Recent findings indicate that higher education enrollment is being outpaced by online enrollments while overall enrollment in higher education has declined over the last three years (Betts, 2017). Data analyzed from the U.S. Department of Education confirm that enrollment in online courses in higher education has more than tripled in the years from 2002 to 2014: 2002, 1.6 million; 2014, 5.8 million (Poulin & Straut, 2016).
Parallel to the growth of online learning, non-tenure track positions now comprise about three out of four appointments in higher education and half of these are part-time assignments (Morris, 2016). Challenges face higher education institutions when online programs reflect a significant percentage of part-time faculty. If a high rate of turnover exists, the cost of replacement can be substantial. Therefore, it is in the best interest of the institution to retain adjunct online faculty by searching for solutions (Reed, 2015).
In early studies, adjuncts reported feeling disconnected from their campus community for a variety of reasons; lack of institutional support was cited by 43.70 percent of respondents as a significant discouraging factor (Alejandro & Brown, 2009), and 73.33 percent responded that continuous training provided by the university would encourage them to stay. In order to be effective, online instructors are expected to develop new skills, which must be taught or demonstrated. Pedagogical transformation begins with faculty who investigate their practices with the deliberate focus on successful online practices. Major (2010) studied the impact of online teaching that changes teachers’ traditional activities and learning assumptions, a practice that is often used in Online Learning Communities (OLCs) through sharing research on exemplary online teaching practices, including concerns, challenges, and solutions found in the literature.
Robinia (2008), in a study on the efficacy of online teaching faculty, found that effective faculty supported the value of instructional expertise and peer/mentoring support. Mentoring adjunct faculty is beneficial as it helps them become connected and part of a community; they feel valued and inspired, and they are invested in the university in which they teach (Linton, 2017). Moreover, such mentoring should exist throughout the retention of the adjunct faculty member, and not be limited to only new adjunct faculty, to continue to achieve positive results with students.
The successful recruitment and retention of highly qualified faculty, experienced by the university referred to here, is a direct result of several intentional actions, including ongoing faculty development and mentoring. Faculty members are given feedback on their work with students that is designed to be a process of mentoring and guidance through regularly scheduled individual sessions and on an immediate basis, as needed, with an Online Instructional Mentor (OIM). In addition, rather than have faculty experience teaching online as an isolating experience, further ongoing mentoring continues with the OIM who brings faculty together through intentional, purposeful support and mentoring throughout the online faculty member’s teaching assignment. The OIM, through weekly meetings of each OLC, uses the iterative process as the vehicle to provide coaching and mentoring that is active, contextual, reflective and, most of all, collaborative. Best practices in teaching and learning strategies are modeled by the OIM in OLC meetings, which are then implemented by the faculty in their courses. The underlying assumption for all faculty is solid knowledge of course content; therefore, much of the focus on developing specific behaviors centers on the established norms identified by both the university and the OIM support team; e.g., responding to discussion boards through substantive interactions with students. Through this ongoing, iterative, and dialogic process, dramatic improvement has been observed and sustained in the value faculty add to their exchanges with students and to the faculty’s commitment to the use of proven best practices in online learning, acquired through the collaborative reflection experienced in the OLC.
Creating an exceptional student experience in an online course is accomplished through several factors. One of the most important factors is the quality of the interaction of students with the faculty through substantive comments and feedback provided by the faculty during a course, the results of which suggest it builds community (Vessly, Bloom, and Sherlock, 2007). Mentoring of faculty through ongoing professional development that provides faculty with guidance on best practices contributes to high student retention rates (Moore and Fetzer, 2009; Lion & Stark, 2010). Guided by the collaborative and collegial mentoring provided in the OLC that has been described here, participating faculty have developed and maintained value-added interactions with their students and consistent application of proven best practices in online learning.
Experts agree that successful faculty thrive from mentoring and guidance in an online environment. Replicating the Online Instructional Mentor Model described would be a worthwhile endeavor for other online graduate programs. Installation of this model would ensure that these programs are successful in the retention of high-quality faculty and, more significantly, an exceptional experience for students.
Alejandro, J., & Brown, A. H. (2009). The retention of experienced faculty in online distance education programs: Understanding factors that impact their involvement. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 10(3). Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/683/1279
Betts, J. (2017). Education DIVE. Retrieved from http://www.educationdive.com/news/the-growth-of-online-learning-how-universities-must-adjust-to-the-new-norm/433632/
Linton, J. N. (2017). Institutional factors for supporting electronic learning communities. Online Learning 21(1), 238-256. doi: 10.24059/olj.v21i1.953
Lion, R.W., & Stark, G. (2010) A glance at institutional support for faculty teaching in an online learning environment. Educausereview. Retrieved from http://er.educause.edu/articles/2010/9/a-glance-at-institutional-support-for-faculty-teaching-in-an-online-learning-environment
Major, C. (2010). Do virtual professors dream of electric students? College faculty experiences with online distance education. Teachers College Record, 112(8), 2154–2208.
Moore, J. C., & Fetzner, J. C. (2009). The road to retention: A closer look at institutions that achieve high course completion rates. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13(3). Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ862352.pdf
Morris, C. (2016). Non-tenure track faculty moving to front of hiring line. Diverse Issues in Higher Education. Retrieved from http://diverseeducation.com/article/80010/
Poulin, R. & Straut, T. (2016). WCET Distance Education Enrollment Report 2016. Retrieved from http://wcet.wiche.edu/initiatives/research/WCET-Distance-Education-Enrollment-Report-2016
Reed, A. (2015, February 9). Online student retention requires a collaborative approach. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-student-retention-requires-collaborative-approach/
Robinia, K. (2008). The effect of online teaching self-efficacy on nurse faculty teaching in public, accredited nursing programs in the state of Michigan (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269468181_Examination_of_Faculty_Self-efficacy_Related_to_Online_Teaching
Vessly, P., Bloom, L., & Sherlock, J. (2007). Key elements of building online community: Comparing faculty and student perceptions. Merlot Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(3). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol3no3/vesely.htm