I recently had an interchange with a friend of mine who is enrolled in an online degree program with a university in another state – not one of the private for-profit diploma mills, but a public institution with a decent reputation, for which distance learning is a sideline. She had become frustrated with trying to work on a cooperative project with a group of students scattered over three states, with an instructor in yet another location who was not giving clear guidelines. I offered to help her, since the subject matter, writing research proposals and reports in the sciences, was something in which I have considerable experience.
Although it was a writing class, the instructor, whose degree was in English, had asked the students to actually carry out a research project and had rejected a submitted proposal on the grounds that the design was scientifically invalid. Based on my friend’s description, the proposal was a poor one from a scientific perspective, but the instructor’s specific objection was also invalid. That the proposal was weak is hardly surprising. The absurdity of expecting an arbitrary team of six people in several different disciplines, without any budget, to come up with a feasible scientifically rigorous research project in two weeks’ time, and then conduct the research, and write up the results in the space of a term, is astounding. An instructor’s presuming to evaluate a proposal submitted as a writing exercise, in a writing course, on any criteria other than the quality of the writing and its adherence to the conventions of the particular form, is extremely poor pedagogy.
I told my friend that if I were teaching a course in research proposal and report writing, I would give the students a set of unorganized notes and references from a real research project, in their discipline, so that they and I could concentrate on the writing skills. She continued with a list of other complaints about online instructors in the same program. The writing instructor’s shortcomings were by no means the worst. She asked me why I did not apply to be an instructor for that particular university, since I have the ability, experience and credentials to do college-level teaching, and it was painfully obvious that the people they were hiring were not doing a very good job.
I replied that I had looked into being a distance learning instructor, but that the pay and working conditions were such that I was unwilling to pursue this option, even though I love to teach and am retired, so that a part-time, intermittent job with a mediocre pay scale is at least possible.
Distance learning instructor contracts typically pay a flat rate per class, or perhaps per student, and allow an unrealistically small amount of time for preparation of class materials and evaluating student work. There is no compensation at all for the background continuing knowledge acquisition that is such an important part of university education. A person who tries to be conscientious quickly burns out, leaving a faculty composed of cynical veterans who cut corners, knowingly providing substandard education, and newcomers who may be sincere and knowledgeable about their fields but lack experience and receive little guidance from an overworked supervisor in another state.
The distance learning instructor pays most work-related expenses that regular faculty expect a university to cover, including maintaining a home office. Not being physically located near the campus that employs her, she misses out on the intellectual and social opportunities that to some extent compensate low-level and part-time faculty for poor pay and long uncompensated hours.
I have a doctorate in biology, and one of my great disappointments in my life is never having secured a teaching or research position in my field. As a person with a strong desire to impart the knowledge I received, which I believe is of value to future generations, I might nonetheless be willing to endure this level of exploitation, if it meant better access for students of limited means. At one time this may have been the case, but increasingly, even for reputable institutions, distance learning classes have become a low cost way for universities to capture grant, scholarship and student loan money and use it to balance their bottom line in other areas. This is notoriously true in for-profit operations like the University of Phoenix, but reputable nonprofits and public universities are jumping on the bandwagon, to the detriment of students, instructors, the taxpaying public, and the growth of human knowledge.
Photo courtesy of Martha Sherwood