Policy Recommendations XI

Virginia Tech Cyberschool

"Managing a Virtual Faculty"

Len Hatfield and Timothy W. Luke
Coordinators, Cyberschool
November 24, 1997

During the first meeting of the Fall 1997 semester, the Cyberschool faculty discussed a number of issues related to the University's plans to offer more courses on-line. While it is apparent that many of those who enroll in these classes will be "virtual students," or students who will not actually live in Blacksburg as traditional students in residence on campus, it is not so clear who will constitute the faculty that actually teaches these on-line courses. Because the Cyberschool faculty have had extensive experience in such work, we want to make some recommendations in anticipation of these "virtual faculty," in part, to establish guidelines for Virginia Tech instructors that might offer courses elsewhere for other institutions, and, in part, to determine policies for outsourced instruction from other institutions that will accrue hours of graded credit for Virginia Tech students.

At this juncture, several Virginia Tech faculty from all across the University already participate in the instruction of other courses for different universities in Australasia, Europe, and North America. However, these arrangements are almost entirely ad hoc understandings that the relevant Virginia Tech faculty enter into as overloads for a variety of reasons. This sort of invitation often is a sign of considerable national and international reputation. Yet, it is not fully recognized by most departments or colleges. Such arrangements bolster Virginia Tech's reputation as an international leader in on-line education, help recruit future students, and solidify important exchange relationships with universities all around the world. Therefore, they ought to be given greater credit and recognition.

By the same token, other Virginia Tech faculty see the merit of inviting instructors at other institutions, or other experts (writers, artists, industry specialists, etc.) to participate in the instruction of their courses here in Blacksburg. Such arrangements are, once again, largely ad hoc dealings that faculty and others elsewhere accept for a variety of reasons. Still, this sort of enrichment frequently is overlooked as an unusual benefit for Virginia Tech students who otherwise would have to travel at great expense in money and time all around the world to get similar experiences.

These contacts need to be reconsidered. More and more faculty here and elsewhere will be doing this sort of work, and some clear, consistent, and comprehensive policies should be spelled out in order to guarantee instructional quality, provide for fair compensation, and maintain credibility for the existing system of credits behind a Virginia Tech degree. Therefore, we want to outline some possible approaches to "managing a virtual faculty."

For Virginia Tech faculty who serve as outsourced, "virtual" instructors at other institutions, we suggest that the University develop a series of common understandings about:

1) Faculty Workloads: Virtual teaching opportunities elsewhere need to be examined closely by the University. How much of this should be done, where should it be done, how should it be done, who should do it, and what levels of technical support should go into it? If it is an innovative new practice that the University endorses, then it ought to be supported and regularized as part of ordinary faculty workloads.

2) Faculty Rewards: Virtual teaching opportunities elsewhere need to be considered as positive contributions in faculty evaluations for promotion, tenure, and raises. It needs to be recognized as a valuable pursuit on annual faculty activity reports as well as endorsed by the University as a legitimate part of any faculty member's teaching assignments (see "Rethinking Faculty Rewards and Loads: Net Work" for further discussion of faculty rewards in this environment).

3) Faculty Support: Virtual teaching opportunities must be supported by the University as fully as there are resources to back these endeavors. Since on-line courses can be taken anywhere anytime, there often are no limits preventing Virginia Tech students from enrolling in such courses and thereby increasing the demands on faculty time and on the informational support structure. Since these innovative activities support and further the academic mission of the University, Tech should plan for such increases and regularize such emergent demands upon the system.

For faculty from other institutions who will serve as outsourced instructors for Virginia Tech programs, we believe that the University must develop common understandings about:

1) Faculty Credentials: Virtual faculty-whether traditional academics or experts from other domains-from outside of the existing ranks of Virginia Tech faculty should meet some common set of quality expectations. Without some guidelines in this regard, the administration permits its own faculty to recruit outsiders ad hoc to help confer credit to its students.

2) Faculty Recruitment/Retention: Virtual faculty from outside at some point fairly soon will need to be recruited and retained to provide a consistent level of on-line education. If some, or indeed much, of this kind of work is going to be outsourced, then who will recruit the teachers, cultivate some institutional loyalty among them, or maintain their interest for Virginia Tech? These questions must be answered.

3) Faculty Benefits: Virtual faculty should not be exploited in order to provide the cheapest possible on-line educational services. Guidelines about faculty recognition, compensation, support, and benefits, need to be developed in order to afford a fair and equitable treatment to these new types of University personnel.

Certainly, these arrangements represent some very thorny questions that go straight to the heart of job control, satisfaction, and performance at the University. For that reason, we believe they need to be addressed as comprehensively and quickly as possible. Virginia Tech faculty already are working as outsourcing affiliates elsewhere, and the University may wish to recruit outsourced faculty to supplement its already overcommitted faculty in launching special new on-line initiatives. Consequently, the Cyberschool faculty urge that these issues be addressed by the President's and/or Provost's offices as soon as possible to prepare for these major changes in instruction now.