Features

Online Adjuncts

Teaching Web-based courses appeals to administrators, but they find demands aren’t few by Kimberly Reeves

When James Warlick, a superintendent in south Texas, talks about the travel to get his doctorate degree, he’s talking both literally and figuratively.


Warlick recalls the hours of sleep deprivation, the Monday mornings throughout the summer when he would wake up in Midland, where he was superintendent of the Greenwood Independent School District, and make the 120-mile trek to Texas Tech University in Lubbock to take the required nine hours of doctoral courses. After two days in Lubbock, Warlick was back in the car to Midland, where he worked through the night in his office on his superintendent duties. A couple of hours of sleep at home and he would be back in his car for the drive again to Lubbock. The schedule was grueling but essential to advancing his career.

The school year brought even harsher demands to his dual life as a school leader and graduate student. Warlick would drive to and from Lubbock two nights a week, about 1,000 miles every five days, to complete his requisite coursework. The pace allowed Warlick to meet his residency requirements for his Ed.D. in educational administration and complete the required 24 hours of coursework each year. He eventually quit his post in Midland, took a job as an educational consultant outside Dallas and drove the 45-minute trip to the University of North Texas to finish his degree. It was the only way he could complete his dissertation.

“All the hoops made it almost insurmountable to get a doctorate,” says Warlick, who now serves as superintendent of the 4,050-student Calallen district outside Corpus Christi. “With the residency requirements, you really end up doing two jobs, and you’re not productive at either thing that you’re doing.”

So when Texas A&M University-Kingsville called to ask him to teach online courses in its graduate program in educational administration, Warlick warmed quickly to the invitation. He had been through four bond elections and building programs in his years as a superintendent in north and south Texas and he thought he had something to offer to fledgling school leaders. What’s more, he could appreciate better than most school leaders the newfound convenience of electronic delivery of graduate instruction.


Real-World Relevancy
Hiring adjunct faculty from the practitioner ranks was a godsend to Texas A&M University-Kingsville. As coordinator Robert Marshall freely admits, the superintendency sequence was “absolutely dead” four years ago. With competition from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, as well as several universities within a couple of hour’s drive to the south, Kingsville’s superintendent certification program was floundering. Texas A&M-Kingsville, a regional university with 6,000 students, had six long-time tenured professors teaching graduate education courses on the campus.

 

“There was no aggressiveness within the faculty to recruit,” admits Marshall, who describes his university department as aging. “People were going to Laredo, going to Pan Am, going to Corpus Christi, going to UT-San Antonio, and we were interested in drawing them in. We were to the point where classes couldn’t make it (because enrollment was so low).”

Still the university’s 45-hour principal certification program was thriving. Marshall considered the introduction of the online option for the superintendent’s certificate—a 15-hour program—a “do or die” move. Marshall himself taught the first online course, a school finance class. More than 90 educators signed up for the class from as far as Waco, five hours away. There is a need for this, he decided, and a need to bring some real-world connections to classes about managing school systems.

This year, four of the five superintendent courses at Kingsville are taught online—and all are run by superintendents serving as adjunct faculty members. The fifth course is an internship.

Warlick is one of three working superintendents who teach the Web-based courses in educational administration. He runs a course on school-community relations and another on school plant and operations. Students are required to log onto the class’ online bulletin board at least once a week, and the school facilities course requires a supervised field trip to a school building to discuss bond packages.

Warlick, 56, describes his teaching approach as “practical” but adds there is some irony in his conversion from working superintendent to online professor. “When I was working on my doctorate, I wrote a paper on how adjuncts might destroy the professorship at the university,” he says. “Now that I’m involved in online teaching, I’ve realized there just aren’t enough people to go around. You look at all the people who can contribute and you realize it is beneficial they can teach courses.”


Motivating Factors
Linda Crawford, one of five assistant superintendents in the suburban Osseo school district just north of Minneapolis, Minn., doesn’t just teach in one online graduate program. She teaches for three. Her first course, which she taught for Walden University in 1998, was curriculum theory and design. From there, her after-hours teaching expanded to the University of Phoenix and Baker College. Two of the three institutions exclusively offer college courses online.

 

The experience fulfills Crawford’s personal need to teach now that the former elementary school teacher spends most of her time as a central-office administrator overseeing curriculum and instruction for her 32,000-student school district.

Early each morning before she heads out the door to work, Crawford logs on to her desktop computer at home and spends up to a couple of hours responding to student questions and assignments. Many of her students are from Minnesota; others live in Japan, Germany and India. She says her approach to instructing online is much the same as it was when she stood before a classroom of graduate students at the University of Minnesota.

