Should You Get to Choose Your Online Instructor?

Should You Get to Choose Your Online Instructor?

When you decide to start an online degree program you have probably considered the school and assessed the potential for receiving a quality education. Next, you sign up for classes based upon your degree program, or they may be assigned for you based upon the system that’s in place with your school. What’s interesting is that many online schools do not allow students to choose their instructors, and you may not find out who the instructor will be until the class starts.

For traditional colleges, students often are given this choice (if there are multiple instructors teaching the course) and over time they will choose instructors based upon student rankings, word of mouth, prior experience and their perceived overall quality of instruction. As an online student you have to completely rely upon the school to determine if the instructor has adequate experience, education, and knowledge to facilitate the class – and it is assumed the school has determined the best fit for the instructor and the course.

If you look at most online school websites you may find a few of the faculty profiles featured; however, I have not found a school that lists or describes all faculty members – and for some larger schools this may not be realistic, especially given the size of the adjunct pool. Here is an example of how online instructors are frequently introduced with online school websites: Our faculty sets us apart because they have advanced degrees and work experience in the field they teach. Their professional and academic expertise gives you insight and skills needed in real world work environments.

Is there a benefit to having a choice of instructors for online courses? As an online instructor, with an insider's view of how courses are often assigned in large online schools, here are some of the things you should consider:
•    How would you respond if you could review a list of the instructors’ qualifications prior to the start of class?
•    Would you be able to determine which instructor would best facilitate the course and help meet your academic needs?

How Would You Respond?

For schools that allow students to choose their instructor, the school website typically provides the instructor’s biography or background. That introduction creates an impression based upon your beliefs or interpretation of that bio, from the way it is worded to the perceived tone of the message. Instructors may project an image of working together with you by indicating they will share their knowledge and expertise and/or they may establish themselves as an expert or authority – with the expectation that you will attend class to learn from them. The most important question is whether or not you would be able to accurately match their background to your learning needs if you were given a choice. From my experience, newer online students would not be able to make an accurate assessment or decision.

Instructor Scheduling

The idea of letting online students have a choice certainly has merit. A school could list the instructors’ credentials, background, experience, and work in the subject field (including published work). However, this could pose several challenges for the school, especially if they do not have many instructors to offer for multiple sections of the course. This could create a scheduling issue, requiring schools to develop a large pool of available adjunct instructors. It would be neccessary to have someone available to provide assistance if you could not make a choice and needed further guidance when signing up for a class, which would require advisors to learn about the instructors’ background and experience. 

Why It Matters

Your instructor’s expertise has a direct impact on class discussions, communication, working relationships, and feedback provided for class assignments. When your instructor has significant real-world experience he/she is able to enrich the learning experience by bringing the course materials to life. If an instructor has also had prior online teaching experience they will be familiar with the process of developing meaningful feedback, can effectively guide the learning process, and will address your developmental needs. If you knew that an instructor had significant advanced education, along with online teaching experience, you would likely choose them for your class.  

It’s important to remember is that you ultimately do have choices – whether you learn about your instructors’ background prior to or at the start of class. You make decisions about your involvement in the class based upon your interactions. One method of getting to know more about your instructors and interact with them, especially if you do not know anything about their background prior to starting class, is to look for their online presence with social networking websites such as Twitter and LinkedIn.  

What Can You Do Now?

Students have found a way to voice their compliments and complaints. Two of the websites that allow students to provide ratings for their instructors, and the listings include on-ground and online instructors:

•    Rate My Professors: is described as a database of universities and professors and one of the most extensive on the web. Compared to its competition, had many more listings for professors than other professor rating sites. Another report that provides information about the Rate My Professor website indicates that over ten million comments have been posted on the site from students across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Over 6,500 schools are featured on the site as well as over one million professors.
•    Professor Performance: This website is similar in design; however, it offers further protection for the reputation of instructor with the following notation: The system grants higher influence to verified students, thereby reducing the impact from disgruntled students rating multiple times to bring down the GPA of his/her target professor. Also, to give professors a voice, professors can now respond to ratings on an individual basis.

A study was conducted about students’ use (and misuse) of Rate My Professor, “Do More Online Instructional Ratings Lead to Better Prediction of Instructor Quality?” and it concluded that instructors who receive low average online scores are typically rated more frequently. This may suggest that venting one’s frustrations serves as a disproportionate motivation to leave online instructional ratings. What this indicates is that students may intentionally provide a lower rating if they believe they have no other options to express their dissatisfaction, especially if there was a disagreement that was not resolved to their satisfaction.

I don't know how online students would use this information. If you start a class and then discover your instructor’s name is on one of these websites, would you drop the class? Schools utilize an end-of-course evaluation as a means of gauging the quality of learning, students’ expectations, and instructor effectiveness. Perhaps it would be helpful for schools to provide a listing of the instructors’ quality scores, although this is certain to bring about some debate among educators because of the potentially subjective nature of the student surveys. Be certain when you complete the end-of-course survey or evaluations to provide an objective summary so your school can learn about your overall classroom experience, as a means of effective quality control.

Having the option to choose your instructor may not be a realistic expectation for an online school. From the school’s perspective it presents logistical issues, which includes scheduling adjunct instructors. From your perspective as a student, you may not have enough information to assess your learning needs and then match the right instructor to those needs. Based upon my experience, online schools have an extensive recruitment and training process in place for the selection and hiring of instructors. (You can look for this kind of information on your school's/prospective school's website.) When your school makes decisions about instructors for you, those decisions are made with your developmental needs in mind.

Would you like to be able to choose your online instructor? Share your feedback via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Radius Images/Corbis

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