On becoming an online professor

This is an essay I wrote a couple of years ago and have updated it to reflect changes in my life and career. I hope it is of use to people.

I am frequently asked for details about my rather unusual career and how I got to be doing what I’m doing. I started with online education in 1999, when I helped develop a set of blended delivery courses (online and face to face) for the MA in Cornish Studies for the University of Exeter. I continued working with these until I returned to the States in 2001 on a 10 month grant project for the State of Florida. I had the good fortune to arrive three short weeks before 9/11 which caused a moratorium on most academic hiring in Florida and elsewhere. I did find that there was a need for people to teach courses online, however. I had done it before, so I signed up to teach two online Humanities courses for St. Petersburg College. I figured that it would tide me over while I looked for more “permanent” work, read “tenure track”, through the rough times. I just loved it, though. I enjoyed the challenges of building courses online and teaching students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to pursue higher education. My students were special, and the teaching was some of the most satisfying I had ever done. Online teaching calls for a completely different pedagogy, and it was one that I found very challenging. I realized I was the happiest and most satisfied I had ever been. I asked “could I make a living this way?” I ran some numbers and the nature of my job search changed. Today I am an adjunct for four different schools, St. Petersburg College, Florida Community College, Northampton Community College, and University of Maryland University College. I primarily teach Humanities and Anthropology core courses, and the amount I teach varies per term. There are some great things about earning a living this way, but it’s not for everyone. Here I will address some of the very real benefits and drawbacks to becoming a cyber prof.

PROS
This job can be very comfy. I don’t have to get dressed up to go to work, in fact, I don’t have to get dressed at all. I can teach from anywhere that has a decent internet connection, anywhere in the world, and I can do it on my own time. I can live where I want and travel when I want. If I have an illness or family emergency, I can attend to it without worry, and as I have elderly parents, this is a good thing. If I want to leave for a couple of weeks in the middle of a term, I can just do it as long as I set aside time to get my work done. I don’t have to sit on committees, or go to meetings. I have no commute, and no stacks of papers to deal with. It’s very environmentally friendly! Since my only office is a home office, I get great tax deductions. There is no pressure to publish so I do it for myself. I am making a pretty good living for someone with my type of degree, and I have the freedom and flexibility that I love. It works for me at this stage in my life where I need these things. However there are things to consider…

CONS
To make a decent living teaching online you have to teach A LOT. I generally teach about 10-13 classes per term to earn the kind of money I want to be earning. The reason I can do that is because all the course prep is done ahead of time, so I can handle more courses. I certainly couldn’t do that face to face! However, all the grading can be totally insane. I have lots (but I also assign essays so I do have myself to blame). Online teaching takes a lot of time. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, though, so you need to learn a bit about how it works before you decide if it’s for you. Even with all the nifty bells and whistles, online courses don’t run themselves. Not at all. To be a good online prof, you need to be a good teacher, engaged and personable. There are tricks of the trade, but I will address those in other blog entries.

You don’t get the hassles of working for an institution, but you don’t get the benefits either. As of this writing it’s still hard to be a fully online prof and be tenure track with one institution. I know some who are, but they still have many face to face duties with an institution. Their lifestyle is still quite different from mine. I don’t get insurance or other benefits from my job, I pay my own way to conferences, and I don’t have much by way of collegial stimulation. I do belong to mailing lists with all my institutions and within various disciplines, but it isn’t the same as meeting a colleague over lunch and discussing your latest research. Conferences become even more important in maintaining an academic presence and in just getting the stimulation and encouragement that many academics need.
Also, if you’re one of those academics who just love the prestige and exclusivity of the ivory tower, this may not be for you either. While some academics are terribly jealous of what I do, others look down their noses at online teaching in general. In doing a salary comparison of where I am now and “regular” professors in my field I’m competitive, and earn more than many of my peers in traditional academia, but that may not always be the case. Right now that’s fine with me, but it may be different a few years down the road. I realize that this is a very new way of doing things for universities. I’m hoping that somewhere down the road, institutions won’t care if their profs are on site, and those of us who choose to develop online education as their specialization will be full players. I’d love to be able to develop graduate level courses or seminars, but that isn’t possible for me just now. It isn’t where my bread and butter is, and that’s just fine. I’m helping to impart important concepts to people who need them, and I get greater joy from that at this stage than lots of theoretical noodling. I can do that elsewhere.
Also, realize that it is hard to keep up an active research profile and make good money this way. It’s hard to find the time to keep writing (although I still do). You don’t get the sabbaticals or holidays that most active researchers have the luxury of. Then again, no one is going to ask me to write any grants to earn my keep.