“There is no difference in the content,” Crawford says. “The only difference is in geography. In terms of content, in terms of discussion, there really is no difference.”

While travel distance is the driver for the popularity of the Texas A&M-Kingsville program, it’s really convenience that has pushed many of Crawford’s students. Most live within 15 minutes of a major university, but it’s impossible for those who are parents to drop off a son or daughter at a soccer practice and sit in a university classroom at the same time, Crawford says. The online option addresses that need.

“The flexibility of being able to work from home and get a good educational experience is very attractive,” she adds. “I actually find that the flexibility for scheduling and accessing the material when one is able to is a big advantage.”

The online education setting is highly appealing to administrators like Crawford, who are looking for an outlet to teach but don’t necessarily want to commit to a weekly or twice-weekly time and place to teach a class. Crawford describes her online teaching as “intellectually and professionally invigorating.” It also fits her schedule without detracting from her administrative duties.


Learning Experiences
Phil Corkill, who retired in 1998 as superintendent of the Flowing Wells schools outside Tucson, had spent almost 25 years as an adjunct professor in educational administration programs at Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University and University of Arizona, where he was viewed as an expert on school law issues. But he knew little about distance learning in higher education until he was invited two years ago to teach a class for Capella University, an online institution launched in the early 1990s.

Corkill recently was appointed interim director of Capella’s educational administration program whose enrollment has doubled in the past year to 6,000 students. He is discovering a lot about the trends in leadership preparation.

“I looked at their courses and started to think about the entire cohort of educational administrators we would be losing in the next five years,” Corkill says. “What I was thinking is, ‘How are we going to replace them? Who is going to replace them?’”

The teachers who will succeed the departing administrators aren’t inclined to spend another five hours of class time at state university after an eight-hour day in the classroom, Corkill says. “A lot of potential administrators are not signing up for course at traditional universities because of the set time commitment. … It’s just the whole burden of going to classes, listening to someone lecture. Taking the courses online is attractive.”

Some veteran school leaders who teach as adjunct professors, such as newly retired Wayne White, the former superintendent in Fluvanna County, Va., are eager to teach online because of their own experience using technology in the classroom. White’s 3,400-student rural school district north of Richmond is a member of the Blue Ridge Virtual Governor’s School, meaning it relies on distance learning to fill in the gaps in some of the more specialized high school courses.

“This is really as much a learning experience for me as anything else,” says White, who teaches a course on supervision of instruction and general administration for Capella. “We were trying to move in that direction for our K-12 students, and this was one of the ways I could explore that a bit more and move in that direction myself. I could find out how the experience worked from the teacher’s point of view.”

Ron Anderson, a retired vice principal in Prince George’s County, Md., is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Maryland University College, the national pacesetter in offering postsecondary classes online. Anderson spent the bulk of his career pushing poor children who lived in federally subsidized housing projects into viable school-to-work programs, and he remains committed to sending good teachers into the profession to help those most in need of good instruction. His students now are primarily career changers.

“In order to take on teaching online courses, you have got to be very organized,” Anderson says. “I think you have to be very dedicated to the process because it takes an awful lot of your time, and you can’t be looking to devote just a couple of hours a week to it, like you would if you just walked into a classroom.”


Teacher Types
Peggy Gaskill, the director of graduate education programs at the online Walden University and a former administrator in the Detroit Public Schools, says she sees two types of people who agree to teach online education courses—those comfortable with technology and those who are risk takers and want to push teaching boundaries.

“There is a healthy skepticism about online courses in the education community. It is more experimental,” Gaskill says. “What happens is that these professors who are successful become models for their colleagues. They can say, ‘This does work.’”

She has hired about 100 adjunct faculty members for Walden’s School of Education just to keep up with the growing interest in both graduate and undergraduate programs.

While Walden relies heavily on adjunct faculty to deliver instruction via the Web, brick-and-mortar universities that have ventured into the online realm tend to stick with their full-time professors.

Penn State University’s World Campus, which enrolled 2,900 students in undergraduate, graduate and non-credit courses around the world during the past school year, relied on its full-timers to ensure the electronic versions of courses resemble the sections of the course taught face-to-face in University Park, Pa.

Our graduate program courses that we offer online are the same courses that we teach on campus,” says Gary Miller, associate vice president of distance learning at Penn State and executive director of the World Campus. “We don’t want to make a distinction between what we do online and what we do in the classroom. The courses offer the same rigor, the same expectations and the same research.”


