Over the past five or six years, as I walked the halls or stepped into the faculty mailroom, copy room, and faculty/staff lounge at the community college where I teach, I have been struck by the noticeable absence of faculty. And I don’t mean part-time faculty, who -- despite making up nearly 70 percent of all community college faculty -- have always been nearly invisible on campus.
I mean full-time faculty. Simply stated, they’re just not around as much anymore.
What’s changed? The growing number of full-time faculty teaching courses offered entirely online.
At my college, several faculty teach entirely online and, other than professional development days, are rarely on campus. More typical is the full-time faculty member who now teaches one, two or three courses of his or her five-course teaching load online. (I myself don’t teach online, for reasons I’ll explain later.) While not completely absent from campus, these faculty aren’t nearly as present as they were when I began teaching 28 years ago.
The connection between teaching online and being off-campus hit home when I asked a friend who teaches full time and entirely online at a community college in Illinois about a department colleague. He replied he hadn’t seen his colleague in a year and thought perhaps he was on medical leave. It turned out that the colleague wasn’t on medical leave, but rather was teaching entirely online. The two never saw each other and were now more like independent contractors than department colleagues.
Whether community college faculty is teaching online effectively and students are learning remains open to debate. In its “Research Overview: What We Know About Online Course Outcomes,” the Community College Research Center reports that ”online course taking was... negatively associated with course persistence and completion”; and that “lower performing students” — the very type of students enrolling in community colleges — fared worse in online courses as compared to face-to-face courses. Faculty who teach online at my college report similar findings.
But it’s not higher attrition rates that worry me about teaching online. What worries me, and what’s not open to debate, is the dwindling presence of faculty on campus, which is particularly troubling for community college students, who now have even fewer opportunities to interact with faculty and students inside and outside the classroom.
Why does faculty presence on campus matter?
Community colleges are typically commuter schools. Students arrive on campus, attend classes (often scheduled two days a week), and leave. Yet research on community college students finds that student engagement with faculty and fellow students inside and outside the classroom is crucial to student retention and academic success. The 2008 Community College Survey of Student Engagement found that “[d]ata consistently show that students are more engaged in the classroom than anywhere else” (my emphasis).
According to Kay McClenney, director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, “[r]esearch shows that the more actively engaged students are — with college faculty and staff, with other students, and with the subject matter they study — the more likely they are to learn, to stick with their studies, and to attain their academic goals.” The Pearson Foundation’s 2010 Community College Survey found that “[t]wo-thirds of students believe that in order to succeed in community college, it is extremely or very important to have access to academic advisors and to establish relationships with professors.”
It’s not surprising, then, to learn that community colleges that rely heavily on part-time faculty have higher attrition rates and lower graduation rates — part-time faculty have (even) fewer opportunities to engage with students. In short, student engagement with other students and faculty on a community college campus promotes retention and academic success.
One of my students described the importance of classroom-based interaction in a course evaluation. “My mindset was that it was just going to be another English class, and I was not going to try my hardest or get much out of it. I was taking it as a class that I needed to get out of the way for my program of interest. As time went on I realized how into teaching you were and that the people in the classroom really wanted to learn and to get something out of the class. I then decided that maybe I should apply myself and that was the best choice I made the whole semester.”
It’s highly unlikely this student would have had a similar realization in an online course that offered no face-to-face interaction.
When I reflect on my undergraduate education, face-to-face interaction with faculty had profound effects. I can’t imagine James Woodress, my American literature professor, having such a powerful and positive influence on my life, if, as a student at the University of California at Davis, I hadn’t taken his English courses in a classroom, and if I hadn’t gotten to know him inside and outside the classroom. I have watched the poet Gary Snyder on YouTube, and as good and as interesting as that is, it doesn’t compare to the experience of being in a classroom with him.
Community college students often state they take courses online for the sake of convenience and/or because of a harried life -- two reasons accepted without debate -- in order to get done with school as quickly as possible. The course becomes merely an obstacle on the path to accumulating credits.
And community colleges -- driven by convenience, economics, and, ironically enough, the completion agenda -- are quick to respond to “customer demand” by offering more and more online courses.
But instead of promoting an online model of education, community colleges should be doing more to keep faculty and students on campus and to foster a classroom and campus-based culture built upon a sense of academic engagement and community. That may sound outdated and unfashionable, but it’s a model of education that, as research supports, actually increases community college students’ chances of being academically successful.
I will never teach online. As Parker Palmer writes in The Courage to Teach, “I have no wish to learn distanced methods of teaching simply to satisfy students who do not want to relate to me: teaching from afar would violate my own identity and integrity and only worsen the situation.”
I want to be part of an academic community and to teach in a classroom with students whom I get to know so that (as has happened in the past month) when I walk into my local pet store I know the cashier, a current student; or into the pharmacy and I know the tech, a former student; or attend a local concert and I know the musicians, most of whom are former students. I smile every time my wife tells me “we can’t go anywhere without bumping into one of your students.”
To engender that sense of community requires being present on campus and interacting face to face with my students. That’s not possible with the invisible lives of the online world.
Keith Kroll is an instructor in the English department at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.