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Editor’s Note
: Alternative education methods involving virtual learning led to controversy among faculty, administrators, and researchers. Many saw it as the end of an era, others as an attack on academe as we know it. Research continued to assert the value distance learning as an alternative paradigm for teaching and learning. The predominant growth in higher education for the past decade has been in distance learning as a supplement to, rather than a replacement of, traditional face-to-face instruction. The stages of transition are made evident by this paper which identifies unsolved problems related to faculty.

The Invisible Professor and the Future of Virtual Faculty

Martha C. Sammons, Stephen Ruth

faculty online learning distance education motivating future workload responsibilities invisible


The Sloan Consortium’s latest report, (“Making the Grade: Online Education in the United States 2006”) estimates that 850,000 more students took online courses in fall 2005 than 2004, an increase of almost 40 percent. Although the online teaching continues to grow in popularity, it places greater demands on faculty than traditional courses. The Sloan report found that this problem exists at all levels of postsecondary education, from doctoral-granting institutions to community colleges. A significant number of full-time professors are thus understandably reluctant to participate in distance learning, and faculty questions about online teaching continue. Traditional professors are disappearing from online classrooms as distance learning has altered their roles and responsibilities, as well as their professional status, job security, workload, rewards, and intellectual freedom. This article delineates some of the most significant challenges and suggests that distance learning has created new questions about the future of virtual faculty.

The Motivated Professor

Over the past decade, there have been numerous studies, articles, and presentations about faculty attitudes toward distance learning. Some researchers categorize resistance factors as intrinsic (challenge, keeping up with technology, acceptance, etc.) and extrinsic (time, money, scheduling, flexibility, etc.).

Parker’s (2003) analysis of over one hundred articles concludes that faculty generally teach in distance education programs for the same incentives that they teach traditional courses: for intrinsic rewards. This study identifies the intrinsic rewards as self-satisfaction, flexible scheduling and wider audience. Other reported motivators are reaching non-traditional students, developing new ideas, using technology, being intellectually challenged, growing personally and professionally, improving teaching, and building one’s own credentials (Wolcott and Betts, 1999). Intrinsic benefits can even include simple things like public recognition and notes of appreciation (Bower 2001; Clay 1999).

The obvious extrinsic rewards include stipends, decreased workload, release time and new technology. Maguire (2005) argues that if the necessary extrinsic and institutional factors are in place, then intrinsic deterrents may be less influential. Intrinsic factors may also be outweighed by social pressures (institutional, peer, student, and community), which either support or deter participation in distance education.

The Unmotivated Professor

Given the potential rewards, why do faculty continue to resist online teaching? Credit toward promotion and tenure and lack of financial and other rewards have been mentioned for years as key factors affecting faculty participation in distance learning. One major barrier is interference with promotion and tenure and lack of recognition from both administrators and peers (Betts 1998; Lee 2001; Rockwell et. al. 1999; Wilson 1998; Shell 2004). Time spent in developing distance learning courses is time not spent on other professional activities needed to receive tenure. The greatest pressures are often placed on the most vulnerable faculty, untenured or adjuncts. Non-tenured faculty seldom get credit for tenure for teaching distance education courses but most often are recruited or required to teach them (American Association of Higher Education 2001; Arnone 2002; Bower 2001; Kiernan 2000).

Monetary rewards (salary increases, stipends, overload pay, grants) are another key motivator to teach online (Betts 1998; Bonk 2001; Jones and Moller 2002; Rockwell et. al. 1999; Schifter 2000, 2002). As new ways of calculating faculty roles in courses are developed, pay may become even more murky. Also, compensation differs depending on whether faculty are tenured or non-tenured and whether the school is a community college or four-year university. (American Association of Higher Education 2001; Frakt and Castnagera 2000; Southeast Missouri State 2002). A lower the status school or teacher correlates with lower compensation. Several studies confirm the obvious: universities that offer stipends, course release-time, money, and credit towards tenure seem to enlist and retain faculty better than universities that offer only intrinsic rewards (Beggs 2000; Bower 2001; McKenzie 2000; Southeast Missouri State 2002).
There are other ways to reward faculty. Compensation for course development can include computer hardware and software, royalties, and additional payments, such as overload compensation or payments based on enrollments (Betts 1998; Southeast Missouri State 2002).

