Monday, October 24, 2011

Full-Time Obligation?

The Deseret News has published a rather staid three-day series looking at how Brigham Young University-Idaho is “pushing the boundaries of higher education.” The crux of the series’ focus is best summed up in this paragraph, taken from the series’ first installment:
Over the last decade, the school has morphed from a two-year junior college into a four-year university with an international reach and an enrollment nearing 24,000. The school's focus on students and teaching (over faculty and research), a year-round schedule, innovations in online learning (including the use of remote online instructors), and a program for distance education called Pathway have turned the conventions of higher ed upside down. Within the ivory tower of academia, traditionalists see the school's methods as heretical. Others think the school might be the most innovative thing this side of Harvard.
As will happen, the comment section of the articles have been much more interesting than the articles themselves, and bring to the forefront a question that’s pretty pertinent as the economy continues to struggle: Is BYU-Idaho’s growing reliance on part-time online instructors causing more harm to instructors than good for students?

Full disclosure: I am one of those part-time online instructors at BYU-Idaho. Have been for the past two semesters. I fully admit that my experiences and expectations of this part-time job will color what I say next. But for what it’s worth, I think I’m right.

First, we look at the fundamental question: Is BYU-Idaho obliged to create full-time jobs with benefits? Some commenters on the second installment of the series emphatically insist the answer is yes. By shifting teaching duties to part-time people and by not offering benefits, the university is neglecting those who teach several different online courses at many universities, they say.

I say they have to look back at the reason the university expanded its online offerings in the first place:

[I]n 2008, a novel idea surfaced that would change their approach to online learning. What if the faculty on campus didn't teach the online courses? What if qualified instructors, those with master's or doctorate degrees in relevant disciplines who were out in the workforce taught the classes remotely?
Every class would be offered online, and every student would take an online course. This, more than anything else, would allow the university to expand its enrollment and reach.

"When I first heard about it, I knew it was right," Clark said. "If you looked at the number of courses we wanted and the number of faculty, it just made sense. Our campus faculty were already swamped, and we hired them for their skill and excellence in [classroom] teaching and in developing courses."
Hiring full-time teachers and offering benefits is of benefit to the teacher. But hiring more part-time instructors and not offering benefits keeps costs lower and benefits the students.

So to answer the question: No, BYU-Idaho is not obliged to create full-time jobs with benefits.

I admit I am fortunate that I have this part-time job to go along with my full-time job, which does offer benefits. But up until a month ago, I’d worked (for 5 ½ years) for a company that did not offer benefits. They did offer a stipend I could use to buy my own health insurance, but nothing else.

So why did I get the part-time job, if not for benefits?

Well, the money is nice, I will admit. But more important is the experience. I’m contemplating pursuing a doctorate in professional communication. Finding out if teaching is something I enjoy doing is essential to planning this out. I could think of no better way to get my feet wet in teaching than to get on as an online instructor at BYU-Idaho. So from my point of view, BYU-Idaho’s online program is serving my needs well.

(Update on that post: I’m to talk Friday with the guy in charge of doctorate programs at USU to see if this idea will fly. Not got my hopes up, but I will go in as a wide-eyed optimistic soul with nothing to lose.)

I don’t blame those who are in other employment situations from lamenting that BYU-Idaho is not creating more full-time jobs with benefits, but to claim the university is doing so on the backs of its instructors is spurious. They’re looking for professionals who can fit the bill for their students’ needs.


carl g said...

I'm not sure you're opinion is widely shared. The Chronicle of Higher Education is increasingly flooded with both articles and comments from those who feel that these kinds of practices (treating university instructors like immigrant cabbage pickers) are both immoral and deleterious the quality of higher education. It may be good for you now, but I know you must hope for more than this when you've finished your PhD. And I'm not sure where it takes us when we've made every university into a DeVry extension. But being at BYU Provo, I naturally see research and publication as integral to high-quality instruction.

Mister Fweem said...

If all BYU-Idaho jobs were to become like the one I've got now, I'd have to agree that there would be issues of quality and students not getting the value for their educational dollar. But when the university can find non-academics like me who will teach their basic courses, freeing up their full-time instructors for the higher-level courses and other interests (even though BYU-I is not a research institution) I see the program doing full-time, benefitted instructors some good.