An Online Economics Professor Reveals All

Online education is seriously on the rise, garnering praise from congressmen and even gaining share among elementary school students. In the realm of higher education, more and more schools are offering online degree programs as an alternative to in-class courses, with some schools creating online-only engineering and law degrees as well as bachelors’.

But have you ever wondered who’s on the other side of the computer, teaching these online students?

Jamie Gladfelter is an online economics teacher for schools across the country, including Midstate College in Peoria, Ill.; Lake Tahoe Community College in South Lake Tahoe, Calif.; Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, N.C.; Southeastern Illinois College in Harrisburg, Ill.; and North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, N.D. After getting his B.S. and M.S. in economics at Illinois State University, Gladfelter took a job at Midstate as an institutional researcher, and started teaching online courses. He lives in Chicago, but that is pretty much irrelevant. Here’s a look at his current sphere of influence:

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Gladfelter agreed to answer some questions about his online teaching.

Q: How do you put together your various teaching positions and your curriculum?

A: I taught an online class or two at Midstate College, where I was hired as an institutional researcher out of graduate school. I found out that I had to move from the area and began asking myself questions such as: “Why couldn’t I still teach my classes from Chicago?” This led to the question, “Why couldn’t I teach classes at any school in the nation from Chicago?” Almost every higher-education institution in the country offers an introductory micro or macroeconomics class. Community colleges and smaller private colleges are experiencing a lot of growth from their online course offerings. Community colleges also rely heavily on adjunct instructors. I decided I was going to specialize in online introductory economics classes and target community colleges. Talk about division of labor.

I found a great resource that would help me in this goal. I sent my resume and cover letter out to several hundred institutions from coast to coast, and was denied by 99 percent of the schools. I was, however, able to make contact with a few deans and department chairs who were looking to hire adjunct faculty for economics. Some of the schools already used remote employees, but others I had to convince. In a field as new as online education, experience is a trump card. As I added courses, I became more appealing to other colleges. I also invested in top-of-the-line software and hardware with which to market myself. I am now at the point where I turn down classes because I don’t want to overextend myself.

Q: Who are your competitors?

A: Personally, I am competing for course assignments with anyone who traditionally teaches at a community college: the middle manager M.B.A. at a local corporation who wants some extra money and wants to take on a class or two to boost his resume; or the full-time faculty member at the college who has no incentive to take on extra courses because it doesn’t affect his salary. I don’t know of anyone else who specializes to the degree that I do, so competition with like-minded individuals is negligible.

Q: For the students, what are the advantages and disadvantages of online teaching? And what about for you as a teacher?

A: For myself, in term of lifestyle, the most obvious advantage is the flexibility that it offers me. I can teach from anywhere I want, and for the most part, whenever I want. Rather than “take time off,” I simply work ahead. All things considered, the pay is decent. Most importantly, I enjoy the interaction with the students. Sure, it’s not the traditional “interaction,” but I can tell you this: when I took my first economics class at a four-year state university, it was in a lecture hall of more than 200 students. I didn’t exchange one word with the instructor. Compare this to one of my online classrooms of 15 to 20 students in which I e-mail or exchange posts with almost every student each week. As you know from working in print, it is possible to get people to see things differently without speaking to them.

Disadvantages for myself include the lack of face-to-face interaction with coworkers and students. Also, no one is telling me when to “get to work,” so the job requires some self-motivation. To help with this, I share an office with some young entrepreneurs in Chicago’s Loop. This gives me the type of social work atmosphere that humans tend to crave.

As for the students, the most obvious advantage for them is also the flexibility. Many of my students are working adults with families, so having the option of completing coursework whenever they can is important. We’re talking about people who are able to obtain an education who wouldn’t normally be able to. They still have to do the reading, complete the assignments, and participate in the class discussion, but they can do it from their home or office. This leads to the biggest disadvantage for students: more of the burden of learning is on them. Sure, they can (and do) send me questions whenever they don’t understand a topic, but to say that they don’t have to work harder to teach themselves in an online class versus a traditional class would be lying. There are times when a student just “can’t get it,” and providing individual tutoring, while possible, is harder.

Q: What do traditional economics professors think of what you’re doing?

