The future of online education: Invest in your adjuncts


Picture it: a college basement adjunct lounge, 2017. In four years, I never saw anyone be able to print anything from the printer. There was a random toy castle on one of the shelves — it’s been there longer than I was, and no one seemed to know why there was a toy castle in the English department’s adjunct office.

Prior to becoming an instructional designer, I had been an adjunct instructor for about seven years. I worked at 10 to 15 different schools, and I had a retirement fund totaling only $3,000.

Adjuncts are often limited to only a few classes per institution per semester, causing them to travel from campus to campus like a 1950s vacuum salesperson. These nomadic instructors tend to collect classes like Pokémon cards in an attempt to stack opportunities and income.

Editor’s note: The Instructional Technology Council continues its series of articles focusing on the anticipated impact of distance learning over the next 10 years.

We are the fast and furious of higher education, we live life four months at a time, and the race for employment never ends. It is time for higher education to use the growth on online education to reevaluate its relationships with adjunct instructors.

The problem of practice

Money and stability are usually the main concerns for adjunct instructors, but also the chaotic environment can affect mental well-being. Between dungeons and computer labs, many have long commutes between campuses, causing some to figuratively live out of their car.

Meanwhile, there have been some narratives in the news media of instructors literally living out of their cars due to a lack of ability and income. In 2016, instructor Mary-Faith Cerasoli’s story caught the attention of the media. Known as the “Homeless Prof,” Cerasoli taught romance languages and prepared her courses in friends’ apartments where she could crash on a couch, or in her car when the friends couldn’t take her in. When a student asked to meet with her during office hours, she would respond, “Sure, it’s the Pontiac Vibe parked on Stewart Avenue.”

A 2014 New York Times editorial referred to adjunct instructors as “invisible” and “bolt after class” and pointed out “they are treated almost like transient workers, they are given little reason to make an investment in the institution.” While income and environment can be considered individual stress factors, the bigger picture is that this will directly affect the relationship instructors will be able to build with students.

We are not bolting from campus because we lack investment in the institution, but rather logistics and traffic. Here are two pre-pandemic narratives to show how much adjunct instructors are willing to sacrifice to stay in a field that can refer to them as “transient.”

Time for a paradigm shift

While education the education landscape has drastically changed since Cerasoli’s narrative made headlines (and I hung out in a dungeon), there has not been much progress for adjuncts. You may assume that individuals who are used to chaos and home offices were well prepared for the pandemic, but for those who relied on classroom technology and campus wi-fi it became a real struggle. Adjuncts are not provided the same tools and finances as full-time faculty; the outdated computer that could handle student emails between classes didn’t work well for Zoom classes. STEM instructors who relied on in-class whiteboards to show the workings of equations had to seek virtual whiteboards and not everyone was able to afford the latest touchscreen laptop or iPad. Prices for iPads start at $450, now compare that cost to the average community college adjunct contract. This created an inconsistent student experience between classes and courses.

As we move to a hopefully post-pandemic future in distance education, institutions should reexamine their relationships with adjunct instructors. If 80% of your workforce struggles emotionally and financially but will still dedicate themselves to your students, it’s time to support them better. Online courses are the ideal opportunity to shift the paradigm of adjunct relationships. Online courses expand the pool of potential instructors since you are no longer tied to the county or community; build a diverse and talented team of instructors who take pride in their work and their institution.

Technology, tech support and training

If colleges are able to provide consistent technology to full-time and adjunct instructors, it will create more consistent student experiences. Not to mention that tech support for devices and users will become more streamlined since this will minimize the guesswork of determining device and operating system issues. Consistency in the classroom also relies on increasing consistency and perhaps requiring training on the tools the administration has adopted for class modalities.

Unfortunately, it is ultimately up to colleges to reexamine how they will treat adjuncts. Many colleges are trying to make strides by offering year-long contracts or three-fourths-of-a-year positions. The people who work with adjuncts daily like department heads and administrative staff understand what we go through, but until the system changes, we will continue to pack up our free conference tote bags with dog-eared textbooks, overused USB drives filled with PowerPoints and shuffle off from school to school.

About the Author

Brooke Litten
Dr. Brooke Litten is an instructional designer for Rowan College of South Jersey and the Northeast regional representative for the Instructional Technology Council. Along with working as an instructional designer, Litten teaches critical thinking online with Mercy College and first-year writing courses at various New Jersey community colleges.
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