Universities Turn to Outsourced Instructors
By Didi Tang
But the teachers won’t be on the university payroll.
They work for St. Petersburg-based Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism training group, which has agreed to supply the university with instructors for the class via the Internet.
“We are leveraging our e-learning platform to help journalism educators to have more time with their students,” said Howard Finberg, interactive learning director for Poynter. “We can do some of the teaching for them.”
Virtually unheard of a decade ago, instructional outsourcing is sprouting on university campuses around the country.
“Given the significant reduction in state support for public education, compounded by the fact institutions need to maintain quality programs, we are going to see additional innovative attempts at partnerships that will address both issues of being able to provide cost-efficient programs that are high quality,” says Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Proponents see the practice as another innovative way to cut costs, access bigger markets and add expertise to classrooms.
But opponents worry that outsourcing instruction will threaten faculty jobs, diminish interaction between students and professors, or even turn colleges into diploma mills.
The jury is out, says Alene Russell, a senior state policy consultant for the AASCU.
“We don’t know where it goes,” says Russell, who explored the issue in a July 2010 brief for the association. “Everyone is watching.”
In her brief, Russell noted several models of instructional outsourcing in recent years.
• In 2007, Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, partnered with Higher Ed Holdings, a private company that provides technology and recruiting support for universities, to develop online graduate education programs.
The partnership with HEH, now Academic Partnerships, has been a success, as the programs have had consistent enrollments and high graduation rates, says Larry Acker, spokesman for Lamar.
“Financially, it’s been very good for Lamar,” Acker says.
Enrollment into two master’s in education programs reached a peak of 4,100, higher than the university’s total enrollment, says Anne Doris, chief operating officer for Academic Partnerships.
“It made Lamar University the fastest-growing state university in Texas and moved Lamar’s Graduate College of Education from 211th in the U.S. to seventh in just 18 months,” Doris says.
• StraighterLine, a private company founded in 2008 to provide inexpensive online college courses, has direct agreements with 23 institutions, including Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kan., Charter Oak State College in New Britain, Conn., and the online Western Governors University, says Burke Smith, CEO and founder of StraighterLine.
Smith argues the arrangement shouldn’t be considered instructional outsourcing but as articulation agreements, when one school acknowledges credits earned at another.
• Colleges are also turning to for-profit companies to provide online tutoring and academic support. Smarthinking, for example, provides such services to about 500 colleges and universities, says Susan Aspey, spokeswoman for the online tutoring provider.
A teacher for each component
At Missouri State, university officials recently abandoned efforts to seek an outside firm to market its courses, doubting the economic model would work. It forged ahead with partnership with Poynter, which will do the teaching for one introductory journalism course.
Under the Missouri State-Poynter arrangement, the university provides the curriculum, but Poynter supplies teachers for different components of the course — a new model for instructional outsourcing, Russell says.
Poynter began exploring teaching Journalism 101 to American college students last fall after it received a $50,000 grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. So far, it has signed up both Missouri State and Florida Atlantic University, which has campuses in several Florida cities.
Susan Reilly, director of Florida Atlantic’s School of Communication and Multimedia Studies, has told Inside Higher Ed, a higher education online publication, that Poynter would provide consistency, as Florida Atlantic students are entering into journalism courses with different knowledge and skill sets after taking the introductory course from different adjuncts.
At Missouri State, the decision to work with Poynter came after faculty reshuffling due to retirements and promotions. Mark Biggs, head of Missouri State’s media, journalism and film department, says Poynter’s educators are likely to have superior credentials than would a per-course instructor hired from the local pool of professionals.
The contract costs more than to hire an adjunct, but Missouri State expects to come out ahead financially after charging students more for the Poynter class.
Missouri State University will pay the Poynter Institute $6,500 to teach one class, higher than the $2,400 it would pay to a per-course instructor.
But students will pay the $275 per-credit-hour rate for online courses to take the Poynter class. Students in a traditional class are charged $194 per credit hour.
Smith, of StraighterLine, says universities typically charge the same or more for classes offered through partnerships with private companies. Because of lower instructional costs, such partnerships typically translate into bigger profit margins for universities and their private partners.
An uneasy perspective
While Biggs sees Poynter essentially as an adjunct, only better, the partnership with the outside entity has worried the university’s faculty senate. Arguing that the change was too drastic on the course, the senate demanded similar agreements be brought to it for review and approval.
Some professors say they’re skeptical the university can adequately ensure the content and quality of the class by turning the instruction over to an out-of-town entity. “How do they know it’s just as good?” asks Richard Johnson, a computer information systems professor. “They just assume it would be just as good.”
Hurley of university association AASCU says he expects pushback to the emergence of instructional outsourcing but says he supports and encourages institutions to look beyond their traditional boundaries for innovations that may maintain high quality programs and reduce costs, even if such attempts involve external partners.
“We have to start by trying,” Hurley says.
Finberg, of Poynter, says the experiment at least is worth a try.
“We don’t know the future until we actually do this,” Finberg says. “We want to learn how we can help journalism students.” He says Poynter and its partner schools are in uncharted waters.
“That’s why Carnegie asks us to swim those waters, to try to figure out what we need to think about,” he said. “This is a learning opportunity for everybody.”
Tang also reports for the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.
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