Another Kind of Academic Career Path

June 11, 2010

WASHINGTON – Some people think they’re qualified to teach online courses because they know how to use e-mail, but there's a lot more instructors need to master to run a Web classroom, a longtime trainer of new instructors said Thursday in a presentation at the American Association of University Professors conference meeting here this week.

“They don’t know how to use Word, they don’t know how to use Excel,” said Bob Barrett, a professor at the American Public University System who has trained online instructors at several institutions. “Statistics on a computer? ‘No, I’ve always done them on paper.' "

As many brick-and-mortar colleges shed untenured teaching staff, and online programs – especially those run by for-profit institutions – continue to hire, teaching in a virtual setting is becoming the new reality for many more academics. Thursday's presentation was one of several on online education at this year's AAUP meeting.

Even if they’re tech-savvy, instructors new to online teaching have a lot to learn, Barrett said, and need extensive training before being put before a virtual classroom. “This is where a lot of schools get into trouble,” he said. “They don’t know how to prepare people to teach online.”

At APUS, a for-profit company that runs American Military University and American Public University and has just entered into an agreement to become Wal-Mart's "education provider," new hires must go through six weeks of unpaid training. “Before an online class is assigned to someone,” he said, “the way that we can find out what kind of teacher they are, what they can do, what they can offer to the university, we make them go through teacher training.”

The training is, in a sense, an extended job interview. It’s where the institution learns whether the new hire can use its learning management system software and how he or she works with other people in the training course – and might interact with students, Barrett said. “What we rely on is the teacher trainer. The teacher trainer is going to do an evaluation at the end, to tell you whether they think this person is a good candidate or this person needs some assistance.”

Administrators generally abide by trainers’ recommendations on trainees, he said, and weaker candidates are often assigned “coaches” or “mentors,” who will “shadow” them for a semester or two. “They will come behind you into your classroom. They’ll look at your grade book, they’ll look at your syllabus, they’ll look at your learning activities. They’re going to take a look at how you’re interacting with your students, how you’re grading papers, to give you ideas.”

The goal in online programs like those with which Barrett has been involved is often to offer a consistent educational experience regardless of who the instructor is. Institutions keep tabs on how often and for how long instructors are logged onto e-mail and learning management systems to ensure that employees are engaged with their students. At APUS, Barrett said he is required to respond to student e-mail messages within 24 hours of when they arrive in his inbox.

Barrett acknowledged that some instructors are irritated by the regimentation, but audience members pushed harder. Protecting academic freedom is, after all, one of the AAUP’s core missions. “How do you observe academic freedom for someone who’s teaching online?” one woman asked.

Barrett said that only a third of the online institutions he’s taught for grant instructors academic freedom. “The rest are, you go by the instruction modules that are given, do not deviate from them. They have people who will come in and look at what you’re doing, will look at what you’re introducing, will comment on things that are a little bit different.” A few attendees shook their head in dismay.

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