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Working Conditions of OnLine Instructors: Early results from the COCAL Survey March 5, 2013 Online instruction has

surged in the last 15 years. It may now be the core delivery system for higher education. However, most of what has been written about it focuses on its cost effectiveness or the quality of the teaching and learning experience. This study is different: it focuses on the conditions under which online instructors work. For example, our survey results say that: An adjunct instructor, teaching on line, makes about $14 per hour. Pay varies by sector (public, private non-profit, community college and forprofit), with public state colleges and universities paying $4,000-$5,000 per class and for-profits paying the least (less than $2,000 per class, down to less than $1,000.) The number of hours spent per day per class (average 2) does not vary by sector. While over half those who responded report that they wrote the classes they teach, most were not paid to write that class and nearly half do not know who holds the copyright to it. From these and other responses we can describe a range of the conditions under which people teach online courses. This in turn enables a look at the role played by online instructors as content providers in the overall digital communications universe. The origin, purpose and scope of this survey This survey was proposed and authorized by COCAL (Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor) at its August 2012 meeting in Mexico City. Our assumption is that there are minimum standards for teaching conditions, including online instruction, that make good education possible, and that contingent faculty organizations should have a position on what those standards are. Before debating those standards, however, we wanted to find out what conditions online faculty actually experience. That would give us a foothold to ask for whose benefit – “Cui bono?” -- the unbundling of the academic enterprise, from teaching to research, and the related changes in the higher education industry, are taking place. The survey was distributed on SurveyMonkey via academic and faculty union lists such as the COCAL list, XMCA (Mind, Culture and Activity), the MLA (Modern Language Association), UALE (United Association for Labor Education) and adj-l which reaches many adjunct instructors. In addition, individuals passed it along to people whom they knew who were teaching on line. Because we had the help of 1

multiple faculty organizations, including unions, we were able to gather responses across sectors and produce information that had not been available before. The total number of respondents, after two months of circulating the survey (October-December 2012) was 133 from about 100 different institutions including community colleges, state colleges and universities, private non-profit colleges and universities and for-profits. However, this is not a statistically representative sample of the people who are teaching on line. Our interpretations therefore should be taken as indications of possible trends to be checked in subsequent larger surveys. This survey focuses narrowly on questions about how the work of teaching is done by the people who are doing it. It asks how much people get paid, how many hours per day are spent on a course, whether their technology costs are subsidized, who owns the copyright to their class, etc. We focus on these questions because we believe that answers to these questions will explain or deepen answers to other questions. Therefore this survey does not touch on questions of the quality of instruction or curriculum, benefit to students, comparison of capabilities or costs of online technologies, etc. What kinds of institutions do the respondents teach at? People were asked to name the institutions where the course they were reporting about was taught. The purpose of this was to identify what sector the class was being offered in. Some responders did not state the name of their institution. Furthermore, websites do not always clearly distinguish whether an institution is a for-profit or a private non-profit. Therefore match of sector categories with institutions is not complete. Type of institution (names are examples only; not all names are included) For-profits (University of Phoenix, Strayer, National American, LaJolla National, Walden, Full Sail, Everest, DeVry, Art Institute, Capella, Meridian, Argosy, possibly others) Community colleges such as those in the California Community College system, Holyoke CC, Northampton CC, Front Range CC, Ozarks CC, and tribal community colleges (Bay Mills) and others State institutions (including “state-related”, like University of Pittsburgh and Snow) such as Portland State, University of Illinois Chicago and Springfield, SUNY, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts, Miami U of Ohio, Indiana University and others Private, including Roman Catholic (Felician, St. Joseph, St Leo, University of Dayton) various other religious, historically Black (Paine, Southern U of New Orleans), Ashford, Quincy, Johns Number of responses 21 21 54



Hopkins, Syracuse, National Labor College, Roosevelt, Southwest Christian, Breneau, Excelsior, Golden Gate, Tiffin, Northeastern, etc. Non-US (responses from Japan, Canada, Israel)