A: I haven’t the slightest idea. If I had to guess, I would think their initial reaction would be one of condescension, contempt, and jealousy, followed by “That’s kind of cool.” There are a lot of large, for-profit online schools that need to be more closely scrutinized, but to say that an online education is automatically inferior to a traditional one is close-minded (see my lecture hall example above). There would probably be some insecurity about whether online classes would be taking away traditional teaching jobs, which, in the long run, I don’t think it will.

Q: What are the quality and nature of your online students?

A: As you would imagine, my students come from much more diverse backgrounds than you would find in a traditional undergraduate microeconomics class. There are several types of students, which I’ll rank by their frequency:

1. Late-twenty-something to forty-something working adults. These are students who started working right out of high school and have hit a wall in their careers by not having an education. Maybe they went to college at some point, but most never finished. Some of them excelled in school when they were there, and some of them barely scraped by. Generally speaking, this group requires the most effort to teach. There are always quite a few “stars” out of this group, but there are also adults who haven’t been in a math class in 15 years.

2. Early-twenties quasi-traditional students. These are students who may actually be attending another university, or have recently transferred. They are taking online courses because these courses are cheaper or more suited to their schedule. Their academic credentials are usually better than those of the first group.

3. Teenage go-getters. I’ve noticed an increase in the number of high school students who are taking courses online for credit. These students are able to satisfy their general education requirements with little cost, and enter a four-year university with a year of credits under their belts. Students in this group are usually very bright and have excelled in academics.

With the combination of academic credentials and frequencies above, the mean for academic quality (if there is such a thing) is a bit lower than one would expect from a group of 18- to 19-year-old undergraduates. That being said, if I was able to pick a dream team from all my classes, I would put them up against a group from almost any other school.


Antonio Galvan

Wow, this seems like a confirmation of the "Did you know" video by educator Karl Fisch. I personally think that online education has a very big advantage over traditional education: the students tend to be more self-motivated than in a traditional classroom. Besides, not everybody can manage their time. So I think that if the curriculum is challenging and well designed, apart from the subject itself you're also learning about technology, time management, effective communication, teamwork, etc.

Grant

"I would think their initial reaction would be one of condescension, contempt, and jealousy, followed by 'That's kind of cool.'"

I must admit, I have a hard time trusting the effectiveness of online teaching. This is hypocritical of me, as I've never taken an online course and probably never will (I'm about to graduate with my BA, and I doubt you'll ever see a graduate seminar in history taught online), but I think the hardest thing is to separate online courses from legitimate schools from those scams like DeVry and Phoenix.

I guess I can get over a few lower-level courses in the right subjects being online, but I rue the day when human interaction is replaced with electronic interaction (he types on the blog), especially in the realm of higher education.

TimB

I think there is a whole spectrum of quality in online education from xyz Diploma mill to fully accredited graduate business programs from the likes of Indiana University and Duke.
From the perspective of a potential student - I think the time-shifting ability is attractive to working professionals. Depending on what technologies actually become mainstream in teaching such courses (chats, blogs, wikis, email, audio/video conferencing) -- there is the potential for at least as much interaction as "traditional" courses.

Artur

Grunt above said "I rue the day when human interaction is replaced with electronic interaction (he types on the blog), especially in the realm of higher education." I believe that, in the future, electronic interaction won't be that different from human interaction. People will be able to communicate using quality video and voice. Lectures in which there's no teacher-student interaction don't need the students and teacher to be in the same place, and those can all already happen online. I think one day everyone will be able to achieve a higher education for free, depending only on their self-motivation. With the Internet, a lecture that happened only once in the real world can be seen by millions of people during many years.

April

hmmm..I've done both, and yes, excellent time management skills are a necessity for students taking online courses. I'm not sure which is more difficult, but I will say that effective interaction is higher in the realm of online work, precisely for the reasons cited. Technology has changed the concept of "human" interaction--the PDA/Blackberry/cell phone/laptop generations seem to feel a deep need to constantly be "in touch" in a way that has been redefined to include swift messages that reach out to individuals or groups. For an individual who practically lived in books--that is, couldn't put a book down-- as a child, this virtual world revolving around words is an extension of the self. Accessibility to education via the internet is an evolving process that, like all institutions has good and bad. The ability to discern the advantages will hopefully keep thiings moving in the right direction.

