When considering becoming an online adjunct teacher as opposed to a traditional adjunct teacher—which is to say, teaching in an online forum versus teaching in a regular classroom—it’s obvious that there are notable differences in the two approaches. Is one better than the other? Not necessarily. But online teaching has its share of perks, though also its share of drawbacks.
The pros of teaching online as an adjunct include factors like saved time and expenses, as well as a conspicuous lack of constraints imposed by a regular classroom setting (for the teacher and the students). Cons include limited interaction with students, the various costs of implementing technology, and keeping students motivated.
Our purpose here is to find a balance between the pros and the cons so that you can make an informed decision. Is becoming an online adjunct instructor the right choice for you? It depends on the value you place on the pros and how you can alleviate the cons.
The Pros of Teaching Online
To begin, you have to imagine what’s required of you to teach before a classroom—and if you have already, many of those requirements you may be taking for granted. For one, you need to physically travel to a classroom, and you have to be in that room for a given duration, perhaps an hour or even three; that means commuting, and it also means making your way across campus, oftentimes to numerous classrooms, if not numerous buildings.
Secondly, you need to have materials, which means—and every teacher rues this fact, I’m sure—the possibility of making copies, and so waiting in line for a printer or copier. You will need to deal with technology, setting up your computer and thumb drive in a classroom in order to present visual aids like a PowerPoint presentation. Along with textbooks, student papers kept in manila folders, and perhaps your travel mug of coffee, you’ll be carrying a lot of materials.
Thirdly, you will most likely have to maintain some office hours; a college may ask for one hour for each class you teach. As many adjuncts know, office space is usually limited. In many cases, a college may not even have space for adjuncts to meet with students.
Many of the pros alleviate these challenges and frustrations. Here are just a few “pros” to consider as you contemplate becoming an online educator.
Saving Time, Energy, and Money
One of the major pros of online teaching is that you do not have to commute. You save the commuting time, for one—and that time will be put into other areas of your life, even into the work you do for the class. You also save money: you will use no gas, and you will avoid wear and tear on your car. Additionally, you’ll simply save energy and stress that comes with traveling, sitting in traffic, hurrying, and so on.
Geography is Not a Limitation
Teaching online means two things: for one, you can teach anywhere, and two, you can teach from anywhere. In the first case, you can teach online classes at a college that is ten miles away or a hundred—or more. Many colleges hire online adjunct instructors from other states, or at least they explicitly allow for that. Secondly, you are not constrained in where you teach from. You can do your work at home, surely, but it’s not unreasonable to think that you can also do it from a cabin in the mountains, a hotel on the seashore, or simply sitting at your favorite coffee shop.
Teach at Your Own Schedule and at Your Own Pace
This means, really, you can essentially make your own schedule—as long as your syllabus makes clear what that schedule is. You are not bound to a specific meeting time, necessarily, depending on how the class is set up—and if that class is asynchronous, you may have a great deal of freedom. Your class may call for a video lecture, or it may not. The point is that many aspects of a typical online class—including discussion boards, where students, too, can work at their own pace—allow a lot of flexibility for the teacher and the student.
Technology Makes Things Easier
The fact that geography, as mentioned above, is no limitation is due to the fact that technology is eminently portable. All you need, really, is a laptop. Maybe a thumb drive. When students upload assignments, you don’t even need to print them; you can download them onto your hard drive, write your comments right into the document, then upload them back into the system where the student can access them. No printer needed (unless you want to)! So long as you have Internet access, you can operate your class.
Accessibility and Availability
The bottom line is that online classes are proliferating—and for good reason. The fact that online classes are accessible opens them up to people who may not be able to take normal, sit-down-at-the-desk classes. That includes working adults, students in remote areas, and people with disabilities. Because online classes work for such populations—and working adults looking to further their educations and careers are a major population of students—those classes are increasing, making them more available as an option for teachers looking for online work. With advances in technology, online classes will only increase in the future.
Giving Yourself Time to Respond
When a student emails or leaves a comment or question on a discussion board, you have time to respond. You do not have to quickly jump on a concern the student has—or even a complaint—but you can instead think it over, take a walk, and then write back. It’s the same for students; rather than taking on the pressure of answering a question coherently in a classroom, they can research, organize, and draft their thoughts carefully before submitting an answer to a discussion board or an assignment. The anxiety it lifts from their shoulders will be the same it lifts from yours.
The Cons of Teaching Online
Of course, we all know by now the limitations of technology. Zoom meetings are pretty cool, but they can often be wobbly in execution—and they can crash at the worst times. Video conference calls are phenomenal as a concept, but they lack the deeper levels of friendship and interaction that come with face-to-face meetings. In short, technology lacks intimacy—and things like body language, an important signal in the bonding that happens between student and teacher, frequently get lost.
It should be obvious that it will be difficult to get to know a student—including their needs as a learner—when the student lives a thousand miles away and you interact only over email or perhaps an occasional video chat. The classroom atmosphere we would normally be used to is therefore substantially missing. Helping students in their long-range goals, too, is difficult if you don’t live close to them and can’t help with networking for the student. All of this can lead to the class feeling entirely impersonal.
