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The role of adjunct faculty in distance learning. (Distance Learning in Higher Education).

Many assume that distance learning format courses in America are primarily taught by part-time faculty members. In fact, this is not the case. Recent research I have conducted confirms data from other studies showing that by a wide margin regular faculty generally develop and teach distance learning courses. Why is this important information? First, distance learning may accelerate the trend as documented in Finkelstein, Seal and Schuster (1998) towards the greater use of adjunct faculty generally in higher education. Second, the use of part-time faculty may affect the quality of instruction. Finally, the use of adjunct faculty may be connected to a general move in higher education towards market models.

A second common assumption is that distance learning course materials are developed by commercial publishers and software companies. However, this is not the case. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (1997), three-quarters of the higher education institutions that offered distance education courses in fall 1995 used distance education course curricula developed by the institution's faculty members. With the majority of these distance learning courses developed by faculty members, this represents a new form of employment likely to impact traditional faculty roles. How are faculty paid or provided compensatory time for course development? Most importantly, who owns course materials and other intellectual property?

The use of adjunct faculty is strongly connected to the overall economics of distance learning. There are two basic economic models for distance learning: replace variable costs with fixed costs, or replace expensive labor with cheap labor. Adjunct faculty members play a role in both models. John Daniel, Vice-Chancellor of the British Open University, claims that the basic economic approach of distance learning is to replace labor with capital. He proposes that per unit cost of teaching can be cut either by adding more students to existing courses or by making instruction more efficient (Daniel, 1998). The British Open University has used this model to reduce faculty labor costs from 66% to 20% of the total budget (Bates, 1995). The second basic approach, a labor for labor model, is to divide the faculty role into segments and reduce the total labor cost by replacing higher priced faculty with less expensive labor. Adjunct faculty play a key role in this model by performing some of these unbundled tasks. Jewe tt (1999) identifies three basic functions of faculty in a cost analysis: preparation, presentation, and assessment. To the extent that these functions can be performed individually by less expensive part-time faculty labor, the overall cost will be reduced. In this way, fulltime faculty might develop distance learning courses, and then adjuncts might take over some of the interaction and assessment responsibilities.

What does current research show about the use of adjunct faculty to teach distance learning format courses? First, my own study (Berg, 2002) found that the majority (76.6%) of institutions responded that only 0-25% of those teaching distance learning courses are classified as adjunct faculty. In trying to understand these surprising data it is useful to consider the results from the Primary Research Group study (1999) which found an increased use of part-time faculty from 1998 to 1999. In that study, the authors surmised that full-time faculty had been used to develop and teach new distance learning courses at first, but then later on had been replaced by part-time faculty. Therefore it is possible that the low use of adjunct faculty thus far is a result of the early stage of development of distance learning programs. It makes sense that administrators would turn to full-time faculty rather than adjunct to develop and teach courses at the beginning when they are under the most scrutiny.

Overall, the current data indicate that in America thus far the two basic strategies for achieving increased productivity through the use of adjunct faculty (capital for labor, and labor for labor) are in early stages of development. In terms of direct compensation, one source (Primary Research Group, 1999) has found a decrease in the percentage of faculty pay in the overall distance learning budget, at 31.72% for 1998, down from 37.21% in 1997. In terms of indirect compensation, a systematic restructuring of the work of faculty into discrete tasks using adjunct faculty is thus far only occurring at nontraditional institutions such as the University of Phoenix. While it is unlikely that this kind of division of faculty labor will occur in the immediate future at traditional institutions, replacement of expensive faculty may instead occur through the general increased use of part-time or adjunct faculty. Although information is limited thus far, research (Berg, 2002; Edwards & Minich, 1998) indicates that facu lty work in both developing and teaching distance learning format courses tends thus far in this early stage to be seen as work-for-hire under regular load with little additional indirect compensation or royalty arrangements. This also puts regular faculty in a weak position. Finally, there are indications that market approaches are influencing the use of distance learning, causing faculty roles to change. My study (Berg, 2002) found that distance learning is often connected to revenue-seeking activity by who initiated the use and where the activity is administratively housed within universities. Nevertheless, although a revenue-seeking administrative structure was found, evidence of lower academic standards was not apparent in standard course approval and assessment methods. I would argue that the high use of regular faculty has contributed to stronger academic quality. The danger as we go forward is in allowing the level of quality to sink as the use of adjunct faculty is increased.


Bates, A.W. (1995). Technology open learning and distance education. London: Routledge.

Berg, G.A. (2002). Why distance learning? Arizona: Greenwood Press (American Council on Education, Higher Education Series).

Daniel, J.S. (1998). Mega-universities and Knovledge media. Technology strategies for higher education. London: Kogan Page.

Edwards, R. & Minich, E. (1998). Faculty compensation and support issues in distance education. Washington DC: The Instructional Telecommunication Council.

Finkelstein, M.J., Seal, R.K. & Schuster, J.H. (1998). The new academic generation: A profession in transformation. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University

Jewett, F. (1999). A framework for the comparative analysis of the costs of classroom instruction vis-a-vis distributed instruction. Presented at Executive Forum on Managing the Cost of information Technology in Higher Education sponsored by the New Jersey Institute for Collegiate Teaching and Learning (NJICTL), April 16. Princeton, NJ. Retrieved February 19, 2001, from the World Wide Web: http://academic. html

National Center for Education Statistics. (1997). Distance education in higher education institutions. NCES 97-062. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Primary Research Group, Inc. (1999). The survey of distance learning programs in higher education: 1999 edition. New York.


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Article Details
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Author:Berg, Gary A.
Publication:International Journal on E-Learning
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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