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M Limber

My graduate engineering program at a traditional university offered a number of courses at satellite campuses by VHS tape, and later on the web. I much preferred the live section so that I could interact with the teacher, but while the university normally (formerly?) scheduled a goodly number of its graduate courses in the evening to accommodate working professionals like me, it rarely offered the live section of any course that was taped in the evening since it was less convenient for the professor.

Add to that, students being taped are much more reticent to speak up in class (you may look dumb for posterity!), and the amount of space available for writing is greatly reduced -- no more wall-spanning blackboards where the prof can refer to his previous calculations, definitions, etc.

I could email or phone professors with questions, but the time lag and removal of my question from the context in which it would have been asked greatly inhibited the effectiveness of the answer (if I received one!) in improving my understanding. I also lacked any classmates with whom to study and work to better our mutual understanding of the subject.

The main advantages were a more flexible schedule -- which also requires significant discipline to make sure one doesn't skip virtual class due to other commitments or laziness -- and the ability to rewind and pause to catch up in note taking and to hear the material again. But I don't think these out-weight the negatives.

When I reached the point of electives, I took the rest of my MS courses in applied math from the math department which didn't have virtual classes. I got face-to-face instruction and interaction with the teacher and other students.

My erstwhile adviser described our school's type of virtual education program as "the abortion of education" and the department's most respected professor said virtualization decreased the quality of the class something like 60 dB, which is engineering speak for "a lot". The latter tried to teach v-courses for a while but eventually started refusing anything but a live class.

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Nathan

As an online student who mets most of the first demographic typecasting of an online student,. I found this to be a very nice article/interview particularly as I just finished my Economics Theory course and was wondering a bit about the market for Teachers who provide this instruction, or moderation as one of my instructors called it. However as I am also a Stay at Home Parent, I do not have the same social interactions which are available to others who work. Yet, I find that there are more and more people in my classes who are also Stay at home parents focused on being able to return to the work force with a new or more developed skill set when their kids go to school.

Alex

The convenience for both professors and students is hard to argue with, but I have invariably found physical classrooms to be better managed by professors than the virtual ones. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that classrooms have been around for centuries and there has been a lot of trial and error over that time to find out what does and doesn't work. In virtual classrooms it's still very unclear what actually works in terms of teaching methods and most professors have never been on the student side of the screen to have a sens of what is good for the students. Basically, the growth of virtual classrooms is inevitable, but I'd wait a couple of decades before stepping into the virtual room if at all possible.

Adam

Positive: Just as amazon and ebay have helped remove road rage and parking nightmares out of retail shopping, online educators seem to be improving the system by making it more accessible and flexible for students.
Negative: Just as amazon and ebay have in part contributed to the struggle and failure of mom and pop retail shops, An online position keeps the universities from hiring local professors or graduate students, many in need of jobs or workstudy.
Conclusion: In a digital world, What's the difference between farming out the work across state lines or to south-eastern asia? This is obviously too complicated an issue to blog about.

Jamie Gladfelter

Alex, you state:

"The convenience for both professors and students is hard to argue with, but I have invariably found physical classrooms to be better managed by professors than the virtual ones. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that classrooms have been around for centuries and there has been a lot of trial and error over that time to find out what does and doesn't work. In virtual classrooms it's still very unclear what actually works in terms of teaching methods and most professors have never been on the student side of the screen to have a sens of what is good for the students."

I don't disagree with you. Because online education is a relatively new field, there are people who are teaching online who don't have the required skill set. Just as Mr. Smith predicted, as an industry grows the division of labor becomes more pronounced, resulting in greater specialization and more efficient methods. As time goes on, shady institutions will be purged from the market, best practices will develop, and online courses will prove to be a legitimate alternative (not replacement) to traditional courses. It is exciting to be involved in something like this.

*Note: A couple of decades seems like an awful long time for something as tech-oriented as online education to develop. There are top notch programs available online as I type, but the road to a quality online education certainly has more potholes now than it will in a few years.

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Jamie Gladfelter

Adam, you state:

"Negative: Just as amazon and ebay have in part contributed to the struggle and failure of mom and pop retail shops, An online position keeps the universities from hiring local professors or graduate students, many in need of jobs or workstudy."