Advantageous Methods
Translating an entire course to the online environment was the biggest challenge for Lee Allen, an adjunct assistant professor with University College, the University of Maryland branch serving older students. Even though Allen was a qualified techie—he is executive manager of technology for the Dallas, Texas, Independent School District—he spent hours grappling with how he could adapt his graduate-level Foundations of Technology course to the online environment.

 

“The only question I really had, since I was teaching this same course face-to-face at Southern Methodist University, was how I was going to translate this into a web-based course,” says Allen. “I can’t do hands-on demonstrations. My students can’t sit in a lab-type setting, looking at the same thing at the same time. I really had to rethink some of the things I was doing in the classroom.”

After some thought, Allen decided he would use the same methods the technology companies used to teach their software to computer users online. And for the most part it has worked. Allen is fascinated by just how much interaction the online environment has created.

“You assign readings and discussion and online it’s just a lot cooler,” says Allen. “You say, ‘Let’s discuss the readings,’ in class and you get the yawns and mumble mumble. You throw it online and it’s amazing to see what kind of interaction you can get.”

That’s because interaction can’t be avoided, says Bill Brown, superintendent in Silver Grove, Ky., who teaches educational leadership classes for Capella.

“When you were in college, you might have a class of 15 or 20, and you could sit there anonymously the whole semester and not interact,” Brown says. “An online student has to interact with people, has to talk to me online through e-mail and with other students. You may be anonymous from the standpoint that you’re not sitting together in a classroom, but you can’t avoid interacting with others.”

White, the superintendent in Fluvanna County, Va., agrees. “You might have a question in class and not quite have the answer to it,” he says. “There is an opportunity for reflection and dialogue in online instruction. When you do group projects, it may be better to have someone who can respond to you immediately, but overall I would say there is room for both online and face-to-face.”

Assignments in some online master’s degree programs make a point of separating the student from the computer screen. UMUC’s master’s of arts in teaching combines online studies with experiences out in a school setting.

“One of the major challenges in an online environment is to be able to make the kind of connection so that the teacher has an up-close-and-personal experience,” says Brenda Conley, who heads the UMUC program. “We make sure that every course has a field experience component that requires the teacher candidate to go into the field.”

One of UMUC’s online offerings, The Contemporary School, requires students to do formal observations at a school or attend a school board meeting. A course on curriculum, instruction and assessment asks graduate students to collect samples from various school campuses. The goal, says Conley, is a professional development school rather than a coursework sequence that ends with the first field experience being an eight-week “sink or swim” student teaching experience.


Quality Matters
Despite the convenience of shipping the instructional material from home or work at whatever hour, online delivery doesn’t supplant the need for good teaching. “You have to understand how your own instructional philosophy translates into the online environment,” says Crawford, the assistant superintendent in Osseo, Minn. “The computer is just like a blackboard. It’s only a display tool. It does not do anything for you when it comes to instructional strategies.”

With so many more institutions entering the online education business, the challenge is keeping the quality high, especially when relying on adjunct professors who may be years removed from their last full-time teaching assignment. “We want to maintain a high quality and a rigor to our programs so it doesn’t dissipate what we’re really trying to do with the students,” Crawford says. “The change is in the quantity but we need to be focused on the quality to keep our eye on raising the bar.”

So is the online course easier to teach than face-to-face classroom instruction? Few school leaders serving as adjuncts would admit to that with some contending the online versions are more time-consuming.

“I would not say it’s easy and efficient,” says Anderson, an adjunct professor at UMUC, of the time commitment. “If you’re dedicated to doing this, you also have to be extremely well organized and dedicated. You just can’t put assignments on a website and then walk away until the next Sunday night. You’re an instructor, and you’re going to spend a couple of hours each night answering questions from your students.”


Protecting Integrity
One thing online professors do want to protect is the integrity of the programs, matching the degree’s intellectual rigor to more traditional diplomas. Allen, the technology director in Dallas, is seeking his own doctoral degree in educational technology from Pepperdine University and he wants to ensure the convenience of completing his coursework online does not erode quality.

“Online learning is expanding, but there is some danger in that,” Allen says. “I think some universities are going to be a bit opportunistic. I don’t want to think you could get to a point where universities offer a degree but when you come to the end nobody’s going to care. This is a major investment.”

Kimberly Reeves is a free-lance education writer in Dallas. E-mail: kreeves@reporters.net