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MY START WITH ONLINE

Like many at the time I had heard of U of Phoenix, which seemed to be seen in academia as a bogus university.  But in 1998 the incoming president of Washburn University brought with him the mandate that our school would start online and right now. A call went out to faculty who wished to volunteer.  My hand went up fast.  Wow!  A chance to get out of the classroom a bit and a) avoid disrespectful and disinterested students and b) to work from home.  Those were my motivations. Nothing noble in that list, but my wish to pursue online was accepted and that was the start.  One course at a time. 

When I began I had been in full time teaching about 23 years, and had been at the full Professor rank for quite a while.  It seemed that was just the ticket, as the intent of the new program was not to build out an online set of course offerings and then staff with adjuncts.   Get the real faculty to do it.
Fast forward to about 2004.  I was sitting in my office one day and the chair walked in.  Seems I was seen as sloughing off and not carrying my weight and if I didn’t get on the stick a nasty note would go in my personnel file:  there’s not much they can do to tenured faculty beyond that.  I did not debate the issue. I had never hung around the department much in my career, but with more of it now being online, I was all but invisible.  Later that day I made some calls to the administration and began to set up what became my phased retirement.  I had had enough.  The chair who leaned on me had no publications; I had over 30 plus several books.  Who is calling whom lazy? Anyhow I started my phase, which I engineered to be totally online.  I had achieved total invisibility.  I was out of a dysfunctional department and into a land of bliss, and I was to discover, opportunity.

During 2007, as the phased retirement period was ending, I got to thinking that I had a boatful of college teaching experience, including quite a bit of experience teaching online.  Online was still very new and no one could have much more.  So, let’s send around the old credentials to some schools that taught psych online and see what happens.  My first stop was U of Phoenix.  Sorry Charlie, we don’t need ya.  A couple more flops and then one day, ring ring and it was head of online teaching at a tiny school I had heard of but knew little about:  Upper Iowa University.

We talked a long while, he liked my credentials and offered me a chance to go through their faculty training and then teach in their online program.  Not long after that Ashford University called with a similar invite.  They were one of those nasty for-profit universities many ivory tower types did not like.  I said yes.

And here’s where it stands after this beginning.  There have been Winners: school I still work for, and Losers: schools I walked away from  because we were not a good fit.  Of all the stuff I ever sent out, about 85% was never answered.  I was clearly not the only aspiring online mentor.

THE WINNERS

Upper Iowa University

I began with fully 8 weeks of faculty training, designed to acquaint the applicant for employment with the task of teaching adult learners.  I had done that for 30 years at Washburn, but it didn’t matter.  And quickly I learned that the best strategy was to shut up, say yes Sir and yes ma’am to the trainers, and do what they wanted, no matter how stupid.  I survived and since 2008 I have taught at least one, and sometimes two courses each term, which consists of 8 weeks. 

Upper Iowa has perhaps 900 or so students on their campus in Fayette, Iowa.  They, like other small schools, found online to be a savior in the revenue department.  Today they have over 6500 students online. 

Upper Iowa is rare among my schools in that I can design the courses I teach.  Most schools who run on adjuncts they’ve never met face to face do the course designing, and then hand them off to the faculty member to teach.  That’s one way to keep some quality control.  Upper Iowa needs to approve my syllabus every term and I have no idea who does that but so far they have found my work acceptable and on we go.  I am in my third complete set of online administrators.  I have learned that your boss today might not be your boss next term. 

Upper Iowa has an expanding footprint, but most students still come from either Iowa or Wisconsin, where they have some branch operations now.  They are good, some are very good.  I like it there and plan to stay as long as they will have me.  

Ashford University

Here I ran into a new animal.  There was training but it was only three weeks and was actually more an extended interview in that we got lots of hypothetical student work and were asked to show how we would respond.  I liked that.  Forget the theory of teaching, let’s show we can do some of it.
Ashford courses turned out to be 5 weeks long.  And there were no terms: new courses started every Tuesday (the beginning of all Ashford weeks).  What that meant as things went along was that I might on a given Tuesday be starting the third week of one course, the first week or another and finished and starting to turn in grades on a third.  A whiteboard calendar was purchased as quickly I saw that organization was key.

