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AAL Newsletter

Long Time, No See

by Rob Jenkins, M.A.

One unintended consequence of the online revolution, it seems to me, is a kind of brain-drain on our college campuses.

By “online revolution,” I’m referring to the explosion in the number of online courses and the corresponding increase in the number of faculty members who offer them—especially the number of those who now teach online exclusively. And by “brain drain,” I mean that many of those faculty members are now rarely if ever on campus.

This thought came to me the other day as I was trying to contact a good friend, a faculty member that I haven’t seen in several months. Of course, he teaches online. Our institution actually has a fully “Online College,” with dedicated faculty who do not have offices on campus and show up only for things like convocation, faculty development day, and graduation–although some of them don’t even do that much because they’re not local. We have online faculty members from all over the country. But most of our online faculty are people I used to see every day but who now work strictly from home.

Anyway, as I was scanning the Online College directory, I was shocked to realize how many of those folks I literally haven’t seen in years. There were a lot of names I didn’t recognize on the list, too, but many of them are people I used to talk to on a regular basis. People I would consider friends. Smart, funny, talented people whose regular presence made my work life a little more pleasant, and who contributed much not only to formal committee meetings but also to those informal, ad hoc hallway conversations that are so vital to getting anything done in higher education.

(I should probably acknowledge at this point, lest I seem to romanticize, that a few of the names on that directory were people I’m very glad not to be bumping into much these days and whom I have little interest in talking to ever again.)

Of course, all those bright, talented people are probably still contributing their good ideas while serving on formal committees. I don’t know exactly what’s required of online faculty, but I imagine committee service is still part of the deal. Online committees, probably.

But I miss having them share their good ideas with me, in the hallways, whether those ideas had anything to do with the latest committee proposal or not. And I wonder how much intellectual energy—dare I say synergy?—has been lost on our campus due to their physical absence.

Ironically, I’m probably at least partly to blame for this. I was the first department chair at our college to allow a faculty member to teach all of her course load online.

At the time I made that call, I was more or less defying an unwritten college policy that faculty members had to teach at least two of their five classes face-to-face. I only knew that I had a faculty member who was demonstrably good at teaching online, I had several full sections that needed an instructor, and I decided to let her teach them. When the campus dean stormed into my office demanding to know why, I told him that, as I saw it, we could either force her to teach face-to-face and then twist somebody else’s arm to cover those two online sections, thereby making two faculty members unhappy; or we could bend the “rule” a little bit for her, thereby making everyone happy, not least the online students who would be getting an excellent and experienced instructor in the bargain. He thought about it for a second, said “Well, it’s your department,” and strode out.

From those humble beginnings, almost thirteen years ago, the college has gone on not only to embrace the idea that faculty members can teach their entire load online but to create an entire cadre of such faculty—including, of course, that original faculty member.

And the only negative, I guess, is that I don’t get to talk to her much anymore. Or a lot of other people, either.

I don’t know how widespread this problem is, because I don’t know how many other colleges have a large segment of their faculty dedicated to online teaching. Perhaps, at most schools, online courses are taught by regular faculty members who still teach most of their load face-to-face, or by adjuncts hired strictly for that purpose. But I imagine there are many colleges who, like us, have created an Online Campus staffed with full-time faculty—and I’m pretty sure the trend is in that direction.

Because, to be honest, the idea seems to work pretty well, from an enrollment standpoint. Or at least it has for us. Since we created our Online College about seven years ago, our enrollment in online courses has more than doubled—and not at the expense of on-campus classes, either, because our overall enrollment has continued to rise about 5% per year.

So the idea of employing professors who teach exclusively online is probably one whose time has come. It seems to work well, both for colleges and for students. I just can’t help thinking about what we might be missing with all those fine minds absent from the physical campus.

Hey, do you suppose there’s anyway we can recreate those impromptu hallway gab sessions online?

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