marking and feedback
  • MOOCs (rightly or wrongly) are giving the impression that it is possible to scale up even credit-based online learning at lower cost.

What follows then is tentative, and I’m ready to change my views especially on the evidence of others who have grappled with this issue.

My concern

My real concern is that the over-reliance on teaching assistants for online and blended courses will have three negative consequences for both students and online learning in general:

  • As with the large face-to-face classes, the pedagogy for online or blended courses will resort more to information transmission.
  • however, for the online or hybrid courses, student drop-out and dissatisfaction will increase because, especially in first and second year teaching, they will not get the learning support they need when studying online.  As a result, faculty and students will claim that online learning is inferior to classroom-based instruction
  • faculty will see online learning and blended learning being used by administrations to cut costs and over time to reduce the employment of tenured faculty, and will therefore try to block its implementation.

Why can’t TAs provide the support needed online if they can do this for face-to-face classes? First, I’m not sure they do provide adequate support for students in large first year classes, but I’m not in a position to judge. But in online courses in subject domains where discussion is important, where qualitative judgements and decisions have to be made by students and instructors, where knowledge needs to be developed and structured, in other words in any field where the learning requires more than the transmission and repetition of information, then students need to be able to interact with an instructor that has a deep understanding of the subject area. For this reason, I am more than happy to hire adjunct faculty to teach online, but not TAs in general (although there will always be exceptions). Furthermore this kind of teaching and learning (‘the learning that matters most’) is very difficult to do with a very large instructor/student ratio, although with good design and faculty training, we could possibly push numbers higher than 1/40.

One possible solution

I’m not sure there is an easy solution to this problem. Whether online or face-to-face, large numbers of students per instructor limits what is possible pedagogically.

Furthermore, in my view online learning works better for some kinds of students than others. Students in their first year of university or college are not the best target group. They are often young, have little experience of independent learning, lack confidence or discipline in their study habits, and indeed expect to be in a face-to-face teaching environment and want the social and cultural milieu that a campus provides. What we should be doing though in their first and second year is gradually introducing them to online components so that they slowly develop the discipline and skills required for successful online learning. This still doesn’t resolve the issue though of very large classes.

So here’s my suggestion for these large introductory courses of 1,000 students or more (this is not new – see the National Center for Academic Transformation‘s course redesign):

  • create a team to design, develop and deliver the course. The team will include a senior professor, several adjunct professors, and two or three TAs, plus an instructional designer and web/multimedia designer.
  • The senior professor acts as a teaching consultant, responsible for the overall design of the course, hiring and supervising the work of the adjuncts/TAs, and the assessment strategy/questions and rubrics. This though is done in consultation with the rest of the team.
  • Most content is provided online.
  • Students work in groups of 30, and each of the adjuncts is responsible for several student groups. Students do both individual and group work (e.g. projects, problem-solving),
  • Students participate in ongoing online discussion forums, under the moderation of an adjunct or TA
  • The senior professor meets for one hour a week three times face-to-face or synchronously with  a group of 30 students; this brings the professor in face-to-face contact with just over 1,000 students a semester; adjuncts where possible meet once a week with a group on campus or synchronously.
  • Adjuncts and TAs mark assignments, and the senior professor monitors/calibrates the marking between instructors
  • Now think of what could happen if this course was shared with other universities. Savings could be made on course development, but the delivery of the course would still need instructors at the other universities. So there would be some economies of scale from sharing, but not a very large saving, because the development cost is a small proportion of the overall cost. This does not mean that institutions shouldn’t co-operate and share resources, but this will not bring the large economies of scale that are often claimed for sharing online courses.

Whatever detailed design is done, these large courses should have a clear business model to work with, which basically provides an overall budget for the course, that includes the cost of tenure track and adjunct faculty and TAs, and takes account of the students numbers (more students, more budgeted money), but allowing the senior professor to build the team as best as possible within that budget.

The two elephants in the room

The above scenario works with the current system of allocating resources to different level of courses. But there are two factors that lead to the very large class sizes in first and second year that no-one really wants to talk about:

Elephant in room

  • the starvation of first and second year students of teaching resources; senior faculty concentrate more on upper level courses, and want to keep these class sizes smaller. As a consequence first and second year students suffer
  • teaching subsidizes research: too often tuition revenues get filtered off into supporting research activities. The most obvious case is that if teachers spent more time teaching and less doing research, there would be more faculty available for teaching. Teaching loads for experienced, tenured faculty are often quite light and as stated above, focused on small upper level classes.

