Spare the Rod, Pay the Prof

U. of Kentucky uses carrots, not sticks, to encourage professors to teach online -- and gets good traction with its humanities faculty.
December 21, 2010

Kentucky might be known for being a major exporter of baseball bats. But in Lexington, 75 miles east of the Louisville Slugger factory, the University of Kentucky has decided that blunt objects are not the best way to get professors to create and teach online courses.

Instead, the university is offering to share tuition revenues from online students with colleges and departments that accommodate them. In the College of Arts and Sciences, professors — who are not generally given bonuses for developing new courses — are offered $5,000 to adapt a course to the online medium.

In other words: no mandates, just incentives. Colleges get to keep 60 percent of what the university makes in tuition revenue from the online students enrolled in the summer programs for those colleges. In the College of Arts and Sciences, departments get to keep half of what the college makes from the online students enrolled in that department’s courses. The idea is to give departments control over which of their courses go online, and let them share in the rewards.

And officials there say it is working — not just for the usual suspects in math and science or professional fields, but in humanities departments, too. Mark Kornbluh, a history professor and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, says that biology (Kentucky’s leading major) put the most courses online last summer, but the anthropology, sociology, philosophy, geography, and modern and classical languages departments all took the opportunity to create online courses — 20 altogether from these departments — and each department netted about $20,000. They will be able to use that additional cash on travel, speakers, and department events, Kornbluh says. They are planning more than 40 courses next summer.

Of the college’s 16 departments, only one (which Kornbluh declined to name) did not create an online course. “They were told that the other departments earned some money doing this, but they weren’t punished,” says Kornbluh. That department is planning to add two online courses this summer.

Kentucky currently is limiting the revenue-sharing program to summer courses (which enroll mostly traditional students who are already enrolled at the university), though it is “cautiously” looking to bring it into the fall and spring semesters. The goal of the online push is to give Kentucky students extra opportunities to complete crucial courses they might have failed or skipped during the fall or spring; hence the university is especially encouraging faculty to adapt “bottleneck” courses — i.e., courses students need to pass to advance along a degree path.

Encouraging, but not commanding. The crucial difference between Kentucky’s tack and that of some other public institutions, Kornbluh says, is that it involves no overtures from on high warning departments that they must increase enrollments (presumably by going online) or face possible cuts — an approach that has created tensions at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. With state budgets tight, many public higher education systems view online teaching as a way to bolster shrinking allocations with extra tuition dollars, and online is viewed as the best way to enroll more students quickly without having to buy land and build classrooms.

Kornbluh also draws a contrast with the strategy employed by the University of Illinois, which sought to create a separate online entity (the now-defunct “Global Campus”) and eventually alienated many of its faculty. “The reason we were successful is that we worked with the faculty and with the departments,” he says. “So this wasn’t something imposed from above as a moneymaking operation.”

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, says using carrots in lieu of sticks in order to grow online programs will most likely result in higher-quality online courses. “People are more creative when they’re doing something they want to do than when they’re doing something they’re forced to do,” Grossman says.

“A lot of people just aren’t cut out for online teaching,” says Jean Stuntz, a history professor at West Texas A&M University and president of H-NET, an association of humanities scholars who advocate for the Web as an academic resource. “And this might encourage the ones who are to at least explore and try it out.”

The college also shoulders the development and infrastructure costs of creating the online courses. Hence there is no incentive for departments to throw together low-cost online courses in order to maximize their cut of the revenue, Kornbluh says.

“Our pressure on the departments was, how can you serve general education better, and how can you serve your majors better,” he says. “If this works, you can get rewarded, and if it doesn’t work, you shouldn’t be doing it! And that’s the same thing I tell them about their in-person courses, to be honest.”

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