Faculty Primacy in Online Education

ASCCC Online Education Committee Chair
OEI Steering Committee Chair and member of the ASCCC Online Education Committee

Online education in California is experiencing an exciting period, as the Online Education Initiative (OEI) is beginning to roll out its offerings to California community colleges.  In August 2015 the student readiness modules were launched, allowing colleges to use free tools to measure students’ preparation for the rigors of online classes.  Common assessments and educational plans will also be connected to the OEI, bringing with them the promise of more support and services for students and faculty in online education.  Perhaps no portion of the OEI is more anticipated than the arrival of a commonly available course management system, Canvas, which will be offered to campuses for no cost through the 2018-19 academic year.  The colleges that are piloting Canvas will do so in the spring of 2016, with the system available to other colleges and more widely to the pilot colleges after that time. 

While celebrating the forward thinking of the governor and the Chancellor’s Office in supporting online education with the tools that have long been requested by faculty and administrators, faculty must also assert their primacy in the area of online education.  AB 1725 (1988) and other legislation ensure the primacy of faculty in certain areas of governance, budget, accreditation, and other aspects of the 10 + 1.  The most clearly defined of these areas is curriculum. Faculty primacy is clearly established in the area of curriculum, and while on occasion some administrator may wish to subvert that primacy—and occasionally some faculty may wish to give it up—most administrators and faculty in the California community colleges acknowledge that curriculum is an area of faculty control.  This primacy extends over all aspects of curriculum in terms of development of courses, structuring of majors, grading, textbooks, and establishment of degree requirements.

However, curricular issues can become more muddled in discussions of online education.  At many colleges, the distance education coordinator is not a faculty member and may be an administrator with no online experience.  Additionally, online education is, for many colleges, a relatively new and relatively small portion of course offerings and in some cases might represent less than 5% of a college’s offerings.  Administrators might be unfamiliar with or worried about online education and seek to limit the number of courses or sections offered in the online environment.  And faculty, particularly part-time faculty, may be unaware of their rights and responsibilities as faculty in terms of curricular development and delivery of classes.  As such, faculty leaders on campuses must take actions to ensure that the primacy of faculty is being recognized.

An obvious example of this situation is what is happening as colleges decide whether or not to transition to Canvas as their chosen course management system or CMS.  Some administrators may argue that, similar to a classroom, a CMS is a facility, and, regardless of structure or problems, faculty will be expected to teach within its confines.  This claim would be comparable to portable classrooms during times of construction, without air conditioning or multi media, where faculty still manage to teach classes despite lacking items that would be considered the norm on campus.  In some ways, the course management system is a facility; however, for faculty who teach online, that facility must possess certain functionalities that would preclude faculty teaching effectively were those functions not present.  In much the same way that a chemistry lab must have certain elements in place in order for experiments to be conducted, an online course management system must have elements in place for the course to be conducted effectively.  If administrators, especially administrators who have no experience teaching online, are making decisions regarding a course management system in a vacuum, faculty may find themselves saddled with a system that prevents them from effectively teaching their students.  For these reasons, online faculty must be involved in any discussions regarding adoption of a course management system, whether that system is Canvas or another CMS.

Another issue with faculty primacy regarding online courses involves scheduling.  For many administrators, online courses are a “cash cow”; they require no or very little in person classroom space, and as such they appear to be easy moneymakers because they can be scheduled without taking into account factors such as other classes, the need for a classroom, overhead costs.  In addition, some administrators feel that online course faculty do not require special training, so anyone can be assigned an online class, often with very little time before the class is scheduled to begin, and told to teach it.  Part-time faculty are particularly vulnerable to this issue, as turning down an assignment can have consequences for adjuncts that do not exist for full-time faculty, including the possible loss of reemployment preference or other preferred status.  Without adequate training and support, faculty teaching online may not possess the skills needed to successfully navigate the issues in an online class and therefore may not provide the students in the course with the educational experience they require. 

At some universities, courses have been created with no, or limited, faculty input and then assigned to an instructor of record who has had very little if any involvement in the development of the course.  The faculty member becomes responsible for grading pre-created exams and perhaps involved in discussions or in answering questions but otherwise has had no particular role in the creation of the course itself.  This situation is not far from the use of publisher course packs as classes, where faculty members create no original content and instead rely entirely on the materials provided by the publishers to teach the course.  Although course packs often contain materials and tools that are not otherwise available, they should be used along with the instructor of record’s own materials, such as discussion topics and exams.  Both of these models, pre-created courses and reliance exclusively on publisher course packs, are not models that faculty would encourage for use in a face-to-face classroom, and as such their use in online courses should be discouraged.

Ultimately, as with face-to-face courses, the content of the course should belong to the instructor of record and should be determined primarily by that individual.  Faculty members teaching online courses should be regarded no differently; their courses should be their own, and the construction and content of those courses should be left to the primacy of the faculty, not to administrators or others who seek to increase the revenue of the college through the creation of pre-packaged courses or demand that faculty teach online classes when they are not prepared to do so.  Administrators and curriculum committees have an obligation to ensure that the courses being taught match the course outline of record and provide sufficient rigor and other requirements for online courses, but the faculty who teach the courses should be responsible for the curriculum of these classes as they are in face-to-face courses.  Online education is an important component in the future of the California community colleges, but it must be treated as an educational component rather than simply a revenue source.