Public colleges without deep pockets can face challenges as they seek to ramp up online course offerings. For one thing, it’s not easy to quickly recruit the teaching assistants or “coaches” needed to help faculty members manage larger classes and keep students on track.
Enter Instructional Connections, a relatively new venture  attempting to tap into this market. Launched in 2010, the nonprofit firm grew out of a for-profit company  that offers online services to public universities. It has brought in a pool of academic coaches to offer support to fast-growing online degree programs at public institutions, with a focus on education and health care.
A key selling point for the service is cost savings. Online courses backed by Instructional Connections cost 33 to 40 percent less to run per student than do those overseen solely by adjunct faculty, said Robert F. Williams, the organization’s president. That’s because the coaches allow universities to create larger classes.
The service’s “bench” of coaches also helps improve academic quality, asserts Williams, by assisting both students and the “university-paid instructor of record.” The teaching assistants report to university-employed faculty members and are paid by Instructional Connections, which in turn is on contract with the university.
“It allows the professors to really focus on the teaching,” said Williams.
The firm’s teaching assistants are “practitioners” who work in their fields, and often must clear minimum educational requirements. For example, all coaches in nursing hold at least a master’s degree. And partner universities get to review the CVs of each coach.
“They have 100 percent control of who’s selected,” Williams said.
So far, nine universities have signed on, including the University of Texas at Arlington, Ohio University and Florida International University. The group hopes to add up three to five new universities this year.
Williams, who is a retired major in the U.S. Army, previously worked at for-profit institutions. Most recently he worked with Academic Partnerships, a for-profit group that sells online services  to public universities, helping them design, market and support online courses.
Academic Partnerships originally included a teaching assistant component in its suite of offerings. But the company decided to drop that piece of its business a couple years ago, when its foray into instructional support proved controversial  at some colleges.
“They wanted to have a clear distinction between their services and the universities’ teaching responsibilities,” Williams said.
But Williams thought the academic coaching pool had promise. So he put up his own money to start the nonprofit firm, which has no financial ties to Academic Partnerships. The organization does, however, unofficially collaborate with the for-profit company, and Academic Partnerships informs its clients about the coaching service.
Not everybody likes the idea of outsourced teaching assistants.
Several adjunct professors affiliated with the New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for contingent faculty, said they were concerned about the relatively low wages coaches earn for work with Instructional Connections.
Traditionally graduate teaching assistants have the same responsibilities as the faculty member of record, but not the title or the pay, said Maria Maisto, an adjunct faculty member at Cuyahoga Community College and board president of the New Faculty Majority. Compared to this model, she said the Instructional Connections’ coach positions are “more clearly defined but appallingly low-wage jobs.”
In addition, the service presumably allows universities to hire fewer adjuncts, at least in some cases.
“This new initiative seems to be symptomatic of the current tendency in higher ed, whether it calls itself nonprofit or for-profit, to underestimate and devalue and disinvest in the actual work of educators,” Maisto said in an e-mail.
The firm’s coaches are paid on a per student basis, typically around $20 for each one, Williams said. And course term lengths can be short -- five weeks in some cases. With average responsibilities of 25-30 students per class, that’s about $600. But some of the more experienced coaches pick up two to three sections at a time, according to Williams. The group does not offer health insurance or other benefits to its teaching assistants.
However, Williams cautions that compensation levels don’t make for an easy comparison to adjunct professors. For one thing, his firm’s employees don’t have the ultimate responsibility of running classes -- they’re coaches. And because they aren’t full-time teachers, working instead in their fields, coaches aren’t trying to cobble together living wages through multiple adjunct positions.
“It’s a side gig,” he said. “They’re nurses during the day.”
So why take the job? To contribute to their field, he said, echoing Elizabeth Poster, dean of the College of Nursing at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Poster said many of the coaches her university hires through Instructional Connections are alumni or work in local hospitals.
“Some of them are well-known to us,” she said. “This is their way of giving back.”
Poster praises the quality of the coaching service, and said the firm gives “robust” orientation and training to new coaches. Furthermore, she said it is a “more efficient model” of online course support, which also preserves academic quality.
One reason the university hired Instructional Connections is the difficulty in finding teaching assistants, particularly on short notice. Poster said the nursing program, which went online in 2008, would need to hire locally, bringing in candidates for interviews. But the firm can tap a much broader talent pool. And they can do it quickly, which is helpful as the university’s online offerings grow.
“We don’t have the resources to be finding coaches,” she said.