Besides financial incentives such as salary adjustments, merit pay, and continuing education stipends, other extrinsic rewards can include release time, limited enrollments, parking, and student assistance in the form of teaching aids and the like (McKenzie 2000; Clay 1999).

The 24/7 Professor

Compensation in the form of salary and promotion and tenure are usually related to workload. Technology changes faculty roles because it redefines the scope of faculty workload and responsibilities. It is not surprising that after the need for more student discipline, the second most significant barrier reported by Chief Academic Officers in the newest Sloan Report was that faculty need greater time and effort to teach online. An NEA survey (2000) similarly concluded that faculty members’ top concern about distance education is that they will do more work for the same amount of pay. The study found that most faculty members spend more time on their distance courses than they do on traditional courses, and 84 percent of them do not get a reduced workload. In addition, 63 percent of distance faculty members receive no extra compensation for their distance courses. So the new 24/7 professors who is dragged from a traditional classroom into cyberspace may not be able to adjust.

There is conflicting opinion about the workload for online course teaching compared to face-to-face. The time needed to teach online courses may vary according to factors such as content area, type and level of course, course design, and a variety of student factors such as graduate and undergraduate levels (Lazarus 2003). In some studies one distance learning course is estimated at least 1.5 to 2 times the coursework of a traditional classroom class (Southeast Missouri State University 2002, Cavanaugh 2005). Faculty can ease into online instruction by offering hybrid courses that combine both online materials and classroom instruction. They can also set more realistic standards and guidelines for their courses, thus reducing the workload barrier.

Time requirements are difficult to measure, as they are dependent on the subject, number of students, instructor skills, type of technologies used in the course, and course quality, but the clear finding is that for most full timers the conversion to online mode is a significant user of previously discretionary time. Regardless of whether the workload actually increases, certainly the pace of work and the working style change. The time spent teaching online may not actually be greater, but the "chunking" or flow of tasks online is different. For example, there is a large amount of development time required up-front, then bursts of work to answer e-mails, run discussion, and download and send back assignments. This change results in a sense of less productive time available for other professional responsibilities (Thompson 2004). There are exceptions. McKenzie found that some faculty are motivated to teach online because of the increased flexibility in schedule (2000).

It takes considerable time to develop a course, especially the first course, and repeated delivery of the same online course still requires extensive preparation time. Several studies have shown that online courses take considerably more preparation and delivery time than traditional approaches because of required activities like revising and converting course content, organizing and uploading course materials, practicing with user interfaces, etc. (Boettcher 2004; Pachnowski and Jurczyk 2003). Numerous surveys show higher levels of work for online vs. face-to-face courses, with several additional hours a day spent online answering student questions and responding to comments, extensive logging on, e-mailing and downloading/sending of student assignments, and problem-solving (Thoms 2005; Sharpe 2005).

Communication, interactivity, and feedback are additional challenges in online teaching. Online courses require constant monitoring and quick response time. An article in the “Chronicle of Higher Education” (Young 2002) appropriately called “The 24-Hour Professor” raises key issues about faculty response time. The need for rapid response may keep professors away from online teaching, fearful of being chained to their computers. Because written communication is the chief mode of activity in an online course, the new teacher must be prepared to budget the proper amount of time required. Reading comments and responding to discussion take longer than verbal communication. Because distance learning students are usually not able to ask their teachers questions in class, materials must be clearer and more specific.


New modes of communication and interaction have contributed even more to alter the traditional teaching environment. Feelings of isolation may affect instructor satisfaction, motivation, and potential long-term involvement in distance learning (Childers and Berner 2000). Faculty may also lose what they like most: interacting with students face-to-face; they are invisible to students, lost behind a computer interface and relying only on electronic communication. On the other hand, faculty members new to online teaching often report being overwhelmed by increased interaction levels (Shea 2005).

