Life as a Virtual Adjunct

by Bill Brown

Working as an adjunct professor of educational leadership has always been one of my career goals since finishing my doctorate of education five years ago.

But finding a way to make time to teach while I continued to work full-time as a superintendent seemed impossible. Teaching college courses meant I would have to dedicate the same two nights a week for two to three hours for a semester. That necessity alone would prohibit fitting a teaching commitment into my evening schedule, which already is crowded with academic functions, sports events and family obligations.


So I started looking into universities that offer graduate courses online. I applied first to the University of Phoenix, which asked me to teach courses in curriculum design in their master of education program. Then I saw Capella University, another exclusively online university, was looking for teachers in its educational administration program.

Capella University, accredited by North Central Association, offers online degrees for more than 6,000 students. Those who wish to teach first must complete two of Capella’s online courses about how to teach over the Web by adhering to the company’s philosophy of education.

I took my training over a three-month period, earning a meager amount of money, writing papers and responding to discussion questions in Capella’s course room. (The course room is an open forum where students ask questions and interact with other students and the professor.) I found myself spending more time completing work at an online university than I had when I took courses for my graduate degrees at a traditional university.

Willing Opinions
Once I was deemed ready to enter the online world of education, I was assigned to a course titled “School Law for K-12 Educators.” I felt comfortable with the subject, having taken school law classes at both the masters and doctoral levels and having been forced to keep abreast of school law as a superintendent.

Each week I posed discussion questions and asked the students to post their answers and responses to other students’ postings. I quickly found that in an online environment students do not mind challenging other students or their professor when they feel strongly about an issue. I think the comfort of sitting in your own living room allows you to express yourself differently than when you are sitting in a classroom facing 15 or 20 others.

The online environment allows the student to ask professors questions both in private through e-mail and in public through the course room. I spent hours each week answering questions, posting responses and getting ready for the next week’s lesson. The ongoing communication between the students and me was very personal.

Having students who are located across the country leads to interesting discussions on such subjects as high-stakes testing and teacher tenure. You realize from stories elsewhere that the high-stakes testing in your own state probably will not lead to schools being closed down or a third of your students being retained in grade. You also learn that other states with less-protective tenure laws are able to dismiss teachers who in your state are almost untouchable.

I also had to monitor how I responded to the students because I did not have the advantage of face-to-face interaction. I had to ensure that what I wrote was clear and could not be misinterpreted. A subject common to anymore working in a rural school setting might have no meaning for those teaching in suburban or urban schools in another part of the country.

One of my students, a teacher in New Guinea, was having difficulty researching special education law in his school district because they had nothing equivalent for youngsters with disabilities. He was trying to learn about school law from a professor based in Kentucky, from a university headquartered in Minnesota that had enrolled students who were public school teachers in California, Florida, Louisiana, Montana, New Jersey, New York and South Carolina.

Lots of Upsides
The experience of working as an adjunct professor in a classroom that spans the globe has to be unusual in the history of higher education. My communication with other adjunct professors and university faculty consists of a monthly conference call supplemented by frequent e-mails providing university news or announcements.

In online teaching, we have no endless committee meetings where staff complain about salary or lack of parent involvement. You never walk onto a campus or see the finely mowed lawns and ivy-covered classroom buildings. There are no century-old traditions or weekend sports events. If the online university sees a need to change something, it does so quickly.

Teaching in an online environment allows you to have personal connection with each student—something rarely possible on a university campus. You can communicate daily with your students, who seem more than comfortable expressing their views in an online forum. Even though you may not always feel connected to a larger institution when you operate in such isolation, you still can develop a relationship with each student and feel part of a thriving university.

Bill Brown is superintendent of Silver Grove Independent School District, 101 W. 3rd St., Silver Grove, KY 41085. E-mail: