By Julie Owen
Student retention is a buzzword that always raises eyebrows among educators. Enrollment officers are being pushed to improve retention and student success. To that end, thousands of people, on thousands of committees are spending countless hours discussing, brainstorming, and researching student retention. Where the problem starts, who is responsible, how to fix it, and everything in between. There are many solutions including early intervention programs such as Gateway to College which is a national network that works with high school dropouts and underprepared college students to help young people achieve college credentials. Student Success Plan is a non-profit organization that provides open source remedial software that facilitates interventions and provides a proven retention model to help students complete college goals. In addition, there are many other standard practices such as mentoring, orientations, personal letters, phone calls, emails, and even specialized learning field trips that involve wilderness hikes and other extreme bonding experiences that aid in student retention. While experts may not agree on the solution, they all agree students need to be heard, feel supported, obtain proper training, and feel connected.
Unfortunately, you don’t hear about as many articles, seminars, and round table discussions pertaining to faculty retention. But this is a valid subject that should be closely examined especially for schools who struggle with high turnover, particularly in the adjunct or online faculty department. Organizations such as Sloan-C provide a complete training and support program. Education Portal also has a program in which faculty members can become certified to be an online instructor. In most cases, schools provide some form of their own personal training that may be geared to their online program in particular. With a plethora of training resources, knowledge of how to be an online instructor does not seem to be the issue. However, the disconnected feeling that may accompany teaching from afar, may be a tougher nut to crack. Not having face to face access with your students and colleagues can create a sense of isolation or disconnection. Many times adjunct or part-time faculty may be teaching a course or two as a side job and may consider it a temporary gig. Of course this is not always the case. However, if an individual is working on a part-time basis for a company, he/she may not feel a strong loyalty to the company. The individual may feel apathetic to the highs and lows of the company and be disconnected with the big picture. He/she may be easily swayed if something better comes along with preferred working conditions and an increase in pay, or in some cases just to try something new. The same holds true for an adjunct faculty member. There are many opportunities for part-time faculty and it may be an easy sell to coax them away.
Just like students who may feel lost or disconnected, online faculty may experience this as well. Since they can physically be anywhere, many times out of state or across country, the online instructor may feel disconnected to the school as a whole and potentially be less engaged. In the case of the disconnected student, he/she may be homesick and choose to go home every weekend; thus missing out on the activities or events on campus. Historically having a strong tie to one’s alma mater through extracurricular events helps students fit in and feel a part of something bigger than themselves. The same holds true for an online faculty member. While the college may be located in the Deep South, the instructor could be living up north. Just the demographics can be a huge separator and thus cause a lack of connection. Being unable to attend local faculty meetings, walk the campus, eat lunch with colleagues, and talk with students face to face could be a hindrance to relationship building.
An article from Faculty Focus, “Tackling Online Faculty Retention and Support” featuring Ellis University, lays out their systematic, comprehensive training program for new faculty. Much like a student retention plan, it includes a strong training component, mentoring, personal communication, and feedback. For faculty looking for online teaching positions, a good resource to consider creating is a service called SmarterFaculty. It is a searchable database from which schools find online instructors to fill open positions. Individuals can create a free profile.
As online learning continues to reach new heights and schools allot budget dollars to retention programs, monitor engagement analytics, and invest in early alert programs, they need to be equally involved in quality training programs for faculty. Training that will not only include the “how-to” but the social aspects that connect faculty to their students and the organization’s culture and mission.
Julie Owen currently serves as the Vice President for Marketing & Operations at SmarterServices and has been with the company since 2004. She has worked in education for the past 15 years in areas of marketing, finance, retention consulting, data collection research, sales, and account management. Her passion is learning anything and everything that helps educators move and shake with a volatile economy using the latest technology. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Faulkner University in Management. Julie runs, writes, and laughs in her spare time and resides in Montgomery, AL with her husband and three children.
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By Julie Owen