Teachers who walk the walk or talk the talk?

Instructors play a tremendous role in shaping students’ experience in both face-to-face classrooms and online courses. Some institutions offering online degrees or certificates primarily employ part-time faculty who teach as a sideline to their professional career. Full-time teachers instruct at other schools.

So as you choose among programs, you will have to ask yourself, “Will I benefit more from professionals who teach or professional teachers?”

What teaching style does your college prefer?

“An effective teacher is one who can connect to the students and engage them in learning the material,” says Kathy Coiner, MS, a psychology instructor at Scott Community College in eastern Iowa.

A recent study of for-profit college and university faculties by Vicente Lechuga, Who Are They? What Do They Do?, pointed out that different institutions — all of them offering online degrees — hire different faculty.

Liberal arts colleges and community colleges require expert teaching skills, while big research universities require faculty to emphasize research and publication over teaching. More than 90% of faculty at the big for-profit schools, Lechuga found, are part-timers who work in their discipline. That number reflects a belief that faculty with practical experience might be able to better engage students.

Practical experience improves class content

Keri Heitner, Ph.D., is a full-time research psychologist in Amherst, Mass. She is also Associate Faculty and Doctoral Mentor at the (for-profit) University of Phoenix School of Advanced Studies. Regardless of the student’s field of study, Dr. Heitner believes her practical experience enriches her courses in applied research. “I’m able to draw on research I’ve done for clients in the past, and to me, that’s one of the benefits of having an applied researcher teach those courses,” she says.

A full-time instructor for a different for-profit university who spoke on condition of anonymity agreed with Dr. Heitner, saying, “There is no replacement for hands-on knowledge.” The instructor practiced in a professional field for a number of years before becoming a full-time teacher.

But it takes more than just practical experience, says Dr. Heitner. “Having people who are both academicians and practitioners in their field brings a perspective that I think is valuable,” she says.

Faculty must learn to teach

The anonymous instructor also indicated the drawbacks to part-time faculty: “Full-time teachers have more opportunities to attend seminars that focus on the latest educational research, such as learning styles and technologies that can be added to the classroom to make it more interactive with the students. Often, these seminars are not made available to adjunct faculty or, if they are available, are held at a time the adjunct cannot attend.”

Some teacher training is required at many institutions, yet part-time faculty are typically not paid for the time they take to develop their teaching skills. And it can be difficult for teachers who have full-time careers to find time to participate — for free — in development activities.

Subject-matter differences

Real-world experience applied in the classroom can help learners appreciate practical subjects. Yet critics of skill-focused programs, like those typically offered by for-profit institutions, contend that they are not ‘education’ so much as they are ‘training.’ Those critics maintain that a broader educational foundation permits students to build long-term career and personal development. That breadth includes both scholarly faculty who are experts in theory and practical application as well as courses in the humanities — languages, literature, history, philosophy, fine arts and some social sciences. And those courses, critics contend, are best taught by full-time academics, as the subject matter is scholarly by definition, rather than practical.

Student engagement and instructor expertise

Instructors with both knowledge and the ability to bring students to grips with the material can be found on both full- and part-time faculties. Coiner points out that the practical-experience versus teaching-expertise debate is artificial — both are required. “Whether or not a teacher has ‘real world’ experience makes little difference if the students are not engaged,” she says. “Good teachers are experts in their fields and know their discipline. Good teaching is about bridging the gap between theory and practice and maintaining student engagement.”

Whether part- or full-time, whether for-profit or not, faculties who have taken the time to develop their teaching skills, as well as their subject matter expertise, are best equipped to provide the education you’re seeking.

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