Do a simple calculation: divide the total number of students by the number of tenure track instructors  in your institution, and that will give you an overall average instructor/student ratio for the university as a whole. So if you have 40,000 students and 2,000 full-time instructors , you have an overall instructor/student ratio of 1:20. However, then deduct 40% of their time for research, so that equals 1,200 full time equivalent, or a ratio of one instructor for 33.3 students. Then deduct another 20% of their time for administration and public service and that leaves 800 FTEs, or a ratio of one instructor for every 50 students. Even with this fairly generous allowance of 60% of their time for other activities, and WITHOUT adjuncts or TAs, in this large university there should be enough instructors to teach without having the absurdly large first and second year classes commonly found in such large universities. Add in adjuncts and TAs, and this ratio drops even further.

So don’t expect online learning to solve this problem on its own.

Your turn

I would particularly like to hear from the relatively rare instructors who have taught large classes both face-to-face and online. Do you share my concern about using TAs for distance or hybrid courses?

I’d also like to hear in general about experiences with TAs or adjunct/contract instructors as well on this topic.

Comments

  1. Hi Tony,

    You ask some interesting questions. My concern is when the professors have never taken an online class, never experienced a good online learning environment, and are then expected to teach or lead in the online environment. In many cases, the TAs might actually have more experience with hybrid and online learning that the tenured faculty.

    So my immediate thought while reading your article is that good TAs could actually provide more support for first year students in large lectures because they so are so much closer to that first year experience – they can empathize but also they would have a better understanding of what a first year student needs to learn to be successful. They would know better what student-life resources are available to help undergrads that are struggling. Unless the senior professor takes a special interest in the scholarship of teaching and learning, they are likely to be unaware of what their students actually need to be successful (maybe I’m being cynical).

    I don’t have any experience with large classes. My background is that I did a Masters in Distributed Learning online, and I’m just finishing up a PhD in a very non-online university – which is struggling to implement online and hybrid courses. I’m also teaching a fully online masters course in Emerging Technologies and Learning this semester – which as been remarkably rewarding. My students arrive, only about 30% have taken any online courses, most of afraid of technology, and through this course are required to not only talk to each other in discussion groups but negotiate a group project using online collaboration technologies. It is transformative to many. I think after taking my course, any of my students would make better TAs in an online class than most of the full time faculty simply because they have experienced it as a learner.

    My point is, even the experience of taking a real credit course online will help TAs/Adjuncts/Faculty better appreciate the learner experience. I also think any PhD student who wants to be a professor should be looking to get some experience teaching online, as it will become a required skill (if it isn’t already).

    So I guess I’m saying, experience with online learning is more important than rank – and even more, I’d say, experience with good online learning, because we tend to teach as we were taught.

    Cheers,
    Rebecca

    • Beth says:

      I think you make a good point about professors having lots of subject matter expertise, but not expertise in online learning. In fact, some professors don’t have a lot of expertise in teaching at all beyond standing up and delivering a lecture.

      I was a TA for an online course. While I had the subject matter expertise, I also have a degree in teaching (including an online learning component) and lots of experience being an online student. I think I was able to provide a better experience for students as a result.

    • Tony Bates says:

      Great comments, Rebecca
      Yes, I agree, experience in online learning as a student/learner is really useful when it comes to teaching online. I particularly like the strategy at the University of Central Florida, where before anyone there can teach an online or hybrid course, they must do a course on teaching online – online. Now if institutions start developing or incorporating such courses for TAs (and faculty of course), then that would do a lot to reduce my concern.

  2. David says:

    Hello again, Tony,

    It’s a real struggle for conventional instructional thinkers to adapt to the on-line environment.
    Many need to understand that there is a learning process they need to undergo.

    In small operations, they need to be jack-of-all-trades: not just creating the material and shaping it, but presenting it in a fashion that is acceptable to a web audience (totally different reading style to that of hard copy, is just one principle they need to come to grips with), along with the presentation medium, Moodle/Totara, along with all the other multifarious aspects required to suit the material and audience type, and if they are extremely lucky, they finally click onto the fact that they need to simply prepare the materail and hand it over to those who know how to present it through the medium most effectively, within a team envirnonment that is capable of working closely in a professional, team, liaison environment, to come up with the final product.

    Along the way, mindsets and perceptions need to change, and such aspects as understanding that a high drop-out rate within the MOOC environment is no more than a symptom of the environment that needs to be accepted. The audience is, what it is. There are single parents that see an opportunity to pull themselves out of a hole, but life demands pull them back down. There are people working that are suddenly hit with periods of overtime and are told by employers to drop whatever else they are doing to priortise on the source of funds that pay their families’ rent and food. Along with a myriad of other reasons, that the MOOC context catered to in the first place. The percentages may appear to be discouraging when compared to conventional brick and mortar class attendance and pass figures, at first sight, but the statistics probably don’t go far enough to keep track of those that pick up on the same course one or two courses down the track, fuelled by the same impetus that got them going in the first place. This is, of course, a difference in advantage of the cMOOC over the xMOOC.