HOW DO I GET STARTED?
So you think you still want to do this? Ok, let’s go. Remember that it may take awhile for you to build up enough institutions to make a good wage. Schools typically have course caps on adjuncts, so you may need to get a few schools together. The first thing to do is look at what you can teach and do a search for schools that have strong online programs. I’d suggest community colleges first because many other universities tend to draw on their own talent pool in developing their online courses. If you’re not in the US look at the Open University or in Distance Learning programs. Very simply, e-mail their distance education coordinator and tell them that you’re interested in getting started. You will most likely need to do some training in online pedagogy and on how to operate and develop content for online learning management systems. I have been trained in Web CT, ANGEL, and Blackboard, as well as taken courses on proprietary systems, and have also taken a number of workshops and courses on advanced online pedagogy. If you already teach face to face, this training will be very valuable for you. As I said, it’s like apples and oranges, and you need to learn to do this properly.
Be sure to make sure the schools you are looking at are accredited and have a good reputation. There are some online programs that don’t, and you don’t want to be affiliated with them. If you are business or technologically oriented, you may wish to investigate accredited and respected corporate training programs and institutions. They are often in need and it could be a good way to go. Right now business, health and technology online programs are more developed than those in the Humanities and Social Sciences. It’s only a matter of time, though, before more curricula go online. If you have more questions or want specific recommendations, please feel free to contact me and I will try to be helpful.

13 Responses to “On becoming an online professor”

  1. Ben Says:

    Amy,

    I found your expression to be very informative and timely. I am a tradional ex-professor(13 yrs University level teaching, PH.D. – Education Technology, and out of the academy the last six years) with formal training pre-computer technology focused on av , multi-media and a Marshall McCluean critical-media background. With a self-taught technical Information Technology technology understanding, I am being considered for a position within the Comunity College arena as Coordinator, Instruction Design and Training. I feel confident enough to do this position, but I was wondering if you had a few key talking point or suggestions I might use in my upcoming interview. If you are able to respond before 10 am 11/12/08, I would really appreciate hearing from you. Otherwise, I would like to follow-up with you after my interview to talk about a potential collaboration. Also, I can send my cv for your inspection and feedback if you decide to assist me in my effort to re-invent myself and get my career back on track.

    In any case, I would like to thank you for this article you have written. Within it I can imagine a technology solution that can address some of the “cons” you expressed.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Ben

  2. Amy Says:

    Hi Ben, thank you for your kind comments. The first thing I would do is to demonstrate what you can do for them. Show your familiarity with different LMS/CMS platforms and come ready with opinions about features that might assist online learning (inclusion of media, etc.) Also, have a look at merlot.org, because I think everyone in this field should get to know it. Let me know how it goes! Good luck!

    I actually have some good technology solutions to the cons as well, and I’ll be posting about those. I have other tips too, but those are trade secrets I present in workshops.

  3. Rebecca Says:

    Amy,

    This article was very interesting! I recently became an online professor, and enjoy it very much. I just have a quick question for you if you have time, and it concerns the tax deduction for home office that you mentioned. My online University is in Iowa, and I live in Virginia, so clearly I have no office for this position. Have you ever had a problem claiming the tax deduction? What proof do you need to offer for it? Any advice you could offer would be greatly appreciated! I realize this article is about getting into online teaching, so you may not be able to speak to my question, but I thought it would be worth asking as you seem to have experience.

