Behind the rhetoric about the brave new world of university education is a dystopia: students who live in their parents’ basements watching pre-recorded and perennially rebroadcast lectures on iPads, who never set foot on campus, and whose “work” (really, pressing the right button on a multiple-choice test) is marked by algorithms.
When talking about the world of online learning, university administrators are fond of noting dramatic cost savings, not least because as a recent opinion piece had it, “less well-paid individuals” can teach some of the courses.
This secondary class of teachers, however, are already teaching most undergraduate classes at North American universities. The vast majority of “professors” in North America are called adjuncts, or contract instructors, or sessionals. According to the American Association of University Professors, only 24 per cent of faculty are tenured or tenure-track, and a recent Canadian study estimated that less than 25 per cent of doctoral students will end up with tenure-track jobs.
I am one of those “less well-paid individuals,” working at Carleton University. I teach two first-year seminars (both two terms long) and, frequently, another course in the summer. I used to receive a supplementary stipend for teaching those intensive courses, but that has been cut due to budgetary constraints. Consequently, my salary will decrease by 25 per cent this year even though I am teaching the exact same course load. In 2012, I was paid $36,783 and received absolutely no benefits at all – just a touch over a tenth of the salary of the university’s president. My colleagues, who are not all so lucky to have received an additional stipend for teaching intensive courses, received at most $38,290 if they taught a “full load” twelve months of the year (that is, two courses in each of the Fall, Winter and Summer semesters).
This is an issue that affects the quality of education that our students receive. We, the contract instructors, do not have permanent employment or guaranteed contracts: Every semester we must re-apply for our jobs, even if we’ve been teaching the same course for a decade or more. Very few institutional resources are extended to us: Many of us do not have offices, access to computers or phones on campus, and, thus, cannot easily meet or co-ordinate with our students. Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions and, to be frank, our working conditions are horrible.
In some departments at Carleton University, more than 50 per cent of the undergraduate courses are taught by contract instructors and it is possible for students to graduate without ever taking a course with a tenure-track or tenured professor. When parents send their children to university, they do not expect their children to be taught by people living paycheque to paycheque.
What is not frequently mentioned in the praise of online courses is the completion rate. CS50x Introduction to Computer Science I, Harvard’s largest online course, had an enrollment of 150,349 students. Of those 150,349 students, only 1388 of them completed the course. That is a completion rate of 0.9 per cent. If my courses had a completion rate of 0.9 per cent, I would have been fired long ago –- and justly so. Fortunately, the completion rates for my courses are well higher than that, often above 90 per cent. And almost 100 per cent of the students who took the on-campus version of Harvard’s computer course finished it.
We – those of us who spend time in the classroom teaching undergraduates – know what works and what does not work. We know that, regardless of technological novelties, the larger the class is, the less the student is engaged in the material. We know that the less the student is engaged in the material, the less they will learn and the poorer they will perform. We know that smaller classes, taught by eager professors, who are able to challenge students and treat them as “thinkers” and not merely as “clients” or “users” will ultimately produce the best results.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Campus Life looks at issues affecting students, teachers and faculty in the education system.