Monday, January 18, 2016

What About Western Governors?

I'm an adjunct at a gigantic state university in the far west.

I recently got word (via email) that I am on a short list of people who will be offered teaching with Western Governors University.

I know only a tiny bit about for-profit schools, and am simply hoping that some of the disenchanted dozens here at College Misery might have tread in those waters before and could offer the simplest and most basic replies to these simple questions:

1) Is the all-online teaching option manageable in time? Or does it go beyond what you'd normally expect to do for a face-2-face class?
2) Are the students interesting, hard working, or are they disaffected online dabblers who never do the work?
3) Does working for this kind of school hurt your soul?

It's 3 which is the one I'm most worried about...

- Angie Allright


  1. Western Governors is a non profit institution. However, its credit will not transfer to another institution. You have to graduate from there, to get a degree. I am not so confident of the value of that degree.

  2. Isn't WGU being audited by the feds? Something about giving too much credit for 'life experience' without supervision?

  3. Indeed a non-profit school, but among the worst reputations in the entire world of higher ed.

    For someone who simply needs the money, these options (or the smart-tutor type service elsewhere) are just fine. The work can even be rewarding at times.

    But jobs like this are useless for your career. I advise people all the time to take them off vita. I'd rather you told me about research or scholarship than tell me you worked for WGU.

  4. I do a lot of my teaching in hybrid classes, and I've taught online quite a bit in the past, so I can sort-of answer your questions.

    1) Online teaching can be a massive time-suck, especially up front. However, once you've got your canned schtick down (e.g., you've got video lectures prepared, they're up-to-date with pause controls that work correctly, and any in-lecture SCORM modules are updated), your hands-on workload decreases dramatically.

    2) You'll get all sorts. Attrition is a major factor in all-online courses, and I usually ended up with about half the original number of students. The ones who are gonna fail the class usually disappear quickly, unlike f2f students who keep showing up just because they have a vague feeling they should be there.

    3) Dunno for sure...but based on the other commenters, I think it might.

  5. Online teaching varies a lot, so definitely do all the reading you can to find out how WGU specifically works. If I'm recalling correctly (and I may not be), it's one of many online institutions that has job titles/roles somewhat different from a traditional university, so you may be running/facilitating/resourcing/tutoring a class designed by someone else rather than creating your own. That could be plus from the point of view of time required, as long as the course is well designed; if it's not, and you can't change anything, it's a nightmare (and, yes, a soul-suck).

    You also need to get an idea of what sort of availability you'll be expected to offer; I remember online teachers here (Academic Monkey among them, I think) pointing out that they couldn't take a day, even a holiday, off and still meet turnaround expectations for email, grading, etc. Even if the time commitment on any one day isn't that huge, the fact that you can never really get away from the class can get very, very wearing.

    In some online systems, it's clearly a much better deal to be the course designer than the course instructor/facilitator/whatever, even though, given the current state of the job market, there can be pretty stiff competition even for jobs that don't really require the sort of creativity, initiative, critical thinking, etc. that most Ph.D.s (or M.A.s) possess. As Cranky Dean points out, "facilitating" a class doesn't really do much for your c.v., either, because it's not really your class.

    I'm pretty happy teaching online some of the time, but I've got a full-time (though non-tenure-track) job at a traditional bricks-and-mortar state university that includes a mix of face to face, hybrid, and online classes. I get to design and revise my own classes (as long as they fit within some fairly flexible parameters/course goals), and I'm allowed by my university to designate 2 days of the week on which I don't answer email (I actually only take 1). There are also actual breaks in between our semesters (and after a semester which includes online teaching, I nearly always want to turn off the computer entirely, and live solely in the physical world, for a week or so). I'm pretty sure that my situation is pretty close to the ideal one, however, and, for all that I'm willing to argue that online teaching can work quite well in some situations, I'm also aware that what I mean by "online teaching" is pretty different from what is probably the average experience associated with that phrase.

    As for the students, they'll vary. You probably more need to know what administrators will expect you to do if the students aren't doing well: can you fail them if they don't do the work, or don't do satisfactory work? are you supposed to chase them beyond the point of reasonable support if they're not doing well? Taking a class online for the first time can be confusing, and students deserve a reasonable amount of guidance and support, but online classes also sometimes attract the least-prepared, most overwhelmed by other parts of life, students, and that's a recipe for even higher rates of failure than in the f2f classroom. For that reason, you should probably be especially cautious if you'll be teaching an introductory (or, worse, remedial class); online learning works best for students who have already learned how to learn (e.g. advanced and/or mature undergraduates, or grad students).

  6. At this juncture I don't know what to make of evaluations of how online ed helps/hurts one's career - what "careers" are left in higher ed? When I first began adjuncting at brick-and-mortars, the conventional wisdom was I had permanently removed myself from any future tenure track opening at those institutions because most wouldn't hire in-house adjuncts. (They already knew you'd settle for slave wages, was the reasoning.)

    Finding a tenure/non-tenure track full-time position is like winning the lottery at this point.

    I have been working solely online for two programs for 10 years now. I don't find the experience any better/worse than my on-campus experiences; the plusses/minuses are just different.

    Students are as students are no matter where. A few truly prepared and motivated; a few who will make you contemplate mass murder/suicide; and a vast middling middle.

    The blessing of online is the convenience of working from home. The curse is the tedium. Theoretically, on-campus/in class, you can jazz things up a bit playing off of the audience. Online you will go blind reading reams and reams of writing, most of it of marginally acceptable for which you bear a passing responsibility to improve.

    Some programs, fewer every day, retain the instructor has sole authority model. A few have a lead instructor/designer, whereas most are now capitulating to the centralized course development model. It can become a major thorn in the paw to know you can't correct a simple typo, remove an atrociously stupid discussion question, and/or insert a pertinent current event to a discussion.

    Then again, I recently attended a "agile career development" webinar whose take home message was "No employer will invest time/effort in helping you grow in a position; career advancement is solely up to you, so be ready to up and leave when opportunities arise."

    Welcome to the gig economy!

    1. I don't know what to make of evaluations of how online ed helps/hurts one's career - what "careers" are left in higher ed?

      Finding a tenure/non-tenure track full-time position is like winning the lottery at this point.

      "No employer will invest time/effort in helping you grow in a position; career advancement is solely up to you, so be ready to up and leave when opportunities arise."

      There are excellent points, and probably should be the key takeaways: what, exactly, are you hoping to get out of work with WGU, or your present adjuncting work at gigantic state u, besides a paycheck? How likely is continuing in your present work/taking on more adjunct work to help you achieve larger life goals. If one of those life goals is being a full-time, perhaps tenure-track, professor, how likely are you to achieve that goal at all, ever, whatever you do (the chances vary by discipline, of course, but in most disciplines they're very small, and, while you can do some things to improve them -- e.g. finish a Ph.D. if you're still working on them; publish; *maybe* gain different kinds of teaching experience, but I'm not so sure that one really matters for any job you'd want to have except perhaps a community college one, in which case you'd probably be better off adjuncting at a community college -- there's an element of chance/luck involved whatever you do)? Would you be better off putting the effort you're putting into adjuncting, and seeking out additional adjuncting work, into some combination of a less-demanding but equally well-paid job of pretty much any other kind, and exploring other career options?

      tl;dr: think twice before agreeing to feed the beast (especially when it could be argued that you're the food).