Ashford developed the courses.  Some faculty  don’t like that.  I love it because there is no unpaid prep work to get ready for the class.  I show up the first day and away we go. Their courses were sometimes good, sometimes not, but I learned to handle that.  Another new thing was that I got an Instructional Specialist assigned to every course.  Freely translated their job was to make sure I was doing mine.  A bit late posting a weekly announcement or replying to enough student discussion posts and an email comes along, always upbeat and happy, reminding me I needed to get on the stick.  That is their way of helping to do quality control and I find it effective.  I hate getting those little “gotcha” emails. 

Ashford for several years was a cash cow.  With sometimes three courses at a time it was possible to do dozens of courses a year.  In the last couple years that has really slowed.  Ashford, like most other for-profit  schools, has been attacked by accreditors, Congressmen, the Department of Education and others.  The students there are often not the best, and it seems many were defaulting on student loans. Ashford tried to get accredited by one of the august bodies that does that and was turned down; things started to spiral down. Eventually they did find accreditation, but there has been a reshuffling and reduction in administration and as word of problems flashed around the internet enrollment has dropped a lot.  That has left those of us who taught there a long time in the lurch. Courses still come, but far less frequently than they once did.  Where once they came in bunches, now it’s one here, then nothing for a while, then one there.  My plan is to hang on and see where things go.  I could quit, but that’s not much different from what I do with them anyway, and work, even if it is occasional, pays better than not working.

Fort Hays State University

Early in my looking for jobs I contacted some of the schools in Kansas that I knew were doing online.  I had a real shot at one, but then the chair got kicked upstairs to be a dean and his replacement was not so sure about online.  One school told me their classroom instructors were so angelic that students would never want to lose that experience by taking a class online from their dorm room or apartment.

But I got a positive answer from Fort Hays, a school very similar to Washburn in size, but located in western Kansas where population is thin.  Their president had seen the wisdom of online, and they were up and running.  Here I learned something that would happen again. I had a positive contact and responded indicating my interest, and then things went dark for the better part of a year.  Then up they popped and I am now on my third chairperson there and I generally do four classes a term and one in the summer.

They started an MA program in School Psychology and asked if I wanted to be involved.  I hesitated as one thing I said to myself when I started my adjunct odyssey was that I didn’t want to mess with graduate students.  But it turned out they wanted me to do a course in Behavior Therapy, an interest of mine, and I checked it out and am about at this writing to start year 3 of doing that. 

I found something there I had never experienced during my long career.  The Chair and others there have been warm, welcoming and respectful.  They actually indicate from time to time their appreciation of what I do.  No one up to that time had ever said stuff like that to me.  The Chair and a couple of others there are Facebook friends, and I enjoy being part of a team that values online and has the imagination to see what it can become.

Buena Vista University

This is another small Iowa school, a bit bigger than Upper Iowa and located on the shores of Storm Lake in the NW part of the state.  Here I learned some other things.  They, like others, use canned courses. I was asked to do a reworking of their Psych of Gender course and later their Introductory Psych course, so I got some practical experience in course design out of that.   In fact, Psych of Gender has turned into a mini cash cow in that I do two sections in 3 of the 6 annual terms. And it always draws a lot of students. 

BVU has been through some changes in online administrators and I am not real sure any more who my boss is.  But they like my work and I was named Online Instructor of the Year there for 2012-13.  That was cool.  Like Upper Iowa, the students are largely from Iowa and a couple surrounding states.  I enjoy being there and hope to continue for a long time. 

Ottawa University

Ottawa is a small university in a small town not too far from Topeka.  Just like UIU and BVU, online has provided vital revenues to keep operations going.  They run their online operation from Phoenix, AZ though, where they own a building and offer live classes too.   

They had tolerable faculty training, but by this time I had had enough of those.  But shut up, do what they want and I did and I am still with them entering my 4th year.   They do canned courses, and they are the very best I have seen at any school.   After starting with some of my basic set of course like Social Psych and Abnormal, one night I got an email sent to all faculty asking if anyone would like to teach Statistics.  I said yes but was kind of slow about it and figured somebody else got there first.  Well, seems mine was the only hand that went up.

Why?  Psych students always have to take Stat and they hate it.  Root canals are preferable. Not only do they hate it but I’d been told during my full time years by our stat instructors that they often shoot the messenger:  it’s real hard to get good evaluations from students in Stat.  To a tenured person evaluations don’t matter; but to me as an adjunct, bad evals and I could be looking for work. 

But I found out their online Stat course was superior.  It took students step by step through things.  Most are still math phobic, though, and many had worked hard to avoid ever taking math.  But the job of calming them down and building some confidence was made easier by a wonderful course design. 