This information was useful in figuring out where people with better working conditions were teaching and where the working conditions were worse. Who were our respondents? The following bullet points give a sense of who our respondents were. The percentages are not to be read as describing the whole field; they just tell us who responded to this survey.            56% said that they taught the class that they described as adjuncts; a few said they were independent contractors (1099-ers) or didn’t answer. 36% said they were full-time employees, whether contingent or tenure track; some full-timers were teaching as adjuncts at a second institution; 31% of adjuncts taught only at one institution; 23.5% said they taught at several institutions, up to five; 61% of all respondents said they wrote the course they teach. 77% of the ones who wrote their course were full-time contingent or tenure track; 75% of those who wrote the class they teach said they were not paid anything to write their course; 43% of those who wrote their courses said they didn’t know who held the copyright for their course; three said they owned it and had licensed it to their university so others could teach it; 52% of respondents say they have no seniority right to teach their class in the future, and 43% say they have it only by past practice. Only 4.7% have it by written agreement or contract. 72% supply their own computers and 87% supply their own internet access. Typical class size is 20-40. Smaller classes are likely to be paid by headcount. Larger classes up to 100 were reported. The people who teach on line as part of their load as full-time employees, whether contingent or tenure track (29%), did not break out how much they get paid to teach their on line class. Of people who teach as adjuncts and get paid by the course, 18% make less than $2,000 per course, 28% make $2,000-$3,000, 12% make $3,000 - $4,000 and 12% make $4,000-$5,000. Two hours per day is what the largest group (47 out of 126) spend teaching a class. Thirty two people spend less than an hour and a half; 27 spend 3 hours a day, and 18 spend four hours a day on up. Several people reported spending more hours in the day than is humanly possible (20, 45, etc.) The question was asked “How many hours do you spend per day?” which did not assume a 5-day week. The arithmetic in this analysis assumes a 7 day week 3

and a 15-week course, but many courses are compressed to 7 or even 5 weeks. We did not collect information on what percent of classes are compressed. 33% of respondents have a union. These were primarily people in community colleges and state universities. This exceeds the share of the higher education faculty which is unionized, which is 27% (from Berry and Savarese 2012). The 33% figure probably is the result of the way the survey was circulated first through faculty unions and then other organizations.

Pay per class by sector The following, given the nature of our sample, should be viewed as trends to be explored further. There appears to be a difference in level of pay by sector, with a greater percent of faculty at state colleges and universities making between $4,000 and $5,000 per class. Pay at for-profits was lowest, with over half (11 out of 18) reporting pay of less than $2,000 per class. Most of those who reported per-class pay were adjunct faculty. Full time contingent or tenure-track faculty were generally paid as part of load and therefore did not report per-class pay. When full-time tenured or emeritus faculty were paid as overload, they got higher than $5,000 ($6,000, for example). State colleges and universities have a high rate of unionization. However, so do community colleges, where pay was likely to be $3,000 or less. $1,000 $2,000 per class 6 $2,000$3000 per class 10 14 7 6 $3,000 – $4,000 per class 1 10 1 1 $4,000 $5,000 per class 2 18 2 Paid as part of full time load 2 10 7 -

Community colleges State 8 colleges and universities Private 5 colleges and universities For-Profit 11 colleges and universities

Hours per class by sector


On the other hand, there does not appear to be great difference by sector in number of hours spend by faculty teaching on line. The typical online instructor appears to spend just over 2 hours per day per class. This seems to have nothing to do with how much he or she is getting paid, which does vary by sector. One Community Colleges State colleges and universities Private colleges and universities For-profit colleges and universities 5 6 4 1 Two 5 19 5 6 Three 4 10 4 3 2 1 Four 1 2 7 Five or more

This matters because wages per hour of work are a basic part of working conditions. Other questions Differences by platform It is hard to tell, but it looks as if people who use Blackboard may spend between 12 hours per day on average per class while people who use Moodle spend 2-3 hours per day on a class. Twice as many Blackboard users get paid $2,000 -- $3,000 per class than $3,000 $4,000. (23 to 10). People who teach on line as part of a full-time load appear to be more likely to use Moodle plus other technologies than Blackboard. Who writes classes? The response to this question was complicated. An equal number of parttimer/adjunct faculty said they either did or did not write the class they teach, but many of these added comments about the way they shaped the class. Many of these respondents did not feel they could claim that they wrote a class entirely, but they modified it, wrote tests, provided readings, etc. By contrast, nearly all full-time tenure track faculty said they either wrote their class or collaborated on it. A somewhat smaller share of full-time contingent faculty said they either wrote the


class they teach or collaborated on it. Respondents reported pay ranging from zero to $1000 to $5000 for writing a class. Technology platform questions 95 respondents answered the question, “What technology platform do you use?” What platform is used for teaching has important budgetary consequences for the institution and will shape how courses are conducted and integrated into an institution. The choices offered in this survey were telephone, Skype, Blackboard, Moodle and dispersed classrooms with microphones and video (typical of distance learning classrooms from the 1990s). Respondents offered other choices such as WebCT, ANGEL, Elluminate, Desire2Learn, eCollege, VoiceThread, Ning, ComCourse, Sakai, Etudes, WEBTYCHO and Oncourse, and platforms possibly unique to their college. There is weak trend suggesting that Blackboard users average 1.5 to 2 hours per day on each class. Moodle users average 2 to 3 hours per day on each class. It is not possible to tell how other delivery technologies (Skype, telephone) interact with these two platforms. Technology support questions Respondents were asked whether they got tech help from the school promptly and easily. Most responded that tech assistance was easy and fast. Sixty out of 87 said they supply their own computer and 73 pay for their own internet. Overall, 95% get no technology subsidy. Only 20% work in an office provided by the institution with equipment provided by the institution. It is likely that those who use school-supplied equipment and offices are the full-time faculty; however, they also work at home on their own equipment. Intellectual property questions Sixty one percent (76) of the 124 people who answered this question said they wrote the class they taught. Eighteen said it was a collaborative effort. Seventyseven percent of those who wrote their class were full-time contingent or tenuretrack. Seventy five percent, or 88 of the 117 who answer this question, did not get paid to write the class they wrote. Ninety two or 76% of the 121 who answered a slightly different question either did not get paid or got paid less than $1,000 to write a class. Note: those who are employed full-time often mentioned that they wrote the class as part of their full-time load. Forty one percent did not know who owns copyright to the class they wrote. Two individuals who wrote and owned their class licensed the class they wrote to the 6

