Retention is a big challenge for online programs, but it’s not just a matter of student retention. Faculty retention is just as important. Because geography doesn’t dictate where online instructors can work, they can cast a wide net when looking for a job and don’t necessarily need to stay loyal to their current employer.
So what does this mean for distance education administrators? It means you need to make your program stand out, and you can do that by providing the training and support online faculty need to be effective in their positions, to feel connected to the institution, and to grow professionally. In the end, a stable roster of skilled and happy educators will not only save you money, but will result in a better learning experience for your students.
During the seminar, 10 Ways to Support Adjunct Faculty in Small Online Programs, Jeanne Widen, PhD,chair of the English Department at Ellis University, outlined how Ellis is able to establish a strong connection with the approximately 265 online adjuncts it employs.
The first step is a comprehensive training program which is conducted online over a two-week period with the expectation that new faculty spend about 10 hours per week taking part in the training. The orientation is led by an experienced facilitator and covers Learning Management System functionality, policies (including institution-wide policies on things like academic integrity and policies where instructors can use their discretion, such as whether to accept late work), expectations and evaluation criteria, online pedagogy and best practices, and institutional values.
Once new faculty complete the initial training, they are assigned to a mentor who will interact with them via phone and email throughout their first few courses. In some cases the mentor is the department chair. The mentor also observes their classes and provides detailed feedback, and conducts the performance evaluation.
“I think performance evaluation can be optimized to support online faculty and to establish that strong connection you want,” said Dr. Widen. “You should use it as an opportunity to get to know the individual instructor and make it as personal as possible instead of treating it as some impersonal process. You can focus on the strengths and contributions and recognize them formally. To make the evaluation a constructive process, you should try to make it formative rather punitive, meaning you should give concrete goals and suggestions for how an instructor can improve performance instead of simply pointing out where the instructor fell short.”
Many of the other practices Ellis University uses to train and retain its online adjuncts involve providing low-cost incentives and rewards, such as giving exemplary instructors their choice of specific courses, $100 gift cards, and recognition in departmental emails and on the Center for Teaching and Learning website. The university also works to integrate online adjuncts into the teaching community by including members on the faculty senate and its various committees, creating an online discussion space for sharing best practices as well as institutional information, supporting their professional development through conferences and webinars, and involving adjuncts in curriculum review and revision.