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Career Tracks for Online Educators
The Proper Care and Feeding of Adjuncts

By Mark Welch, Bob Robertson, Darren Adamson / March 2010

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Instructor retention equals student retention.

The formula seems so obvious, yet we seem to have overlooked it. Simply put, when the best online instructors can see a viable and attractive career track for themselves, they are more likely to be satisfied and more productive with the institution and their students.

There are approximately 7,000 colleges and universities in North America, and the vast majority of them are teaching online classes and offering fully online degrees, meaning instructors have countless options of where to teach. How can a program or university attract the best online instructors and keep them, thereby also retaining more students?

To increase instructor retention in online education, we propose four separate but interchangeable career tracks that instructors can move between.

Four Career Tracks for Online Instructors
1. Teachers. The first career track is for those who only want to teach and nothing else. In this track, we propose using academic rank as a type of compensation. We don't necessarily think it's best to use the same titles as in traditional academia, though. For example, Capella University (one of the author's alma mater) offers academic rank, such as core faculty. Other job title are professor of practice, mentor faculty, and senior professor. It could be said that in academia, the pay is poor, so institutions give titles to their faculty.

2. Administrators. The second track is partly or totally administration, such as associate dean, dean, or program chair. Many online programs are stuck in a paradigm that mandates their administration must be on campus. Returning to the Capella example, its deans and executive administration live all over the world. This type of flexibility is a very attractive incentive for the best and brightest faculty to work at an institution.

3. Faculty trainer or mentor. The third track is faculty trainer or mentor. These are the best online instructors who want to train and mentor other faculty.

We believe that all new instructors should be compensated when they shadow their first course and that they should have a mentor with them while they teach their first course. Some might add up the pay of the trainers and mentors and question the financial viability of this approach. We would remind them of the cost of replacing an employee at this level.

4. Researcher. In the fourth career track, professors and their graduate students conduct studies (short studies, articles, theses and even dissertations) regarding what factors increase instructor retention and the viability of these career tracks. These studies can then be published and presented at conferences, further helping to attract the best online instructors.

There's a simple return on investment for the online degree program here. There seems to be little or no research on cost of replacing an online professor. Typically, replacing a mid-level employee cost about 50 percent of their annual salary. This includes the costs for the time the position remains vacant, recruiting, training, and the time period for the new employee to get up to speed.

Retaining the best online instructors, can save significant money, which can be used to mitigate the impact of tuition increases and to fund implementation of additional student and faculty retention programs, such as those we are suggesting.

An example from one of the authors provides an appropriate conclusion; in fact, this moment was the impetus for this article:

"I remember my first day on a campus as a new instructor. When I walked into the classroom, the tension was almost visible. The students had checked the class schedule and did not see many of their favorite instructors listed. The students were upset and stressed. One student made this statement: 'It stopped me cold.' She said, 'If the college does not value the best instructors, then why do I think they value me? My instructors were smart, and they left this college. Maybe I should be smart and leave it as well.'"

About the Authors
Dr. Mark Welch, is the executive director of the Online Education Alliance, a graduate of Oxford University, and a former dean of Online Education.

Dr. Bob Robertson is the dean of the MBA program at St. Leo University. He also created the first doctorate of business administration program in Central Asia.

Dr. Darren Adamson has been the campus director of three Argosy University campus. He is also a practicing psychologist.


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