There seems to be a gradual paradigm shift occurring from faculty as content/information providers to facilitators/mentors/coaches and from teacher-oriented to learner-centered pedagogy. As more faculty become virtual, their classrooms have become “learning spaces.” For many, the prospect of offering student-centered teaching in an online environment may be intimidating. Distance learning violates the instructor’s “identity as a professor and expert, a source of knowledge and information, and a performer at the classroom lectern. It may also explain why faculty research into using the web must deal with more issues than whether students learned as much as in another setting; in other words, faculty must spend substantial time understanding and adjusting their identities in order to see the usefulness of web-based instruction” (Meyer 2004).

Because they already are successful teachers and scholars, many full time faculty members simply do not see the need to change their teaching methods or add to their workloads by learning new skills. Collaborative learning activities differ significantly from traditional classroom interaction. Teaching online also requires different approaches than face-to-face and also uses different skills, many of which could be classified as “technical” and far beyond simply posting lectures and a syllabus on a Web site. Smith (2005) identifies and describes over fifty unique competencies needed by online instructors.

Computer Geek

Even if they have basic technology skills or are adept instructors, many professors are not experts enough with computers to master the software and design and develop an online course. Technology has always been a barrier to online teaching. Once faculty learn the basics, continued training and course enhancement are required. Not only do course management systems change (for example, the merger of WebCT and BlackBoard), but also new technologies continually emerge, such as mobile computing, new uses of audio and video, Podcasts, live conferencing, e-books, and Weblogs. Faculty may also need to learn to use asynchronous and synchronous tools more effectively. Training must include best practices both technological and pedagogical. For example, learner-centered design, and collaborative learning techniques have impacted attitudes about how distance learning should be structured. In fact, many universities now offer distance learning certification programs for faculty (Riedinger and Rosenberg 2006).

All of this training requires adequate technical support. One of the most frequently mentioned barriers to online teaching is inadequate technical support and faculty often feel abandoned to solve technical issues themselves. Planning should include adequate support resources (Shea 2005) including support staff, training materials, facilities, computer hardware and software. Support for faculty requires varied methods of training, forums, peer mentors, quality instructional materials, instructional design, and templates to ease development. Once again, rewards and time are factors often unrecognized. Many institutions offer excellent resources, training and updating skills, but this still takes faculty time that could be used for other pursuits.

Technology Trainer

Successful online faculty may themselves be thrust into training roles. For example, peer support is a key factor and integral to successful development programs because it motivates participation (Bonk 2001; Hanson 2003). Faculty expect their peers to showcase distance education technologies and share their online experiences (Chizmar and Williams 2001). Thus forums, round tables, and mentoring programs are recommended to allow veteran faculty to share experiences with novices (Rose and Collison 1997; Shea 2005).

A more drastic example of training and managerial roles for faculty is found at Rio Solado Community College in Arizona, which teaches extensively at a distance. Rio Salado has a student body of over 50,000, yet employs 37 adjuncts for every full-time professor, a ratio of 2.7 percent. Most full-time instructors are responsible for hiring, training, and evaluating the adjuncts in their fields. Full-time faculty members are also responsible for developing content for courses in their field. Courses are standardized, so that each adjunct teaches the same material and administers the same tests. Because of demands on their time, most ull-time faculty members teach only one course at a time, so the bulk of the teaching falls to the 1,000 or so adjuncts that the college employs (Ashburn 2006).

Team Player or Lone Ranger

The faculty member’s role and workload may depend on the model used to organize distance learning programs, including the use of resources and method of course development. In each model, faculty have a different role. For example, in many institutions, faculty may be responsible for developing their own courses; often called the “Lone Ranger” approach. Some institutions recommend development of easy-to-use course templates to make development easier. In others, faculty may work with design teams, peers, or students. A recent study found that the team approach is crucial in course development (Oblinger 2006).

Faculty who are less adept at using technology often depend on teams with expertise not required in traditional delivery. For example, as faculty develop their online courses, they may need course templates, computers and software, and work with peers, experts and students. Team members have various titles, such as “Web specialist.” “instructional designer,” or “online coordinator.”

