Should Teaching Be Outsourced?

Two universities sign deals to let outside group teach journalism courses online, setting up debate over faculty roles.
April 28, 2011

What should a college do if the best instructor is elsewhere? Many colleges take pride in recruiting such talent, for either a semester or a career. But when a college contracts out teaching to talent at another entity, is it good educational policy or the kind of outsourcing of which many professors are dubious?

Missouri State and Florida Atlantic Universities have agreed to let the Poynter Institute – a Florida-based nonprofit organization that focuses on non-credit journalism training for students and professionals – teach an introductory Journalism 101 course online for traditional credit at the two institutions.

While faculty members in the journalism department at Missouri State have generally been receptive to the program, professors in other disciplines have voiced objections to letting an outside entity create a course without the full faculty’s consent.

Margaret Weaver, a professor in Missouri State’s English department and a former chairwoman of the faculty senate, said the issue for some faculty members is whether the Poynter course, which is listed under the same number as the old course, circumvents the traditional process for course creation. “We don’t have anything in our curricular review process to handle current courses offered through a different system,” she said. “The concern is that we’ve turned over total control to people who are not employees of the university.”

She said the arrangement sets a bad precedent for the university to engage in outsourcing measures and undermines the Faculty Senate, which is responsible for regulating curricular changes.

"When you outsource classes like this, you lose a little control over the content," said Mark Paxton, a professor in the journalism department who opposes any broader outsourcing of courses without faculty consent. "If this happens on a larger scale, then what makes us any different than the University of Phoenix? What makes us unique is our faculty teaching courses."

But other faculty members in the journalism department said the characterization of the program as “outsourcing” is incorrect.

Andrew Cline, a professor in the department of media, journalism and film who said he will observe Missouri State’s course closely, stressed that the class was a partnership rather than “outsourcing,” since Poynter relied on the syllabus for Missouri State’s course and a Missouri State faculty member will meet with students in-person throughout the course in addition to contact they have with instructors at Poynter. He also stressed that the program was only a one-semester experiment.

“Even if we decide that this is the greatest thing ever, there’s still a long, long process to go through, including approval from the faculty senate, before it becomes a fixture."

Both Cline and Mark Biggs, head of the journalism department, said the course could also help the college and Poynter learn more about what types of online education work.

Susan Reilly, director of Florida Atlantic’s School of Communication and Multimedia Studies, said the partnership with Poynter is being viewed as a solution to a problem that was vexing upper-level instructors. Because Florida Atlantic has numerous branch campuses, students would take the introductory journalism course from various adjuncts and enter more advanced journalism courses at the main campus with different knowledge and skill sets. The Poynter course, she said, offered a solution to this issue.

“In general, I can understand a lot of people are not crazy about distance education,” she said. “But there are some problems that can be solved by it.”

An Experimental Program

The course originated at the Poynter Institute, which received a $50,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York in November to develop an undergraduate course. (Carnegie has been focused in recent years, among other issues, on the future of journalism education.) The institute has a history of working with students and professional journalists, providing web resources, seminars, and consultations, to teach skills, management techniques, and philosophies, but it hasn't offered courses for colleges.

After receiving the grant, the institute sent out letters to various journalism schools and departments in hopes of finding partners for the course’s pilot semester.

When Missouri State found itself short one instructor for the introductory journalism course, some faculty members suggested getting in touch with Poynter.

“It would be interesting to see what they’re capable of,” Cline said. “This is Poynter; they really know their stuff.”

Florida Atlantic, which Reilly said had worked with Poynter in the past, also signed on to the program.

Howard Finberg, Poynter’s Interactive Learning Director, said Poynter is in talks with other universities as well.

Finberg said the course will use a variety of online tools, including lectures, interactive assessments, and group discussions, that Poynter has used before. The institute worked with faculty members to ensure that the program met the requirements laid out in each university’s syllabus.

Like introductory journalism courses at many schools, the Poynter class will teach students news judgment; how to report, write, and edit a news story; and media laws and ethics, among other things.

Both university faculty members and Poynter staff will provide feedback to students, and faculty members at the partner schools will be responsible for grading based on data provided by Poynter’s assessments.

Not a Financial Issue

While some faculty members at Missouri State suggest that the move is driven by the desire to save money amid budget cuts by reducing faculty costs, Biggs said the program might end up costing the university.

Biggs said that working with Poynter actually costs the department about twice as much as hiring an adjunct instructor to teach a section. The school typically pays instructors between $2,400 and $2,700 a course. It is paying Poynter $6,500. But because students pay higher tuition for the online course and because the online course can accommodate more students, he said the financial return on the two is about the same.

At Missouri State, online courses cost $275 per credit hour, compared to $194 per credit hour for in-person classes. Because they’re paying more, students at Missouri State are also receiving $200 in credit from Poynter to take other short, non-credit courses through the institute’s website.

What happens to the program at Florida Atlantic and Missouri State after the semester is still up in the air. Biggs said the program will likely be evaluated and the faculty will make a decision to expand, modify, or eliminate the program. He said numerous things will be considered, including how students perform in the next course in the series and how the department and Poynter feel the course goes.

Biggs upset some faculty members when, in a memo to the provost, he said that if everything went well, the university should consider expanding the program. He said the final debate should come down to what’s best for students. If Poynter can teach them better, then educators shouldn’t stand in the way.

“It digs down to the real issue, which is, as a department, are you going to be student-centric or faculty-centric,” he said. “I understand the concerns of the faculty, but at some point if I’m putting other things before the best outcomes through experiential learning, then I’m not doing my job as an educator.”


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