Motivation issues follow hot on the heels of a lack of interaction. Dhirendra Kumar of North Carolina State University points this fact out in a 2010 white paper on the pros and cons of online education: the student must be self-motivated and disciplined in their own right in order to be successful in the class; it is hard to motivate students in a class where they may never actually even see you or hear your voice.
Although you can do your classwork from any coffeeshop with free Wi-Fi—and the students can too—there will be problems. Computers crash and important files can get lost. Internet connection can go down in an outage at critical times. Video feeds can freeze. There are also simple financial costs: you will be required to have both a computer—you can assume it will be at your expense—and high-speed Internet in your home, which you will pay for. Any software you might use, like Microsoft Office, will need to be paid for by subscription, unless—and this is the case at some colleges—such software is provided to adjuncts, free of charge.
Time Zone Differences
If you do teach an online course in another state, any difference in time will have an effect. If you live on the East Coast and teach a class in California, then a student may have a question at 9 PM at night—while you’re sleeping. Due dates, especially in terms of what precise time they will need to be turned in by, will need to be closely considered.
Lack of Benefits and Security
Like their adjunct counterparts teaching in physical classrooms, the online adjunct will most likely find that the college offers them nothing in the way of health benefits or pensions. The ACA dictates that an adjunct working 30 hours a week must be provided with an option for health care, but the online adjunct is contingent faculty, working part-time, and therefore the college is not required to provide such benefits to them—especially if their hours are limited to less than 30. This, and the fact that contracts to teach online are semester to semester and can be cancelled with little notice, makes this career at times a challenge.
It should be said for any work-at-home gig that distraction is the enemy. How much time is wasted scrolling through social media or wandering YouTube? If you get stumped in devising a lesson plan, would it be easier to do the laundry? How do you grade papers thoughtfully if you have kids? These questions are no different from anyone’s who works at home. Though setting a strict schedule can work, it may not fix every problem. Be aware that, especially working on computers, your attention is always being threatened with distraction.
Rethinking What “Employment” Means
I’ve written before here about the benefits of the online adjunct instructor thinking of themselves as an entrepreneur. Holding this mindset means being your own boss—and with this approach, the benefits of being an online adjunct become evident.
Being your own boss means making your own schedule. Whatever the constraints that a college imposes on the class they assign you to teach, you can still shape the syllabus to benefit yourself—and your students. That means being able to take time off when you need it: for family commitments, for traveling, and for other work. It also means adjusting the schedule to align with your own productivity. If you do your best work in the morning, and if that is the time you are most motivated and alert, then set your schedule to fit that.
Keeping costs down, especially in regards to time, opens you up to more. It may be the case that you are not afforded health care by the college you work for, but reducing travel time—let’s say, at a conservative estimate, three to four hours a week that you would normally spend commuting to and from a campus—opens that time up to, well, a lot. You can do other paid work. You can invest more in the class you are teaching. You save time, you save money (the car stays in the garage), and you also save yourself from stress, and stress is one of the highest bills you pay throughout the day.
As for the cons, there are solutions. Granted, working at home all the time can be lonely, so make yourself time (with the time you save from commuting and making copies and wandering campus) to meet up with friends and family. Technology issues can be resolved with foresight: make sure the computer and software are updated and check your internet connection frequently. Have a backup plan if the connection wavers. Make friends with the college’s IT department—even their Help Desks are online, where all you need do is submit a ticket to resolve issues with, say, a learning management system.
Knowing that students may feel disconnected, make an effort to create activities where they can interact. Let them share work. Make time for a Zoom conference with each student, even if only for ten minutes. These up-front solutions can alleviate problems that can fester over the course of a semester.
The Power of Working Together
Many discussions of the pros and cons of online learning, including a page from the University of Illinois that is devoted to the issue, point to the power of synergy and dialogue. In the online course, everyone contributes and responds—and this can do much to motivate the instructor. “The online format allows a dynamic interaction between the instructor and students and among the students themselves,” the UI page reads. “Resources and ideas are shared, and continuous synergy will be generated through the learning process.”
Dialogue, says the university, is also strengthened, because the students (and, notably, the instructor as well) can reflect before responding. The structure of an online class, which affords everyone ample time to think and respond, “allows students time to articulate responses with much more depth and forethought than in a traditional face-to-face discussion situation where the participant must analyze the comment of another on the spot and formulate a response or otherwise lose the chance to contribute to the discussion.” Again, the same goes for the instructor.
Note that, to be successful, the University of Illinois makes clear this point: “Successful on-ground instruction does not always translate to successful online instruction. If facilitators are not properly trained in online delivery and methodologies, the success of the online program will be compromised.” So it could be said that one of the biggest cons is that nothing will work if you don’t know what you’re doing!
It can only benefit you, therefore, to work at online teaching. The better you get, the more those “pros” will shine.
Kumar, D. (2010). Pros and cons of online education. NC State Industry Expansion Solutions. https://www.ies.ncsu.edu/resources/white-papers/pros-and-cons-of-online-education/
University of Illinois, Springfield (n.d.). Strengths and Weaknesses of Online Learning. https://www.uis.edu/ion/resources/tutorials/online-education-overview/strengths-and-weaknesses/