College Inc: a faculty trainer’s view

There was a recent PBS Frontline documentary called ‘College. Inc’ that ‘exposes’ the world of for-profit education. It does not however address the way instructors are provided teacher-training in this industry, nor the fact that this industry provides jobs for many MAs and PhDs that get churned out by the regular sector. (Pay is an issue I am not going to comment on, but for an interesting experiment, see this calculator)

I currently work in this industry, as a faculty trainer (but I’ll be moving on soon). I took the job because I wanted to see the business of education from the inside. And I also like to eat, pay my bills, etc. I’ve learned a lot about teaching, having to teach the teachers; as I don’t want to torpedo my academic credibility, I bust my butt to make sure that the people I train to facilitate classes uphold academic rigor, and best practices in online education. I will not be party to degree mills. As a faculty trainer I concentrate on building up instructors who can at least help those weaker students attain some measure of success. I put my credibility on the line whenever a faculty member who I’ve trained steps into the online classroom.

I was asked the question of whether or not, given how these online courses provides so much of the materials one would normally create for themselves, there was any way for the instructor to be truly creative in his or her teaching. Initially I chafed at this when I first joined my current employers a little over a year ago, and you would have found me firmly in the camp that found this restrictive, to have so many of the materials pre-made. But after awhile, I came to realize that there was a great deal of stealthy freedom involved in this structure.   (In the face-to-face world, I often ended up taking over an already running course, or being parachuted in at the last minute, and so had to work with the existing structures, which is probably a factor in my thinking here.)

If you think of these pre-made course shells as a kind of seminar course, one where some library god has already created the readings for you, as well as the assignments, then you can then bring all of your energies, your creativity, to bear in the actual conversation you have with the students. Note that my emphasis is not on you the instructor, but on your students.  You can get to know them, understand where they are in relation to the materials, and concentrate on meeting their needs as learners. The materials provided are just the jumping off point, not the ending point. In my history classes for instance, I’ve sometimes provided links to outside resources that flat out contradict the provided readings. In the ensuing conversation for instance, we end up covering much important ground on the nature of history and the role of the historian.

The Frontline documentary didn’t talk much about the faculty perspective of the online experience, and I was disappointed in that. Not everyone is suited to teaching online, and it would’ve been interesting to see what Frontline made of the faculty experience.

A post over at Inside Higher Ed does provide a faculty trainer’s point of view. I’d like to draw attention to this paragraph:

The training is, in a sense, an extended job interview. It’s where the institution learns whether the new hire can use its learning management system software and how he or she works with other people in the training course – and might interact with students, Barrett said. “What we rely on is the teacher trainer. The teacher trainer is going to do an evaluation at the end, to tell you whether they think this person is a good candidate or this person needs some assistance.”

Some folks forget this. I have seen plagiarism in these training sessions that I run (very rarely, but disheartening all the same). Those individuals do not pass the training.  The article closes with some thoughts on academic freedom:

Barrett said that only a third of the online institutions he’s taught for grant instructors academic freedom. “The rest are, you go by the instruction modules that are given, do not deviate from them. They have people who will come in and look at what you’re doing, will look at what you’re introducing, will comment on things that are a little bit different.” A few attendees shook their head in dismay.

This is true enough. If you’re going to teach online, then academic freedom might be something you trade away in exchange for regular work. Having spent many years hustling from one short term academic job to another, teaching other people’s courses, I’m tempted to say, ‘what’s the difference?’ … but if we want to see online teaching at the university level develop to have the status and security and academic freedom that ‘regular’ faculty have, then the regular folks are going to have to engage with the online folks. Teaching online has to be seen as honourable and a as legitimate a course to pursue as face to face teaching. When it is, then some of the other shortcomings discussed by Frontline might conceivably change.

Or perhaps it’s the other way around…  All I know is that I have done my best to inculcate new online teachers with the need to treat their students with grace, empathy and rigor; to do otherwise is dishonest and does us all a disservice.

I am looking forward to the next stage in my career though.