As an academic, I have always felt a little removed from discussion about outsourcing. Yes, my school on occasion uses visiting faculty or adjuncts to fill in holes in our course offerings but those faculty would be present on campus. There was never any question of turning over part of the curriculum to an outside firm. Consequently, a headline of “Universities turn to outsourced instructors” (USA Today, Jun 29) is kind of eye-catching.
While the title might be alarmist (at least to a faculty member), the program they focus on is in some ways fairly modest.
This fall, when students of Missouri State University in Springfield, Mo., take an introductory journalism class, they’ll have some of the most qualified teachers in the field.
But the teachers won’t be on the university payroll.
They work for St. Petersburg-based Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism training group, which has agreed to supply the university with instructors for the class via the Internet.
“We are leveraging our e-learning platform to help journalism educators to have more time with their students,” said Howard Finberg, interactive learning director for Poynter. “We can do some of the teaching for them.” …
Under the Missouri State-Poynter arrangement, the university provides the curriculum, but Poynter supplies teachers for different components of the course — a new model for instructional outsourcing, Russell says.
Poynter began exploring teaching Journalism 101 to American college students last fall after it received a $50,000 grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. So far, it has signed up both Missouri State and Florida Atlantic University, which has campuses in several Florida cities.
So for the moment, we are talking about one course. Missouri State is actually paying a premium for it; Poynter is getting more than Missouri Stat typically pays when hiring an adjunct. The extra cash is justified by having a better level of talent than is available locally and by charging students extra for the course.
Oh, and the article says that the faculty senate is bent out of shape. Didn’t see that one coming.
But does this make sense, operationally? It clearly does on a lot of levels. Assuming that some sort of on-line platform works well for the topic, this allows a university to offer a better level of instruction. One great teacher could ultimately serve multiple universities.
It also seems a great way to broaden a school’s offerings. That is, I am not sure that this is most attractive for an intro level course (as Missouri State is doing). If you buy into the notion that anyone on the faculty should be able to teach an introductory class (although some might lack the classroom presence to win over students), then the school likely has the expertise to do the class in-house. Outsourcing would seem better suited for electives on topics for which a department doesn’t have a resident expert.
For the faculty delivering the course, this outsourcing scheme also could be very attractive. Prepping class is one of the banes of teaching. Working for an outsourcer seems the quick way to scale. A given university may be able to only support one section a year of a given course. Outsourcing could allow the instructor to deliver the same course several times in one semester at multiple times at multiple universities. Giving the same lecture half a dozen times in one week may not be the most stimulating work, but it is in many ways more attractive than having to come up with a half dozen different lectures every week.
So who loses? Well clearly resident faculty are threatened if there is an active enough market to offer a wide a variety of courses. But there also seem to be threats to the universities themselves. Take this to the logical extreme and suppose that schools can offer pretty much any course via some sort of outsourced arrangement. What then makes a school special? Is there a reason to go to Missouri State over Whatever State if they both offer the same line up of courses with the same faculty? At the risk of denigrating my profession, it would be a little like choosing between a cable provider and satellite TV. Either way, you’re going to be watching ESPN and HBO. A few peripheral aspects of the service may differ but the main part is the same. This would presumably not be an issue at the high-end but at regionally focused schools it might be more relevant. If the school’s goal is to offer students the widest range of courses and majors in its slice of Missouri, that may become harder if all universities can tap into the same set of courses from outsourcers.