While not a statistician, I had published a lot of research over the years and had used most major and a few minor statistical tools in those.  So I brought a kind of “hands on” approach to the course and it has generally gone well. Being a clinical psychologist does not hurt as the anxiety level is always high.

In recent months I’ve moved on to some other courses, and they have been good in honoring my requests to get more courses.  So it’s a good working relationship and another school I enjoy being with.

Troy University

This is my Division I school (that’s sports talk).   Well over 20,000 students on campus and multiple campuses in Alabama and satellite offices through the South.  They were another that liked my credentials and then disappeared.  It was another year before they showed up, apparently after a big reorganization in their online setup. 

I get to build my own courses there and the new thing from Troy is that they pay on the basis of enrollment.  Like a movie theater, it’s by the head.  I make two and three times the money per course than at any other place, on average.  But they got the itch to scramble operations up again and in the last year I have had only 2 classes.  Still, I’m hanging on there and it does not take many classes to yield some good economic returns.

My students there are mostly from southern states.  I love ‘em.  They are highly variable in ability but they try hard and are trying to improve their lives.   I hope I can keep going with Troy.

THE LOSERS

Along the way I have started with some schools but turned in my resignation.  It is not anything wrong with the schools.  Like all of them they do things in their certain way, and their way and my way turned out not to be a good fit.  We parted amiably.  

Grand Canyon University


This is a large Christian college in Arizona.  I did their training in part to see how much their world view might affect course content.  My first course was Human Sexuality, and I figured that could be a good test.  Well, they leave the teaching to the instructor and I was real pleased on that score.  But they put in a rule that students could phone up instructors with questions.  Well I hate phones; I rarely use them, and that sounded grim given my feelings.  On a   professional level, it seemed to me with email that there was easy access to the instructor.  I said aloha because of the phone thing.  Others would not blink at that but it was not what I wanted to do.

Park University

This KC area school has a big online footprint and has had centers in military bases teaching classes for many years.   I got off to a good start with a small class, and the next one was even smaller.  After some inquiries it appeared that there just would not be a whole lot of work for me there.  Perhaps had I hung on things would have improved, but with a lot going on I decided to check out.  Nothing wrong with the school or its rules, just not enough work.

Walden University

All my jobs except this one I got by sending out cold calls and hoping for the best. Walden I got because I knew someone there.  I worked there for about 18 months and things went well.  But as mentioned earlier, for-profit schools, of which Walden is one, have been charged generally with being low quality, so they have responded by upping demands on students,  and on faculty. And like Ashford they assign someone to monitor my work.  Walden is not alone in mandating how many replies to make to student discussion posts, nor in emphasizing the importance of feedback.  I’ve got no problem with that, but the need for more faculty time to meet new demands was not accompanied by more pay---something millions of American workers know all about these days.  But I tried and then my watchers started questioning specific grades to specific students and that indicated to me that I was no longer the person they wanted.  Being micromanaged is not my thing, whether I deserve to be or not.  Again, they had their way and they do a great job, but it got to a point where I no longer fit in.

SUMMARY

I get asked a lot why I do this.  And why, even now, I’m always on the lookout for new schools.  Well, I’m no longer tenured; no longer the 800lb gorilla with the big corner office. The official term is I am a contingent faculty member—whether I work next term is contingent on a variables like enrollment, and a host of others.  In 7 years I’ve seen Ashford go from a cash cow to a sometime place to work.  Troy used to be term after term, but they’ve wobbled in the last year.  Even long time schools, like Upper Iowa and Buena Vista can offer me no work from time to time if enrollments are too low.  So, with pay per course low, a meaningful income requires a stable of schools, and as noted above, some can switch gears and become less desirable.

And what’s the point, since we have a lot of money saved for retirement.  I retired at 55 and this income means we do not yet have to start spending the savings.  The data say at 65, in reasonable health, Sara and I have a better than 50% chance of hitting our mid 80s.  I could be retired for 25 years, maybe more. Just in case I am, earning the money now works for me and saves the savings for later.  If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, Sara gets all those savings. 

Notice I have not mentioned dedication to teaching.  The fact that I’ve been with schools now for 6 and 7 years with steady course offerings indicates I do what they want.  I have never wanted to run the 4 minute mile or get the Nobel Peace Prize.  Good enough, is, well, good enough.