    Thank you,
    Rebecca

  4. Ed August Says:

    Amy,

    This question is from a different prospective (the student) and I would like your opinion:

    I have been researching many online instituions for earning a Master’s degree. Some schools (Ashford and Capella for example), claim to be regionally accredited, however they don’t seem to have any entrance requirements (other than a bachelors degree)… not even a GMAT exam. While I have plenty of time for study; my schedule just changes all the time, so I thought this format would be best. I’m just not sure about the value of this kind of education. Any thoughts?

  5. Amy Says:

    Reply to Rebecca,

    Sorry it’s taken me awhile to respond, I’m working in the UK right now. I believe that you only qualify for the home office deduction if you can prove that you have no office space anywhere else. Since I don’t and only have a home office, I can take it. You may want to take advice on your particular circumstances.

  6. Amy Says:

    Hi Ed,

    There are plenty of really good, legitimate schools offering fully online Master’s degrees. Many of the state schools are now doing them. I think that University of Florida now does a fully online MBA and USF in Tampa does a fully online MLS. You might want to do more research to find the quality provision you want. I have heard good things about Capella, but you might want to investigate further. I don’t know anything about Ashford.

  7. candido ramirez jr Says:

    Hello Ms. Hale how are you. I am wrtiting to you to say that this is a great article. I would like to try to do the same. I have re-read this article several times, trying to find the strength and encourage to pursue an academic career.

    Take Care,

    Jr.

  8. maryam Says:

    Hi I was wondering the range of money a person would make with a doctorate in public health as a full time virtual instructor? For I am working on my doctorate in public health and would like to work as a virtual instructor with walden university TUI university but I do not have any teaching experience or publications. Thanks.

  9. Amy Says:

    Hi Maryam,

    I really can’t say how much you could make. It depends on how much time you want to put into it. I am quite comfortable with what I earn, I suppose I could earn more, but I have other interests and I think I am maxed out on the teaching, really.

    It took several years to reach this level, though. I decided how much I wanted to make and then targeted schools and took courses accordingly. You can do very well in this field, but it won’t happen overnight.

  10. Paula Says:

    Hi Amy,

    Though this particular article is a couple of years old, it is very informative. I have some questions for you and you can email me if you’d rather not post your answers here. I’m looking to possibly move to Macedonia to be with my fiance who is from there. We currently contract in Iraq, and I’m enrolled in a Masters Program in the field that I am currently working in (logistics). I would love to teach after I get through contracting and earning my Master’s degree. A really good salary in Macedonia is 700-800 dollars a month and I would be very happy with earning $20,000 to $30,000. Do you believe I could make that as an online teacher? About how many classes would I have to teach to do so? I think that this is something that would really be good for me. Would you say that the salary that I would earn from online teaching would be sufficient? Are there any certifications that I would need to get in order to become an online professor? I”m really excited about the possibilities and any insights or advice you could give me would be greatly appreciated. Thanks so much! I hope to hear from you soon 🙂

  11. Amy Says:

    Hi Paula, yes, you can certainly make that salary fairly easily, but you have to build up the number of courses you teach and that may take some time. It is certainly do able just through working with one or two institutions, however. It is hard to say how many courses you would need to teach per year as different institutions offer different amounts per course. You can generally teach online courses with a Master’s degree, and if you get hired then they will give you training. There are other certificate programs you can take, but I am not sure if they are overly valuable. Hope this helps.

  12. Meg Says:

    Hi Amy, thanks so much for this very useful article. I am looking into certification and/or training to teach online courses that I will also design. I have seven years’ experience as a classroom teacher (h.s.) and four years in curriculum development. I’m looking for high quality training – my org will pay for it. Might you have any suggestions?
    Thanks!

  13. Amy Says:

    Hi Meg,

    I have to admit, I’m not as familiar with much of the online course development certs offered these days. I’ve been doing this since 1999, so have had training and continuing ed through my various institutions. I also follow current research on best practice though MERLOT and SLOAN-C. There are lots of certification courses out there, but I’m afraid I don’t have any experience with them. Good luck!

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Online Educational Specialist