Contingent and part-time faculty — commonly known as adjuncts — play a critical role in providing equitable online education opportunities for minoritized and poverty-affected college students. Yet, while the number of online adjunct faculty is increasing, they frequently receive the least amount of support, particularly when it comes to instructional design and effective teaching methods. And adjuncts are often assigned the gateway courses that disproportionately screen out Black, Latino, Indigenous, and poverty-affected students.
A survey recently conducted by the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) and the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) with support from Every Learner Everywhere, explores the practices higher education institutions use to support adjunct faculty and their ability to provide quality, inclusive online learning. Online Adjunct Faculty: A Survey of Institutional Policies and Practices follows up on a 2015 survey of provosts and deans at two-year and four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. to better understand the practices that impact online adjunct faculty, equity, access, and quality. The survey of 119 administrators was followed up with 12 in-depth interviews.
Overall, comparing the two surveys shows that the large increase in online learning between 2015 and 2021 was not paralleled by significant new support and guidance for adjuncts who teach online.
The survey report arrived at five key findings around instructional design support and classroom practices for adjuncts:
- More institutions than in 2015 are developing uniform policies for adjuncts related to grading, response time to discussion board posts, and online office hours. However, large numbers of institutions still have no policies for those issues.
- Instructional design support and mandatory training decreased since the 2015 survey, particularly in online introduction to student services and effective teaching methods.
- Training on pedagogical practices on digital learning, diversity, equity, and inclusion is rarely required, though it is sometimes available. Over a third of respondents indicated adjuncts for online courses had access to training on culturally relevant teaching.
- Professional development requirements of online adjunct faculty didn’t change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic starting in March 2020. More than half reported the requirements stayed the same.
- The online practices that are most effective are also the most challenging to execute. These same pedagogical practices are also the ones found to be most beneficial to students.
The survey also includes data about evaluation of adjunct faculty, satisfaction, and the teaching modality.
Related reading: Effectively Adding Adjunct Faculty to Your Adaptive Learning Project
Progress made supporting online adjunct faculty
Van Davis, Ph.D., Chief Strategy Officer, WCET and one of the co-authors of the report, says a successful online learning environment creates a sense of community between the adjunct and their students. For minoritized and poverty-affected students, that means there is consistent and inclusive engagement on discussion boards, active learning and group discussion, and clearly communicated grading policies. For adjuncts, that means their course is well organized, transparent, and built with instructional design support.
In many ways, Davis says, the most effective online learning practices overlap with the evidence-based teaching practices promoted by the Every Learner Everywhere network: active learning, transparency, formative practice, metacognition, data analytics, and inclusive learning environment.
“So much of it is around creating that community,” he says. “It’s being able to forge connections between instructors and students and being able to provide timely feedback on student work. Yet we know that those are policies that are lacking across the board for adjunct faculty.”
Overall, Davis says the results of the survey leave room for “a lot of hope.” Concern and awareness for the need of culturally relevant teaching practices is on the rise. In addition, though not mandatory, more training in online teaching for adjuncts is available than before, according to the survey.
“The best practices in this area create student success,” he says.
Institutions aren’t thinking one-size-fits-all anymore, either. While speaking with State University of New York administrators, Davis found out that one campus had switched its professional development for adjuncts to the evening. The result? For the first time, every person who registered showed up.
“Professional development is increasingly being tailored to the modality and there’s still a ways to go,” Davis says. “But that’s going to be more effective professional development, and then ultimately, that’s going to have a greater impact on student success.”
The survey report includes six recommendations for using and supporting online adjunct faculty, including enacting common policies, mentoring, and training and other professional development opportunities uniquely for online teaching.
Among the recommendations, Davis emphasizes the need for professional development in culturally relevant teaching, and to compensate for it or consider other incentives.
“Could you provide them with a badge? Could they move to the top of the scheduling queue and get their choice of courses the next term?” Davis suggests. “There are ways you can reward adjuncts for participating in professional development if you can’t pay them.”