A term used to describe this approach is “unbundling” faculty roles (Paulson 2002). In a traditional model, a faculty member is responsible for both technology-based and competency-based functions. Unbundling separates and reallocates instructional activities like design, development, delivery, mediation, assessment, etc. to the appropriate professionals, such as content experts, instructional designers, technology specialists, and adjuncts, teaching assistants and graduate students. Faculty are involved in a limited way in the process, specializing in what they are good at, such as curriculum design, preparation of materials, lecturing, facilitating, and assessment. Unbundling roles may help assign costs to distinct components of instruction and improve both cost and quality. On the other hand, the faculty member may feel loss of control in the development and delivery process and even their own content and teaching materials.

Course Content Developer or Owner

Once faculty play only specific roles in course development, the question is what happens to the course content, and who owns it? Faculty reliance on teams of developers and programmers or separation from their own course materials raises concerns about copyright, fair use policies, intellectual property, piracy and problems with hackers and viruses. Some faculty may find that the IT experts who provide technical support tend to dictate what features should be used and care little about course content (Rothfork 2005). In addition, faculty may unknowingly give up ownership of their course materials. As a result, there have been several proposals for working out ownership issues (Donohue 2005), including the American Association of University Professors’ “Distance Education and Intellectual Property Issues” statement (April 2005). Non-traditional and for-profit schools are minimally concerned with this issue because many of their courses offer considerable teaching material to the professors beforehand to reduce required preparation time. This factor, combined with outstanding technical resources, makes developing learning materials less controversial. The University of Phoenix, for example, requires faculty to take an in-depth training program, followed by work with a mentor. Like other large online institutions, they primarily use standardized course materials (Jaschik 2005).

Other solutions are less drastic. Flexible course designs that encourage high levels of interaction with and between students, coupled with faculty development to support implementation, are likely to increase interaction and faculty satisfaction (Shea 2005). While reliance on prepared online templates, instructional design teams, and teaching assistants is another solution, not every school uses this model or offers such services.

Well-known examples of shared resources include MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) and the increasing number of prepared online materials and “e-Packs” sold by textbook publishers and companies like WebCT. An emerging trend is use of Reusable Learning Objects (RLOs). Learning objects—digital resources that can be reused to mediate learning—are housed in a database that can be accessed to support customized learning for groups and individuals. This solution can potentially not only save time and money but also reduce the “Lone Ranger” approach of faculty who design courses in isolation. The new Common Cartridge specifications and standards commonly agreed to by the IMS Global Learning Consortium will allow digitally produced content such as textbook supplements or faculty-produced course add-ons to be integrated in any course management system (Lederman 2006).

Sharing e-learning materials across educational institutions can reduce development time and the number of on-campus teachers. Some colleges—especially community colleges—now buy or swap online course materials developed at other institutions (Carnevale 2004). Experts in their fields may be videotaped so that their lectures can be used at multiple sites or universities. The sharing of courses is attractive to state legislatures as a way of spreading the university’s scarce resources, but it is laden with financial, legal and administrative problems.

The Part-Timer

Full-time faculty who are uncomfortable with distance learning will inevitably be replaced by adjuncts who are comfortable using this technology. The just released Contingent Faculty Index confirms that at thousands of colleges, most professors are called “invisible faculty”—off the tenure track (Jacobe 2006). The most significant role in distance education, in terms of numbers represented, is thus the part-time faculty member. There are many terms used for this versatile teacher: temp, permatemp, adjunct, etc. The key difference between the part timer and the full timer, whether the venue is a community college or a top level, doctorate-granting university, is the possibility of being able to teach for life. About half the full-time faculty have tenure, and the rest are on some path toward tenure that gives them six or seven years to qualify. Colleges and universities depend on core instructors to determine content and to deliver the courses, as well as to validate the quality of online programs, but only half the faculty in post secondary education are full-time employees. The half million part timers in post secondary education are not in it for the money. The pay in most cases is low, often approaching the US norms for poverty (AAUP). Part timers receive per-course salaries about one half to one-fifth of their full time colleagues. And the disparity only begins with pay. Very few part timers have offices, phones, administrative support and the other perquisites that give a sense of belonging. According to the most recent Sloan Consortium study, over half of online courses at thousands of US colleges are taught by core (full-time) faculty. This Sloan finding is offset by several mega institutions like Universities of Phoenix that have less than one percent of their teaching staff as full time.

