September 18, 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.

Contact North on How to Design an Innovative Course

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Image © University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2014

Image © University of Ontario Institute of Technology, 2014

Anon (2014) How to design an innovative course, Sudbury.Thunder Bay ON: Contact North

As reported in Contact North’s Online Learning News:

There is a lot of pressure these days on faculty and instructors to be ‘innovative’ in their teaching. But exactly what does being innovative mean? How do you go about designing and implementing an innovative course? What is the problem you are trying to solve? Will technology help? Learn a series of steps that can help you approach innovative teaching in a systematic way.

Comment

I found this article quite interesting. No author is given but they must be pretty smart to get this topic down to about 1,000 words….

Compressing the time of online courses

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Image: © plushplaza, 2013

Image: © plushplaza, 2013

Shaw, M. et al. (2013) An Evaluation of Student Outcomes by Course Duration in Online Higher Education  Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Vol. 16, No. 4

This study looked at the effect of designing a course that would otherwise last 16 weeks into eight weeks. The conclusion – no significant difference in student scores, so, yes, students can do just as well on compressed online courses:

Both 8 and 16 week course options provided similar learning experiences for students in terms of content given, scores earned, and total assignments completed. What is not at all evident from the literature is whether generalizability is possible.  In some situations, traditional-length terms might yield better assessment results than shorter-length courses.  If research informs practice, though, enough data exist to support compressed courses.  Yet, before administrators and educational theorists view this as a carte blanche for shorter-term courses, it is vital to understand clearly the objectives of learners and of school administrators.

For a whole series of papers on the effect of the time factor in online learning, see the eLearn Centre’s publications at the Open University of Catalonia

University of Florida Online launches first undergraduate programs this month

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UF Online

Moran, C. (2013) UF expands opportunities for four-year degrees UF News, September 27

State University System of Florida (2013) UF Online Comprehensive Business Plan, 2013-2019 Gainsville, FL: State University System of Florida Board of Governors

What is being offered?

The University of Florida at Gainsville, part of the Florida State University System, is offering the first courses this month in the state’s first fully online four-year bachelor’s degree programs. UF Online classes start in January for those completing a bachelor’s degree. The first freshmen courses start in August (enrolment is now open).

UF Online starts in January with five majors:

  • Business administration
  • Criminology and law
  • Environmental management
  • Health education and behavior
  • Sport management

Two more majors will be added in June: biology and psychology. UF Online plans to grow the program to 35 majors by 2019. Students enrolling as freshmen will be able to complete the whole degree program online.

In many cases online courses will be exactly the same in content as the on-campus versions, with a special online section designated for UF Online students. Online and on campus students will take the same exams.

UF Online courses will be exclusively online, so no “blended” program options will be offered except in those cases where a clinical or lab course is required. Thus students have to make a choice: online or on-campus.

What problem is this solving?

Until now, student access to UF has been limited by the difference between supply and demand. Because the UF campus is filled to capacity, the number of freshmen enrolling each year has remained steady at about 6,400. Since the turn of the millennium, though, the annual number of applicants has surged nearly 60 percent to more than 29,000. UF has had to turn away thousands of students who meet admissions criteria. There will no longer be a limit to the size of the freshman class at the University of Florida. The State University System’s first fully online bachelor’s degree programs will place a UF education within reach of any first-time-in-college student who qualifies for admission.

Course and faculty development

Online courses will be developed by a team of content experts and creative professionals that include faculty, instructional designers (IDs), librarians, videographers, graphic designers, and programmers, using the ADDIE model.

UF Online faculty will be required to participate in the University of Florida Faculty Institute. This online workshop takes approximately 7-10 hours and walks faculty through the course design process. Emphasis is placed upon pedagogy rather than technology. Additional development opportunities will be available to the UF Online faculty and teaching assistants.

More details, including quality assurance methods and choice of LMSs (Canvas or Sakai) are contained in the Comprehensive Business Plan

Learner support

The university is developing an orientation specifically for online students. UF is expanding its academic advising and career services, and is expanding its counseling resources to best serve distance students.