    A second perspective that needs to be understood is that not everybody is capable of studying in the more isolated scenario, and this is why the communication factor has to be lifted in the distance learning/MOOC scenario, through email, SKYPE, Google Groups, localised study groups, forums, phone, and any number of other communication mediums that can be generated to compensate for the lack that F2F supplies. This is really where the TA factor is best employed, not as a TA, as such, but as an available contact that has the knowledge aspect, a reasonably mature personality quotient – I recall having to deal with a young lass once who wished to push her Pussy Riot style agenda at me – and that’s all.

    The material is already out there, it has been presented, they don’t need to do that again. They just need to be familiar with it and capable of clarifying any confusion with it, while maintaining that required contact factor.

    It’s a different environment.
    Different rules apply.

  3. Beth says:

    Food for thought!

    I’m not sure I’d be so quick to dismiss first year students though. Many of them are closer to the technologies being used than the professors, and today’s students have more experience with online activities than previous generations.

    I think online learning can be a boon for different learning styles. Not everyone learns well by listening to a lecture and reading a text book. Unfortunately, not everyone who teaches is interesting in developing their practice.

  4. I’m glad you’re thinking about this seriously and open to comments.

    First, I don’t quite get your arithmetic: the senior professor could meet with each of 1,000 students in groups of 30 how many times a week over one semester?

    Second: what’s missing in your vision is the working conditions of the instructors. No matter how experienced, thoughtful, widely-read, etc they are, if they are under pressure to spend no more than 2 hours per day per class of 30, the results will be pitiful. For adjuncts and TA’s (and for non-TT faculty who have to produce in other areas), the conflict between doing a good job and teaching enough classes to make a living will result in starved class experience for students. See that October 2013 issue of Academe for my research on working conditions of online instructors.

    Thanks — Helena Worthen

    • Tony Bates says:

      Hi, Helen
      Thanks for your comments. I agree with your comments about adjuncts in general having poor working conditions. I’ll come back to this.
      But first, in terms of my math, if a senior faculty member with overall responsibility for the design of a course met three times a week for one hour with a different group of students each time over a 13 week semester, that would be 39 x 30 = 1170 students. Thus in a class of 1100 students, each student would have the chance to spend one hour in a smallish group with the research professor each semester. This of course assumes in my re-design that a great deal of student study time would be spent online, and that these student groups of 30 also have access to associate faculty who moderate online or class discussion as well.
      I actually don’t like my own model, but I believe it is superior to 1100 students being lectured by 10 teaching assistants in sections of 100 or more each week.
      The real answer is to find a way to ensure that classes throughout the institution are kept to around a 1:30 ratio of full-time academic staff to students, but that would mean most full-time faculty teaching more than they do at the moment and ensuring that the time of full-time faculty is spread evenly across all levels of student and not concentrated on post-graduates.
      It should be noted incidentally that in terms of actual numbers, the ratio of full-time academic staff to students overall (at least in Canada) is 1:27. However, as we know, teaching counts for only 40% of most-full time academic staff time, which would mean a ratio of one full-time faculty member for every 67.5 students. If that full-time faculty member taught four courses a year, average class size would be back to 1:27 – so in my view it is intolerable that many universities have first year classes of 1,000 or more.
      If very large class sizes are to be reduced, five things must happen, either alone or in combination: a) hire more full time staff, b) hire additional adjunct staff c) use lots of teaching assistants d) some faculty teach more and do less research e) re-organize teaching loads so that class sizes are more equal. a, b, and c all would mean increasing revenues either by government throwing more money over the wall or by increasing tuition fees (neither of which I can support, at least in Canada). Under these conditions, I would prefer a combination of (b) and (e). Also tuition fees are now at the point where with well designed online or hybrid courses, tuition fees alone cover the extra adjunct teaching costs of each additional student once a course is set up.
      I accept most faculty work hard, but I also believe that resources (including faculty time) that should be used for teaching are increasingly being diverted to research. The balance now between research and teaching in most universities is seriously out of synch. I also think it’s very important for senior faculty in particular to have as good contact as possible with first year students.
      For these reasons, I have great sympathy for adjuncts in terms of their working conditions, but not so much for full-time faculty, most of whom are doing more of what they want and less of what they should be doing.

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