Professors at online colleges can be an anonymous, itinerant bunch, moonlighting as adjuncts from far-flung locales and often struggling to cobble together a teaching load that can pay the bills.
Breaking this mold are 98 newly minted online faculty members at Grand Canyon University. The for-profit Christian university hired them as full-time employees, and they get standard benefits packages that are not available to part-timers. The group works weekdays from noon to 8 p.m., reporting for duty at two administrative buildings in Phoenix, near the university’s campus.
Full-time teaching gigs are rare in online higher education, which has a business model built on cheap labor with flexible hours. But Grand Canyon bets that having a cadre of long-term online professors will prove a competitive advantage.
Brian Mueller, Grand Canyon’s CEO, said the relatively expensive hiring binge is an attempt to send a message about “better teaching and better service.” He said the move would pay for itself by enhancing the university’s brand and reducing marketing costs, and also by improving student retention.
“We’re trying to build a real faculty,” he said, who “teach and build loyalty for Grand Canyon.”
Russell Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis at the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, said promoting adjuncts to work on-site could indeed boost retention, particularly if online students have more contact with savvy, well-trained faculty members. And while hiring full-time instructors is costly, Poulin agreed that the move could pay off.
“There would be a market for that cost if there is a perceived higher quality with it,” he said. And keeping more students enrolled for longer is always a smart move. "Every other industry besides higher education has figured out that it's easier to keep a customer as opposed to finding a new one."
The full-time faculty members join 2,000 adjuncts in teaching 40,000 students who attend online classes at Grand Canyon, which changed its status from nonprofit in 2004. The publicly traded corporation has a substantial traditional campus with an enrollment of 5,000, dormitories, and a new basketball arena, all unusual features for a for-profit. The university employs 300 adjuncts and 100 full-time professors who work on the campus.
Mueller, a former executive at the Apollo Group and the University of Phoenix, arrived at Grand Canyon in 2008. He’s the driving force behind the hiring of full-time online professors, which began 18 months ago.
Most of the new faculty members are former adjuncts at Grand Canyon who were recruited because administrators felt they were particularly skilled at encouraging students in the online environment. Candidates who didn’t live near Phoenix had to move there to get the job.
One of the demands of adjunct activists has been that adjuncts should get first consideration for full-time jobs -- a call largely rejected by nonprofit universities.
“Some of them have moved across the country,” Mueller said.
The newly full-time employees now teach almost all of Grand Canyon's entry-level classes, which are typically the first three courses in all academic programs, including master's and doctoral degree offerings. Online students are more likely to drop out quickly than their peers at traditional campuses, so this vulnerable period is where the university can make its biggest retention gains.
By having instructors plugged in and available at predictable hours, Grand Canyon hopes to make online offerings less “impersonal,” Mueller said. The full-time professors teach up to four classes simultaneously, and typically have four computer screens up and running at their work stations.
Another part of what the university describes as a “high touch” strategy involves having student advisers and financial aid counselors in the same building. A faculty member can walk down the hall and tell a counselor about a student who’s having a hard time.
It’s a team approach, said Ron Woodworth, a professor of religious studies at Grand Canyon.
“There’s a lot of collaboration,” he said. “We’re really big on feedback.”
Woodworth was formerly a professor at Mesa Community College. More recently, he worked simultaneously as an adjunct for Grand Canyon and the University of Phoenix. That sort of multitasking is common for adjuncts, who sometimes report to as many as five employers at the same time.
In his new job at Grand Canyon, which he's held for a year, Woodworth said he has 10 times the interaction with students that he had as an adjunct.
“You never talk to them on the phone” as a part-time faculty member, Woodworth said. Now he speaks with his students by phone many times a day. The university also requires on-site professors to conduct a “welcome call” for all new students.
Woodworth prefers his job to being an adjunct, saying he feels more connected to the university. It's also better than scrambling for classes every semester, and he said the pay is good. But the job comes with a cost, one he doesn’t mind: the workload is heavy, and there’s little time to log off.
“As an adjunct, you can do whatever you want,” said Woodworth. But now, “I’m wired. I’m connected.”
Faculty Work Environment
Several observers applauded Grand Canyon’s attempt to create a dedicated core of permanent online faculty members, saying it should give a boost to both academic quality and student retention. They also said it was an unusual and welcome move to grant more equity to online faculty.
Some other colleges have made similar strides. For example, 320 faculty members are full-time at the American Public University System, an online for-profit, and many of those professors work at the system's headquarters. Additionally, the University of Maryland University College employs 215 full-time faculty members among a total of 2,200 instructors. The fully online, public institution requires that full-time faculty work in university facilities
Those professors oversee academic programs as well as teaching courses, said Greg von Lehmen, the university’s provost. They basically fill the role that department chairs hold at traditional colleges, and are responsible for the quality of courses.
Full-time faculty are “our academic center of gravity,” he said.
Grand Canyon’s approach sounds like an "excellent model," von Lehmen said, particularly because of its student-centric focus.
Tenure is virtually unheard of in online education. The jobs at Grand Canyon are not tenure-track, and professors are at-will employees who can be terminated if they don’t perform well. They don’t have the same academic freedom tenured professors would. But it’s a step up from being an adjunct, Poulin said, which also benefits the university.
“You’d have people who are more committed to the institution,” he said, in part because the faculty members aren’t “juggling several adjunct gigs.”
Joe Berry, an author and adjunct advocate who is on the governing board of the New Faculty Majority, said he approves of attempts to provide more job security to online instructors.
“Anything that improves faculty teaching conditions improves student learning,” he said.
But Berry was skeptical about how much better conditions will be for Grand Canyon’s new hires. For one thing, moving across the country is a risk for a faculty position without academic freedom.
“We’re talking about two crumbs or three,” Berry said. “It’s not like it’s a tenure-track job.”
Andrew J. McBroom doesn’t see it that way. A professor of education and former adjunct at Grand Canyon, McBroom is excited about the university's attempt to improve retention in entry-level classes, and likes being deeply involved in the process.
“Online opens up a whole different realm of possibilities,” he said. “We are crafting it as we go.”
The collaborative environment is a big plus, McBroom said. He and his colleagues trade notes often, and help each other with tips for supporting students. And he is proud of being an integral part of the university, which is his alma mater.
“Faculty get together on and off the clock,” said McBroom. “We really do have camaraderie.”