school so that the school could use it. It is not clear that anyone understood that copyright is a bundle of separate rights which are all owned by the creator unless explicitly sold or licensed. Three out of 66 get compensated if someone else teaches the class they wrote. Academic support questions Ninety-one and a half percent get no academic support for teaching a class (graders, readers, research assistants to develop or update a class, teaching assistants). Respondents at one state university said that graders were hired to read the discussion sections in their on line classes. This could be compared to technical support which appears to be satisfactory. Job security questions Four out of 93 respondents have written contractual seniority rights to teach the class they are teaching. Forty six out of 93 (about half) say they have this right by past practice. Since 33 percent say they have a union (mostly at community colleges and state universities) this high percent of past practice rather than contractual rights may be a function of the question not having been negotiated yet. It also may reflect the number of full-time faculty who assume they have a continuing right to teach their class. However, enforcing a past practice depends on more than collegial good will. Furthermore, in some faculty contracts, online faculty are specifically excluded from union representation. Benefits Eighty five percent of those who responded as adjunct faculty got no benefits from their employers (contribution to healthcare, retirement, paid sick days and vacation accrual). The fifteen percent who got some benefits got contributions to retirement. Motivation We asked two questions intended to reveal the attitude of instructors who are teaching on line toward their work and its role in their school. 74% percent agreed with the statement, “An important part of the mission of the institution where I teach this course is to reach students who are geographically dispersed, live in a remote place, or have mobility limitations, so distance learning is an effective response to that challenge.” And even more, or 81%, agreed with the statement, “I believe that this course, and the expertise which I bring to teaching it, is an indispensable contribution to the mission of the institution where I teach.” Adjunct faculty and full-time faculty did not differ much on these two questions. 7

Imagining working conditions One way to bring this information to life is to ask how much are instructors in this picture making per hour and how much they would have to work, at that rate, to earn a living wage. Possibility #1: An online instructor, an adjunct, works at home for two, three or more institutions, getting paid $2000 per class for three classes per semester. Since the semesters are compressed (5, 7 or 8 weeks, meaning 5 semesters per year) he or she can teach 3 x $2,000 x 5 or $30,000 per year working 6 hours per day (assuming 2 hours per class for 3 classes). That is about $14 per hour. The cost of computers and technology and office-in-the home might come to $200 a month but are tax deductions. The instructor has no healthcare, retirement, or other benefits, and no job security. Occasionally he or she writes a class for another $1,000. Possibility #2: An online instructor, an adjunct, works at home for one institution getting paid $3,000 per class for two classes per semester. Again, the semesters are compressed making 10 classes per year possible, or $30,000 per year again. This person might spend 3 hours a day on each class, which is still a little less than $14 per hour. Possibility #3: An online instructor, an adjunct, teaches one class per semester twice a year for $4,000 per class, spends 4 hours a day on his or her class, gets $8,000 per year, but actually only works about 120 days out of the year and makes and so makes $16 an hour in a less-than-half time job. No benefits, healthcare, retirement, job security or subsidy for technology. Teaching in an interactive digital environment means providing content Based on these findings, it looks as if an adjunct faculty member who teaches online, and whose income is entirely from that work, can make a living that is about twice the federal poverty level for a single individual. This includes no benefits, job security or subsidy for office and technology costs. What does that mean for faculty organizations that are concerned with standards for workers in higher education? One way to start is to compare the new digital environment to the brick-and-mortar classroom of twenty years ago. A school has a building; each room in that building can be used to convene a class, for which students pay tuition. The school hires 8

