Teaching college online: getting rehired

As a part-time or adjunct faculty member, you are working on a contract by contract basis. The university is under no obligation to rehire you once the course is over. So, your goal is to be awesome enough to always be the first adjunct the department chair considers as they scan their upcoming hiring needs for the following semester.

There are two keys to getting rehired:

  1. No student complaints have reached the chair and/or hiring person.
  2. You have top-notch student reviews at the end of your course.

Avoid Student Complaints

Today’s students won’t hesitate to complain to you, and possibly higher up, if they feel they are being slighted on their education in some way. Take all complaints seriously.

How to avoid complaints (or how to be a rockstar online teacher!):

  1. Be clear on your expectations in the syllabus and assignments: include the best way for students to contact you (email, phone, Skype or ?), virtual office hours where they know they can always find you, a late-work policy, a course schedule including due dates, and links to lessons. Let students know your usual response time (same day, if possible), and whether or not you’ll be available on the weekends. Personally, any time my students contacted me, I would talk to them as quickly as possible, and I also provided them my personal cell. I rarely received calls, but it’s the feeling of getting personal attention that students want and it provides a sense of calm related to learning in the course to know they can reach you immediately, if needed.
  2. Make sure all links in course materials function, videos play, and documents are uploaded. Ensure dates are correct (especially if the course has been copied over from a prior semester).
  3. If you are building the curriculum, avoid tests (I could talk for hours about this one!) and instead require projects or other forms of applied learning where students get to build, create, do, analyze, compare and share. Also offer a choice of assignments (at least two) per concept. Student choice is proven to be one of the most important factors in engaging student learning. They love DOING and SHOWCASING their work for others to see. So build/create, then share the work in a discussion forum, in their blog, in social media, etc., and incorporate peer feedback requirements so they are engaging and learning with each other.
  4. Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage. No one really likes the aloof, elite, all-knowing professor who is a hard-ass and makes you write summaries of papers each week. At the other end of the spectrum, most students will take advantage of the soft professor who’s always sweet, forgiving, “no worries,” etc. That’s just human nature. Be the guide, show you care about their learning , that you get being an adult learner can be tough as they are often working and caring for children, but also hold your standards. State your expectations and hold to them without being mean or angry about it. Make accommodations in emergencies. If you get a request for an Incomplete, talk to the chair about the department policy.
  5. In the very first lesson, introduce yourself to your students with an informal video shot with your cell phone, if needed. It feels personal and creates connection. It’s much harder to get angry with someone who is showing up on video to connect with you versus a professor who only communicates with written text. Give an overview of the class, explain briefly what they’ll learn, do, skills they’ll develop. Share an enthusiasm for the course and the opportunity to learn with and from your students. Be genuine. Ask students to submit their own introduction, let them be creative…a video, a multimedia collage, a poem, whatever works. Encourage them to share what they hope to learn in the course…this gives you valuable information to potentially customize lessons later in the course–it’s never too late to add options to an online curriculum!! I also created a video introduction to each weekly module, short and sweet. It was my job to guide them through the course, and the use of video helped set the tone each week.
  6. Finally, tell students in your syllabus and in your introduction that your top priority in this course is their success–you want them to be successful. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used that phrase with my own students, “My job is to make sure you are successful. So let’s figure out how we can do it.” Ask them to reach out to you directly if they have a problem or complaint about the course, and guarantee you will respond fairly and quickly.

Handle Student Complaints

Oh crud, it happened. A student has complained to you or your department chair. It can be very disheartening when you’ve received a complaint. Depending on the nature of the complaint, it can be handled in several ways:

  1. Student has been harassed (verbally, sexually, in any way!): Report this to your chair immediately, and follow up with the appropriate division on campus, student services, HR, etc.
  2. Online course isn’t working: Nothing is more frustrating that being unable to access an online course or materials when you have the time to work on it. You will lose students if this is a recurring problem, even if you didn’t cause it! If the fix is in your control, fix it immediately and let the student(s) know. Encourage students to report broken links, etc. Help create the “hey, we’re in this together” feeling.  If the fix isn’t in your control, report it to your chair and/or IT as soon as possible. Keep your students updated on your actions, and any timelines to getting a fix. Give them a workaround, if possible or needed. For example, put the assignment in Google docs, and send it out using a URL. Keep people from feeling interrupted in their work.
  3. Grade isn’t fair: I use rubrics (there are many online rubric makers) for most of my assignments, and give very clear criteria for what I’m looking for (and usually encourage students to build the rubric with me on complex projects). The grade should never be a surprise. I often ask students to self-assess their assignment using the rubric prior to submitting. Then I can see where we agree or disagree. I have given Cs, Ds, and Fs, but those are very rare with graduate students (more often seen with undergrad), and the grade would never be a surprise. My students always know exactly how to earn an “A,” and I’m willing to work with them to get there if they want to put in the effort.
  4. Curriculum or professor is boring: First, if a professor is called “boring,” it means you are lecturing too much. No one like sitting and listening to a talking head for 30 minutes, much less an hour. Shift away from lecture and focus on using some of the above strategies in curriculum design to 1) create visual engagement in your curriculum by varying multimedia, including pictures, embedding media that prompts student interaction such as Voki (if you have design control), and 2) create learning engagement through applied learning activities where students do/build/create and share, use peer feedback, and offer a choice of assignments. This one feature alone can win over a class that is used to traditional lecture and tests. Finally, if your class is fully asynchronous, add some synchronous options where students can login, share their work, discuss concepts more in-depth, etc. 

To learn more…

book cover

This blog is fifth in a five part series to help you get focused on finding a job teaching college part-time online.

If you’re looking for additional tips with finding and landing online teaching jobs, get a free digital copy of my book, Find Online Teaching Jobs Now! College Edition, through April 24th, 2017 at Amazon!

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