A Conversation on Distance Education (DE) Workload and Quality Instruction

Mt. San Jacinto College
Technology Committee Chair

At the Fall 2006 Plenary Session, the Technology Committee held a breakout to discuss various issues surrounding the percentage of load instructors were permitted to teach online and class size in distance education (DE) sections. Some questions and observations were presented in order to initiate a discussion. As was suspected, limits on how many DE sections someone could teach (where such limits existed) varied wildly across the state, ranging from 20% to 100%, Some colleges have limits codified in their bargained contracts; some had never even broached the topic. In the plenary session discussion, many issues that determine the quality of our distance education programs were brought up that were related to this load question.

Some of the considerations posed in the session were as follows:

? Teaching DE will take more of the faculty's time than teaching face-to-face.
? Full-time faculty teaching 100% online will have limited time for involvement in on-campus activities, particularly participatory governance.
? Administrators may chase FTE by making faculty teach 100% or more online.
? Administrators may chase FTE by making faculty increase class sizes.
? Poor teachers may want to "hide" in online courses.
? Teachers wanting to escape campus and/or trying to collect large salaries will try to be 100% or more online and do it as correspondence rather than "virtual equivalent" courses.
? How to maintain regular effective contact when there are too many students to stay in one-on-one contact with.
? Only faculty who are properly trained should be able to teach 100% DE.
Issues of overload and class size need to be examined.

A related question is the issue of quality instruction and how load may impact that quality. In Title 5 sections relating to DE there are two mandates that relate to what ultimately is our bottom line, doing what is best for students. The first item is "virtual equivalent" and the second is "regular effective contact". Essentially the rigor and integrity that are unique to the California community colleges must be maintained in our DE courses and programs. So, providing quality education for students is our highest priority.

The effect of Title 5 regulations regarding course quality standards (55207), course quality determinations (55209) and faculty selection (55215) is summarized in the System Office Distance Education Regulations and Guidelines (CCCCO 2004) by the statement that our DE courses must be the "virtual equivalent" of our face-to-face courses. Many often misinterpret this to mean that DE is exactly the same as face-to-face and should never be treated differently; therefore it is inappropriate to impose different standards on DE instructors. While the reality is that the objectives and content of DE courses remain the same as their face-to-face counterparts, the methods of instruction and methods of evaluation usually are different. How we teach online is particularly very different and usually requires a unique approach, with extended skill sets that differ from the ones needed for face-to-face teaching.

The day-to-day interaction with students is also different.

In a DE environment, there are far fewer opportunities to reach the class as a whole. In the asynchronous world of an online course, questions from students are most often posed and addressed individually.

That one-to-one interaction is not only a fact of life in the world of DE, it is mandated by the Title 5 Regulation phrase "Regular Effective Contact" (55211). While this contact is loosely defined in the Distance Education Regulations and Guidelines, these guidelines do recommend that the college more clearly define what regular effective contact is. In particular 55211 states that regular effective contact is an academic and professional matter for the purposes of collegial consultation. A natural place for this policy definition to occur is in local curriculum committees. That definition should then be used in the mandatory separate course review and approval(55213).

The potential for various types of abuse that threaten the quality and standing of our DE courses looms large on the DE horizon. Administrators who are hard pressed to produce increases in FTE levels may find it difficult to resist the temptation to increase DE offerings without considerable safeguards that ensure quality. It has been reported that some faculty members are teaching in excess of 200% online. While these are anomalies, there is concern that without strong local senate involvement, DE courses can become correspondence courses that negate the idea of virtual equivalent, and run counter to Title 5 Regulations for DE. In other words, they take a college out of compliance with both regulations and accreditation standards.

Abuse by unscrupulous faculty members is also a definite possibility. When they develop courses that "run themselves" and/or include a large dependency on publisher created materials, then the ability of a faculty member to "monitor" large numbers of courses is possible. The potential for reducing the quality interaction of teacher and student for monetary gain is a big one. And it is a force that has mutual motivation among faculty, administrators and students in the respective forms of more pay, more FTES, and easier courses.

So, how do we ensure that our system provides quality instruction in distance education?

? Begin by establishing a regular effective contact policy at the local level that stipulates what form and with what regularity instructor/student contact takes place,

? Ensure faculty involvement at the curriculum level and in governance committees that address DE in the determination of class size maximums for online courses.

? Establish mechanisms to ensure that faculty members are trained in how to teach online prior to making a commitment to do so. It is imperative that curriculum approval processes ".ensure that all modalities and delivery methods of instruction meet the same high standards without regard to the mix of such delivery.ensure that local processes support and promote high quality, academic rigor, and integrity of California community college courses regardless of the delivery methods being used.ensure that their local processes support and promote high quality, academic rigor, and integrity of their courses by implementing a curricular review of all courses with delivery methods that regularly replace face-to-face time with an alternative mode of delivery, regardless of the percentage of face-to-face time being replaced." (Resolution F.06 11.02)

In summary, the attendees at this breakout were unanimous in agreeing that the issues of DE workload and class size were local issues to be solved through open transparent collegial consultation and negotiation between the local senates, the administration and the bargaining agents as appropriate. They were clear that while self-imposed limits may or may not be necessary, our primary obligation is to our students. If there are any benefits to the faculty or the institution as a result of teaching at a distance with various class sizes these are secondary and should never mitigate our primary obligation to sustaining quality.