Costs for students

The state legislature caps online tuition for in-state students at 75 percent of the price of on-campus classes. Out-of-state students will pay market rates. In-state online students will not only save on tuition, but they also will be exempt from many on-campus fees. In addition, the university estimates that students will save an estimated $8,400 a year in room and board costs they would incur if they moved to Gainesville (presumably, parents will now be expected to pick up the room and board costs, as even online students have to eat and sleep somewhere.)

The cost for the state

The state legislature is providing UF Online with $15 million in start-up costs for one year year, then $5 million annually.

Comments

Good for Florida. Florida’s higher education system has long been a leader in educational technologies.  Robert Gagné and his colleagues at Florida State University were pioneers in educational research and design. The University of Central Florida has long been a leader in hybrid and blended learning. The University of Florida has one of the highest reputations for state universities in the USA and also has a long history of quality online programs mainly at graduate level. Now this new initiative opens up undergraduate university education to anyone that meets the qualifications for entry to the state higher education system.

Note though that at least initially UF Online is focusing on established best practices in online learning, based particularly on the ADDIE model and LMSs. It will be interesting to see if UF Online becomes more adventurous with social media and open educational resources as it becomes more established.

It will also be interesting to see what kind of students opt for the online programs, and how the university will decide on which students will get campus courses and which online. Will for instance the students with the highest qualifications opt for campus-based courses and what will that do for the reputation of the online programs?

In the meantime, I wish every success to this initiative. It is a good example of how online learning can increase productivity by opening up access without major capital costs, and by reducing costs to students. It also appears to be a model that is reproducible if successful for other states and post-secondary educational jurisdictions, so it is well worth watching how it develops. What a good way to start the new year.

“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”: a retrospective of my work

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Still alive on Saturday

Still alive on Sunday

Brindley. J. and Paul, R. (2013) Understanding the building blocks of online learning: Through the writings and research of pre-eminent online learning expert, Dr. Tony Bates Sudbury ON: Contact North, October 2

It was Mark Twain who complained in this way about a premature obituary in the New York Journal. While not quite an obituary, the Contact North post is the first in a series of eight that looks at my perspectives and advice on key issues in online learning, based, as each post unkindly points out, on my nearly 50 years of working for change and reform in post-secondary education.  This series was researched and developed by Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associates, Dr. Jane Brindley and Dr. Ross Paul.

This first post discusses my views on the drivers of change in the way we teach and learn, and on the role of online learning.

It also summarizes the posts that are to follow under the heading of the Seven Key Building Blocks of Online Learning:

  • planning for effective teaching with technology
  • how emerging pedagogies map onto the new technologies
  • how faculty can support learner success
  • how faculty can ensure quality in an online learning environment
  • guidelines for faculty from educational technology research
  • costing considerations for hybrid and online courses
  • institutional and faculty roles in strategic planning.

Contact North will be publishing one post every two weeks in this series.

Comment

Although I agreed to this project, and indeed have seen and commented on all the drafts for the series, you can perhaps tell that I am slightly embarrassed by the whole thing. Jane and Ross have done an amazing job pulling together an amorphous set of resources scattered through many blog posts, journal articles and books into a series of coherent posts that are directed clearly at the interests of faculty and instructors. I think the series will be particularly useful for those poor post-graduate students who have been given my books as set readings to wade through, and for instructors dipping their toes into online learning for the first time. I am immensely grateful to and honoured by Contact North for developing and promoting this series.

The main reason for my embarrassment is that most of the stuff in the posts is not my original work. Like everyone in academia, I stand on the shoulders of giants. (Interesting to note that this quotation was used by Isaac Newton in his introduction to Principia Mathematica – and he plagiarized the quote from someone else!) So all I have done in most of my writing is to pull together other people’s research and writings, and I am still concerned that this does not come across strongly enough in the series. You will also not find any critique or criticism of my work in this series, so please use the comment section after each post. Nevertheless, I respect Contact North’s desire for simplicity and clarity.

So I hope you will follow the series and more importantly (since regular readers of this blog are more than likely to be familiar with the material), direct colleagues, instructors new to online learning, and post-graduate students studying online learning, to this series of posts.

In the meantime THIS IS NOT THE END!

What’s next?

I will continue my blog as best I can while travelling, including the series on productivity and online learning (the next will look at the issues around scaling learner-instructor interactions).

I’m also working on a new book called provisionally ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ which is due out next year.

So yes, I’m still alive.