The goal of a college is to provide the best possible education to their students given their institutional budget constraints, not provide jobs to local professors and graduate students who choose not to adapt to a changing world. Whereas mom and pop stores simply cannot experience the same economies of scale and scope as large corporations, the skills needed to become an online educator are free for the taking for all local professors and graduate students. Any failure to do so is a voluntary removal from this market.

coolrepulica

A lot of people can learn a lot of things by just surfing the net, if they are commited to getting the knowledge they don't even a teacher.

But many subject don't translate well online and I would never trust someone who got a degree in certain fields on line (i.e doctors.) I don't care how great the software they are using. Subject that require engagement and debate cannot be taking online.

Philosophy is not something that you can study on line and get anything meaningful out of it. Yes you can read about what other philosophers have said in the past and other stuff, but the real fun of taking a philosophy class is debating with other students and the teacher. That game of wit you play in class with people who do not share your belief and trying to prove them wrong is better than "you know what." You can't get that rush from leaning over a keyboard.

Anything that requires hands on practice can't be done online.

Things you can study on line are: Math, physics, learning how to type,geography, economics and things that doesn't require a real exchange of ideas.

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Grant

Be careful, coolrepulica...

Economics, physics, math, and many other things that you designate as appropriate for online require a great deal of exchange of very complex ideas. As much so in the upper levels as the humanities.

That said, this is why I see a pretty sharp distinction between lower-level (say 100- and 200- in the traditional undergraduate scale) and upper (300 and 400-) level courses. I just don't see the debate necessary for some of the really great art history or history seminars and colloquia happening online.

The same goes for graduate level study in these same academic disciplines where the give-and-take of discussion is key. In other graduate programs, such as business and library/information science, I think online classes can not only be beneficial, but even bordering on required (since these online skills are more applicable to the careers one generally finds with these degrees).

I also just remember another related anecdote. Last Saturday I took the GRE, and the level of computer knowledge required for that is absolutely rudimentary. They have a tutorial for using a mouse for crying out loud. I just don't see online courses happening in a widespread fashion too fast when a large pool of potential graduate students seems to lack the skills to take them, or at least that's what ETS is telling me with its overly-simplistic computer program.

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Adam

Jamie, I thankyou for the chance to clarify my earlier point, as I now see that it is necessary...

Jamie Gladfelter, you state:

"Whereas mom and pop stores simply cannot experience the same economies of scale and scope as large corporations, the skills needed to become an online educator are free for the taking for all local professors and graduate students. Any failure to do so is a voluntary removal from this market."

The distinction I was trying to make was not between small and large businesses which would defininitely be an economies of scale sort of conversation but rather physical and virtual business which begins to draw on personal interactions can affect the buyer and seller, or in this case, the student and professor. In addition, the differences in overhead between physical and virtual business such as insurance, rent, wages, benefits, travel, etc. certainly fuels the conversation.

To clarify my earlier point and relate it back to the virtual marketplace, I would assume that if a university could pay an online teacher less than it would need to pay a local professor and / or graduate student, then it would. If we only had online teachers, the physical universities would cease to exist... I'm not being melo-dramatic, just testing the extremes.

Ultimately, I'm trying to draw attention to the fact that a shift from the physical marketplace to the digital marketplace has more than economic implications, however it can certainly not be answered here.

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Jamie Gladfelter

Thanks for the clarification Adam. I understand your point and agree that online education brings up a whole new set of issues and "Where is this leading us?" conversations. As we know from economics, it can be very useful to "test the extremes", but extremes are rarely achieved.

Also, and I'm not sure if this even needs to be pointed out, from my experience schools pay the same wage to an online professor as a traditional professor, which removes the school's temptation to sacrifice academic quality for the bottom line.

Thanks for continuing the conversation.

Jason D

I am working on a master's degree in engineering doing all the work online while working full time. Comparing my undergrad learning verses the online learning I will say that I am learning more now. For example in undergrad I found some of the Profs would go through something quicker then I can comprehend it, now I can pause the Prof and mentally play with the idea intill I can comprehend it. The homework and tests are same for online or real world learning. Though I will say the online learing is more time intensive,becuase there is no around to ask in real time about a problem, so homework can take longer. Specially if your prone to missing a minus sign.

