Metro

Adjuncts help colleges expand their online programs

For adjunct online professors such as Gail Bloom, who teaches health policy from her home via the Internet, the scheduling and other logistics can at times appear to be daunting.
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
For adjunct online professors such as Gail Bloom, who teaches health policy from her home via the Internet, the scheduling and other logistics can at times appear to be daunting.

Gail Bloom’s health policy classroom is a cozy office on the second floor of her Andover home, decorated with Donald Duck candy dispensers and her son’s preschool artwork.

Her students are scattered on military bases in Germany, in hospitals in Texas, or in cities in Africa.

Her bosses, more often than not, are hundreds of miles away on college campuses in Washington, D.C., or Ohio and are rarely seen.

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Adjunct professors such as Bloom have always had to hustle from one college campus to another, stringing together a series of part-time teaching gigs to earn a living. But as universities across the country expand their distance-learning courses, hoping to draw more students and boost their revenue, adjuncts are increasingly fueling the move of classes from on-campus to online.

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This is the life of a virtual adjunct professor: Teaching is done online, students and instructors are connected by e-mail, and a laptop with a camera is as essential as a textbook.

“My office door is always open,” said Bloom, who is currently teaching for George Washington University and preparing to start a course for Ohio University in the coming weeks. In the past, she has also worked for Salem State University.

“I’m only an e-mail away,” she said.

The portion of online courses taught by adjunct faculty — part-time professors who don’t receive benefits and aren’t on the tenure track — is increasingly significant, said Andrew Magda, manager for market research at Learning House Inc., an education technology company.

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Magda coauthored a report on online adjuncts in 2015 that urged universities to start tackling the challenges that come with relying on a part-time workforce based remotely. That includes how to evaluate their teaching skills and what kind of professional training to provide.

“They’re being brought in to create a syllabus, to design the course, to teach the course,” Magda said. “They’re contributing at this heavy level to the institution.”

Some of the country’s largest online institutions, including the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, hire adjuncts primarily to teach their courses. And even traditional brick-and-mortar colleges lean on adjuncts to power their online efforts, usually for graduate-level classes.

Brandeis University’s graduate professional studies program, which offers 11 master’s degrees, is taught entirely online by about 90 adjunct faculty. Simmons College, which increased the number of graduate students taking exclusively online courses from about 110 in 2012 to 1,535 in 2015, according to federal data, primarily advertises for adjuncts for its instructional staff. The same is true for many other universities.

Experts expect online offerings at Boston-area colleges to expand further when the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education votes later this month to sign on to an interstate regulatory agreement for such programs. The agreement would allow Massachusetts colleges to market to and enroll students from across the country in online classes without seeking approval from individual state regulators and without having a bricks-and-mortar location in the state.

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Out-of-state colleges and universities would also be able to enroll Massachusetts students in their online programs.

While colleges operate their online programs differently — some develop programs, recruit students, and hire faculty directly, while others outsource that work — the reliance on part-time faculty mirrors a broader trend.

Adjunct professors already make up one-third to two-thirds of the faculty at Boston-area colleges and are paid $3,000 to nearly $7,000 to teach a course, depending on the institution, the course, and the experience of the professor, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which tracks the data.

Online adjuncts are paid similarly.

Adjuncts give colleges more flexibility in scheduling classes and can help cut costs. At Brandeis, tenured professors are busy doing research and teaching their campus classes, making it difficult to add an online course to their workload, said Karen Muncaster, vice president of the Rabb School of Continuing Studies, which oversees the online graduate program.

Brandeis tries to hire professors “actively engaged in the field,” Muncaster said. “These are programs that are emerging all the time, and we’re looking for folks who are leading in the field.”

But many of the same problems that have dogged adjuncts in campus settings follow them online, said Amy Todd, a University of Massachusetts Boston full-time lecturer who has helped unionize adjuncts at local campuses.

The low pay and last-minute decisions by universities to cancel classes if too few students enroll can leave adjuncts — on-campus or online — struggling to balance their household budgets, Todd said.

For Bloom, the uncertainty of knowing how many courses she will be teaching from one semester to another can make it difficult to plan for her own expenses, including paying her son’s college tuition.

It helps that her husband also works, Bloom said.

“I learned how to make a dollar stretch long ago,” Bloom said. “For me, the stress is a bigger issue.”

There’s another reason these last-minute cancellations are particularly irksome for online adjuncts: Many do the heavy preparation before the class even starts. They have to get the materials posted online, organize the class schedule, and ensure that the class website is updated and looks accessible to students.

Much of the work is computer-based. For Bloom, for example, the school week starts on a Monday when she posts questions for students. Their first answers are due Thursday by midnight, and responses from classmates to those answers must be in by midnight Tuesday.

Then adjuncts say they have to grade weekly assignments, answer and post general questions students may have about the assignment, give the occasional video lecture, and write letters of recommendation for past students. They usually try to respond to students within 24 hours.

Logistical problems can also eat away their time, whether it’s Googling how to solve a computer glitch, chatting on the phone with the university tech support, or trying to figure out how to get a particular textbook delivered to a student in a remote location.

“Teaching an online class is like teaching an on-campus class, but you’re responsible for the cleaning, the lights, too,” said Todd, who also teaches online in the summer.

Online adjuncts also have to deal with the isolation of teaching remotely, far from other faculty, missing hallway gossip and water-cooler chatter.

Cynthia Phillips, an online adjunct for Brandeis and the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, said she enjoys being able to teach online even while she’s traveling on vacation. In some ways, the student interaction can be more in-depth, because grades are based on their on-line interaction and postings, forcing students to take part in discussions instead of simply lurking in the back of the classroom. But Phillips said she does miss the camaraderie with faculty.

“What I miss more than the classroom interaction is the interaction with colleagues,” said Phillips, who lives in Marblehead and teaches information technology courses. “I would like to see more regular faculty meetings, even if it’s done online.”

Colleges are still navigating the challenges of expanding their virtual classrooms, said Magda, with the Learning House.

They are trying to figure out how much training to provide online adjuncts, whether the course materials these professors develop belong to the university or the professor, and how to create communities when so many instructors are far from the main campus, he said.

“This is an area that is continuing to evolve,” Magda said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.