Two Tiered Faculty as the product of Online Education Models

I suspect that one of the outcomes of current development of tertiary online education models, at least in the models I’m most familiar with (which is a few), will be an entrenchment of a divide between permanent faculty and the continued subsistence of an academic underclass of adjuncts.

I won’t go into the economic side of things so much in this post (I always simply feel bad because ‘at least this isn’t America’), as a different dimension.

The nature of online education delivery is that to a large extent you can create “content” that is delivered to students. Lectures/Readings/Material can all be pre-packaged for students to digest. That material, if done well, can be done once and left for several cycles of the course. Do it well enough, and the length of its ‘digital lifetime’ gets extended. Eventually, if you care about it being up to date in the field at all, and it will need revising.

Who gets to create this content? Primarily established academic staff who have a good deal of experience in teaching the course and can produce a quality course.

But any such course still needs human interaction, otherwise you’re not selling a course, you’re selling content to be delivered. Which is fine but it’s a different thing. Students don’t fare very well when you just give them ‘content’. They need learning activities, they need to engage with the material, discuss, do assignments, get feedback, and of course ‘get graded’ (do they?)

Who does that? Rarely the person who created the content. They are off doing other things, research included. Online courses are generally administered by casual academic staff, who do all those things: engage online with students, facilitate discussions, mark papers.

In many ways, this is simply the replication of a model of two-tiered academia that already exists in plenty of brick-and-mortar institutions, especially those with large classes. Tutors/TAs do the grunt work, faculty do the lecturing. So it’s not new, but online exacerbates that division.

It makes it worse because the only people creating content are older, established academics, and those employed casually as tutors (a) do not gain teaching experience per se, because they are not content creators, (b) are economically unable to effectively pursue research in the conditions of their employment because (i) they are not paid to research, (ii) the gap between full-time-hours as a casual academic and full-time hours as a full-time employ actually means there is no “casual loading” benefit to casual work.

It seems to me that the direction this heads in is, on the one hand, content driven more and more by older, established, and high-profile scholars, who increasingly have no need to interact with actual students. On the other, course delivery by lower paid, junior academics with insecure employment status who by the conditions of their employment may never be able to leave that class. That’s a two-tiered class system, and its long term effects on higher education will be deleterious.

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