As enrollment in e-learning grows, the part timer will become even more crucial. If the number of online students rises from 3 million now to, say, 6 million in a few years—it won’t take long since 850,000 new on line students were added in 2005 alone—there will be a need for tens of thousands of part-time faculty members willing and able to teach at distance. However, quality programs will depend on quality faculty who are both supported and rewarded.

The question remains about whether quality is sacrificed. Many faculty still are concerned about lack of research supporting the effectiveness of distance education. They are also concerned about evaluating student outcomes and distance learning courses and programs, testing and monitoring identity, appropriate subject areas for online courses, and potential adverse effects of relying on adjuncts. There are literally thousands of studies of the results of distance learning. Nearly all focus on a relatively focused student domain in the same institution, as a class, a group of courses, the use of teaching software, etc. The results of these studies, however, are predominantly positive, indicating that is no significant difference between the target group and the distance learning group. Thomas L. Russell's The No Significant Difference Phenomenon reports large numbers of these studies, but he suggests that it may not be appropriate to extend these results to broader populations.


As post-secondary education gradually reduces the percentage of full-time to part-time instructors, some full-time faculty jobs may be threatened The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) considers “virtual learning nothing more than a scheme to eliminate much of the teaching faculty” (Maeroff 2003; AAUP’s “Statement on Distance Education”). The AAUP Special Committee on Distance Education and Intellectual Property Issues has thus found it necessary to issue suggestions and guidelines for distance education policies and contract language, including working conditions, workload, compensation, technical support, and intellectual property.

There have been additional concerns about the concept of using design teams or “unbundling” roles. One is that it removes students from faculty content experts (Perley 1999). Another is the significant question of intellectual property rights (Ubell 2001). There is a danger that faculty who conceive and design a course may be “deprofessionalized,” that is, separated from any potential revenues because of the many other contributors in the unbundled process (Benton, 2005). Even more threatening is the idea that an instructor is completely separated from the student because of the availability of online products that are increasingly capable of presenting some of the course work. Faculty members may even develop courses but not actually teach them. As Chisolm put it, “faculty who use commercial course management software become almost invisible. . . This invisibility contributes to the illusion that the twenty-first century instructor is a generic, easily replaceable part in a larger Automated Education Machine” (2006).

The increasing popularity of distance learning will create a need for more faculty to teach online courses. Many full-time faculty have continued to resist changing their teaching methods due to issues of rewards and increased workload. The issue of faculty acceptance of online education continues to be important for academic leaders because it affects the success of online programs. At the same time, the profile of “who will be an effective online instructor” continues to change with new theories about effective online learning.

New models for course development and quality have resulted in new definitions for what is the ideal virtual faculty member. Program accreditation relies on both course quality and faculty credentials, yet it is increasingly evident that not all full-time faculty are suited for distance learning “spaces.” Extensive training, development, and teaching time are required but often invisible to administrators. Using large numbers of adjuncts creates management, training, and quality issues. Once courses are developed and “packaged,” will traditional faculty even be necessary? As the roles of faculty are redefined, will jobs be threatened, or will virtual faculty teach at multiple universities at once? Distance education is no doubt contributing to the restructuring of faculty roles, demographics, and positions.


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About the Authors

Martha C. Sammons is Professor of English at Wright State University, where she has taught since 1975. Her publications include The Internet Writer's Handbook, Document Design for Writers, as well as articles on teaching with technology. She has taught seven online courses, including writing for the Web, online documentation, desktop publishing, and technical writing and has worked as a contract technical writer and consultant in several area industries.

Dr. Martha C. Sammons
Professor of English|
Wright State University
Dayton OH


Stephen R. Ruth is Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, and director of the International Center for Applied Studies in Information Technology (ICASIT). His research interests are focused on the problems of strategic planning associated with leveraging the use of information technology in large organizations, with particular emphasis on the effect of knowledge management policies on the work of dispersed teams. As director of ICASIT, Ruth has received grant and contract awards totaling nearly $4 million and has also served as associate director of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s $2 million Internet Technology Innovation Center. He is author or co-author of over one hundred published articles and four books.

Dr. Stephen Ruth
Professor of Public Policy and Director of the International Center
for Applied Studies in Information Technology
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA


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