teachers to run the classes. The teacher designs the class, assigns books, runs the class, and is paid by the school out of tuition and other revenue. The whole enterprise is, more or less, a single financial entity. Or compare it to the publishing industry of twenty years ago. A writer would write a book, sell it to a publisher who would then print up books and market them through booksellers. The publisher organized the economics of the system, balancing payouts to the writer and the printer with revenue from bookstores and people who bought the book, and keeping some. Authors kept their copyrights. Academic and trade publishing both worked this way. Again, the enterprise is a single financial whole, more or less. Both of these are relatively simple systems and the connection between income and outgo are at least traceable by the average person. This is not the case in the new worldwide digital distribution system. The architecture of the new system goes like this: At the base are global fiberoptic networks, funded by governments to serve administrative, commercial and military purposes and connected internationally through international agreements. These in turn sell space to content delivery networks (CDNs). These CDNs deliver content to audiences of end-users. What was a book, and what happened in the classroom and between the student and the teacher, is now called “content”. CDNs get their content by hosting media companies. Examples of these in the US include Amazon, BBC, Fox News, Facebook, MySpace, NetFlix and others. Distance education content providers are just another media company. Their job is to populate a CDN with content, which happens to be the communication tasks of the classroom and its support services. The most reliable stream of revenue supporting this whole edifice of the worldwide digital distribution system, other than governments, is individual purchasers of access to internet providers. At between $45 to $100 per month times billions of subscribers, this is where the money comes from. Therefore it is essential that the content which is available on line be as magnetic and indispensible as possible. Individual experiments in online content delivery do not have to make money, short-term. The question is not, “Does this content make money by itself?” It is, “Does this content keep internet service purchasers paying the monthly bill?” The education industry is huge, mature and complex in ways that even is not. Creative ways to monetize its various aspects emerge almost daily. Setting aside the increases in tuition and the boom in student loans, how about research and the tradition of peer review? SAGE has just established an online peer-reviewed journal and is inviting submissions, which are free, but which incur a publishing fee of $99 ( if the article is accepted. What about diplomas and certificates? Coursera, which was a start-up in 2012, just announced partnerships with 62 universities world wide and claims a student base of 2.7 million ( They will award a 9

“Verified Certificate” of completion from a MOOC (Massive Open Online Class) for $30 to $100. These are just news items that have reached the mainstream press in late February, 2013. In a period of “excess demand” for higher education, driven by the use of a college degree as the minimum requirement for even entry-level jobs (Rampell, 2.20.13) during a period of high unemployment, the market for higher education, fueled by desperation, is a healthy target for financial inventiveness. One generation ago, a university was an integrated whole both academically and financially. Today, money is flowing through this system very differently. The institution rides on top of a pyramid of other industries, all of which have their own economies. What do other content providers make? If we think of online instructors as another category of content providers, to whom should we compare them? In a way, academic content providers are “creatives” like screenwriters and musicians and composers. Musicians and composers register ownership through ASCAP ( which licenses and distributes royalties for public performances. They contend with piracy and pay attention to copyright, both of which are concerns for online instructors. Scanty revenues to musicians from online platforms like Pandora are in the current news. Academic online instructors are also like workers who staff technical assistance, media and commercial websites, generating content for CDNs. In the digital universe, these are entry-level jobs. According to Simplyhired (, the pay for a website content provider averages $50,000 per year or $24 an hour. This is obviously more than the $14 per hour that the adjuncts in our survey make. Next steps The existence of sophisticated digital communication platforms makes possible the unbundling of activities associated with higher education in ways that would not have been efficient in the past. Once the platform exists, implementing this unbundling can be rapid. Then each can be monetized.. Teaching is low-hanging fruit in this economic picture. The place where labor actually has some power, however, is still the point of production, the place where the teacher works, interacting with the student on the one hand and the employer on the other. Now it is necessary to ask: “Production of what?” And: “Cui bono?” Who benefits? Organizational background of this survey and findings This survey was authorized at the August 2012 conference of COCAL (Coalition on Contingent Academic Labor) in Mexico City. It is also a project of the United 10

Association for Labor Education Online Learning Working Group ( and the Online Education Work Group of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education ( Contact: Helena Worthen 21 San Mateo Road Berkeley, CA 94707 510-828-2745 REFERENCES Berry, J. and Savarese, M. 2012. Directory of U.S. Faculty Contracts and Bargaining Agents, National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions, Hunter College, CUNY. Central Valley Next Generation Broadband Infrastructure Project. CVNGBIP receives $46.6 million in ARRA funding. (, • Feb 22, 2013 Cortese, Janis. Feb 2013. Transpacific Agreement Signed to Increase Global Ultra High Performance Networking. Media contact for CENIC, 714-220-3453, Empson, R. January 8, 2013. Coursera Takes a Big Step Forward Monetization, Now Lets’ Students Earn “Verified Certificates” for a Fee. Downloaded from Rampell, C. February 20, 2013. It Takes a BA to Find a Job as a File Clerk. New York Times, A-1, A-3. General information about CDNs from various articles on Wikipedia