CLT

The cost of education is beginning to exceed the borrowing power of students and parents pulling together. Economies of scale through technologies will come to exist through necessity. And why not? An excellent tutorial distributed nationwide could replace thousands of live teachers giving live lectures which amount to an oral recital of a textbook. Live teachers would monitor work, give personal assistance and lead discussions and seminars.

Every institution of learning -- higher, lower, professional, technical -- will adopt mass teaching technology or perish. Along the way, they will bring excellence, innovation and even individual attention into the mix. We will look back at the intro courses taught in large auditoria and smirk.

Mary

I'm in the middle of an online masters program. I MUCH prefer online, but I'm disciplined. I'm not an auditory learner and time spent in class was wasted on me in my undergrad, not to mention the commuting and juggling my life around their hours.

I would argue the point that online debate is every bit as active as face-to-face, and often more. And I wouldn't hesitate to trust any career professional who studied online.

Nancy

I am a mathematics teacher who teaches both on campus and online at a technical school. The mathematics that I teach online is for adults, but it is elementary and middle school level math (fractions, decimals, percents, etc.). My group is usually divided into two main groups with a third very minor group, and the groups tend to be different from those Jamie mentions.

My older students (I'll say 30+), which seem to be the majority of my online students, have the life responsibilities that were mentioned, but also have the discipline and motivation to do well and get it done. They explore more on their own, ask more complex questions, and they interact and encourage one another quite a bit more than their younger counterparts. They have a vested interest because they frequently pay more out of pocket for their education than their younger counterparts.

My second largest group are the younger ones right out of high school who take the online class because they think it will be easier since they don't have to go to class. They have less self discipline and less motivation than their older counterparts; and they truly don't undertand why, when I've given them a week to take a test, I won't give them a make-up test once it expires and they've missed it. Many of them don't even own a computer and, surprisingly, don't know how to work one. This means that even though they don't have to come to class, they still have to come to campus to do their work and they do that only occasionally. Without the "forced" discipline of attending daily, a lot of them procrastinate and end up doing poorly because of it. About a third of them don't make it past midterm because of their inability (or possibly refusal) to follow simple step-by-step instructions on what they need to do. Even the FAQ and checklist I provide on what to do at the beginning of the quarter haven't seemed to help much with this group. The local lottery scholarship money pays their way, so they have no personal investment in it. Our county is notorious for inflating grades in the public schools, so they have been trained to continue to expect it in the "higher education" institutions.

When this particular class was developed online, it was aimed mainly at those students who took higher level mathematics in high school, but need the class to graduate and don't need to "waste" their time doing things they aced back in 8th grade. Interestingly enough, those are not the students who typically enroll in the class. However, there are some of those students (this is the third small group I mentioned), and they - like the older students - are a lot of fun. They learn some extra little things - some depth - that they perhaps hadn't noticed before when they did it in middle school.

I personally prefer the on campus classes for two reasons.
One, I like face-to-face interaction. I'm truly sorry that I don't get to experience their lives on a daily basis and see the looks on their faces when they "get it" for the first time. I miss the gentle teasing that they do to each other and to me about things that are said or done in a moment of silliness.
Two, we've had quite a few issues with the email systems, the online class servers, and the blocks that the state puts on certain ISPs. Yahoo, hotmail, etc. addresses are blocked. We can neither send to nor receive from these domains. This makes the first two weeks of the quarter a nightmare.

But, as long as students keep needing this class online, I will continue teaching it and I will continue looking for better and more interesting ways to do it. And, frankly, I do it for those in the first and third groups I mentioned because they deserve the attention and have worked for it. The second group will somewhere down the line end up growing up and being in the first group, if they're lucky, and then I'll be able to make a connection with them. But in the meantime, I can only show the horses where the water is. I can't force them to drink it.

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misterb

E-teaching tends to miss out on the pressure to conform that drives many of us to do what's necessary to pass our classes. It's certainly debatable whether completing a course constitutes "learning", but they give degrees for completion, not comprehension. Otherwise, we could all be auto-didacts - since they invented books, we could all have done distance learning, and some of our brightest people did just that. However, history tells us that not only are most people too lazy to open enough books, but those that do learn by themselves are rarely given credit for what they know.

The interviewee's statement, "their initial reaction would be one of condescension, contempt, and jealousy" would seem to confirm that attitude.
That said, I wouldn't go to a doctor with an MD from an online university.