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A Survey of Employment Trends for Online Educators

"Freedom is the right to choose: the right to create for oneself the alternatives of choice."

— Archibald MacLeish
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"Freedom is the right to choose: the right to create for oneself the alternatives of choice." — Archibald MacLeish

The opportunity to work online is attractive to many educators because of the multitude of benefits offered. Online delivery allows for educators to look at teaching online and face-to-face (F2F) in new ways. The convenience offered by teaching online, especially the flexible schedule, helps teachers to save on expenses and grants them the time to work at more than one institution simultaneously. Professional satisfaction and pedagogical advantages, like being able to monitor and evaluate classroom activities better while building a strong learning community, also draw many teachers to Web-based education.

However, before you decide to become an online educator, part- or full-time, a clear view of the employment trends should be considered.

Reality Check

There are aspects of being an online instructor that you should be aware of; this is especially true for part-time instructors. Online positions are highly sought after and competitive due to the benefits we previously outlined. In fact, it’s not unusual for institutions to have hundreds of applications for a single online position. For this reason, institutions typically do not assign online courses or positions to just any educator; rather, they look for those with strong credentials within their fields and a documented history of interest and experience in pedagogy.

However, the truth remains that a great number of educators find that working online is more labor intensive and less rewarding than F2F delivery. In fact, in his study of effective online teaching, Peter Shea explained that faculty members tend to lack or lose motivation for teaching online because of the preparation time required for building a course, the need to teach students how to use technology, and the lower compensation/recognition for online teaching efforts.

Online instructors need to take extra steps not required for campus-based instructors to enhance their technology literacy skills. Online positions often involve training and certification on a regular basis to make sure employees are familiar with the learning management system (LMS) and other internal sites, the latest best practices in online education, and the expectations of the institution. Online positions require a high technical fluency and availability. You must be willing to learn about new and emerging technologies for online education.

In addition, teaching online requires you to devote some time to creating a home office space. It’s best if this office is a designated space where you can set up your technology, files, furniture, and other needed materials free from interference from others, and not just a makeshift area in the bedroom or kitchen. Keep in mind that some of the materials educators deal with (e.g., students’ grades) are protected by privacy laws like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). You may be able to deduct purchases of technology, furniture, office supplies, utilities, and even a portion of your mortgage from your taxes if it is tied to your work office.

Online teaching also comes with expenditures that traditional F2F teaching may not. For example, although a desktop computer and home office provide stability, the use of mobile technology is advisable, too. You may need to travel, for example, and you’ll want to have access to your online course site; mobile technology can also provide reliable back-up. Keep in mind that some of your students will be using mobile technology, and you’ll want to be familiar with it so that you can experience this perspective and offer them any needed support.

Most part-time positions are term-by-term, meaning part-time online educators are typically not guaranteed a position or income longer than a term or semester. This is because teaching opportunities are based largely on enrollment and whether or not the faculty member is meeting faculty and employee expectations. Furthermore, pay for part-time educators online reflects the low pay given to part-time ground campus employees. According to the National Education Association’s (NEA) Higher Education Research Center, "part-time faculty members earn, on average per course, only 27% of what full-time faculty members earn, and these positions very often don’t offer benefits."

In addition, although many part-time educators, especially those working online, work at more than one institution, this should be handled cautiously. Some colleges and universities see it as a conflict of interest if educators hold similar positions in more than one institution. Work hours may also conflict, making scheduling multiple part-time positions difficult.

Part-time Trends and Opportunities

The good news is that online education and employment opportunities are expected to grow rapidly. For instance, according to the Sloan Consortium, while ground campus enrollment is expected to grow at a rate of 1.5%, online enrollment is expected to grow at 9.7% — more than six times the rate of campus courses. Interestingly, the NEA found that roughly 35-40% of part-time online instructors were seeking full-time positions; this means that about two-thirds of existing online faculty members are not competing for full-time employment. There is plenty of opportunity out there.

Finding Work

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, employment opportunities for "postsecondary teachers are expected to grow by 15% between 2008 and 2018, which is faster than the average of all occupations." The Sloan Consortium reported that "virtually all (83%) institutions with online offerings expect their online enrollments to increase over the coming year" and that the online enrollment growth rate is more than ten times that projected by the National Center for Education Statistics for the general postsecondary student population.

If this is your interest, there are many ways to find positions. Consider any current teaching position you may already have. Speak to your immediate supervisor and colleagues about your interest in online instruction. Not all faculty wish to teach virtually, so it helps if you make those who do the scheduling aware of your interest. Also, participate in any training programs that will help to prepare you for online teaching. Often, there are short online courses or training sessions available internally at universities. Some institutions are even joining together to offer training. If you do well, you may even get a chance to facilitate one of these training sessions or courses.

Apply for positions at the major online universities. To find possible opportunities, use an online directory as a guide. In addition, make use of these online job sites:

These are only some of the major, educationally focused sites available online. Note that in addition to searching for possible positions, these sites typically allow users to set automatic notifications whereby remote/online positions will be automatically delivered to your email inbox.

Most professional organizations also maintain a job posting service within their websites; often, you may also upload your credentials to a database managed by the organization so that potential employers may search for you. For example:

Applying for Positions

Do be aware that most post-secondary institutions have an online application process, meaning you must complete the application on their job site in order to be considered for a position. Also, you should have your updated C.V. and be ready to upload a solid cover letter, transcripts, teaching philosophy, and other documentation of your experience and talents to the application site. The onboarding process may vary by institution. You will most likely have an interview, you may be expected to complete an online test either in your subject area(s) and/or of your knowledge of the online learning system (OLS) or learning management system (LMS) used by the school, and you may have to complete a short training and/or mentoring session. If you do complete a training or mentoring session, be sure to ask for a certificate or letter of completion as this can then be used to document your skills for other online positions in the future.

Keep in mind that part-time positions are based largely on student enrollment, so you may not receive a course to teach each semester or term, especially if you are new. Don’t let this discourage you. Keep the school aware of your continued interest. When a contract is offered, it will typically have the course(s) you will be teaching, the dates for the classes, the rate of pay, and other guidelines and expectations. You should pay close attention to this information. Sign and return the contract immediately; there is often a deadline for returning it and if you miss it, you may lose the job.

Making a Living as an Online Educator

Given the pay range and contracts running by term or by semester, there is an understandable anxiety about making a living. This is a common concern. There are a few solutions that may help, such as taking an entrepreneurial approach. James Stephenson, author of the Ultimate Home Based Business Handbook, offers the "25 Common Characteristics of Successful Entrepreneurs," and some of these may be applied to online educators. The bottom line is that you should provide good service to your employers and promote yourself by being an active professional.

It is possible to teach part-time at multiple institutions; however, this should be done reasonably and ethically. Don’t take on so many courses or duties at these institutions that you cannot possibly meet the faculty and employee expectations. Falling short of these will harm your reputation and not serve the students or the institution well. It’s better to think carefully about how these positions may be balanced. For example, consider teaching online at a traditional post-secondary institution that typically hires part-time faculty for the fall and spring semesters. Then balance this at an online university which tends to operate by terms and focus your acceptance of contracts there during the summer months when the traditional institution job is less demanding.

There is a near endless variety of online educational duties you may be able to perform. Consider applying for positions of interest as a mentor, administrator, advisor, curriculum writer/content expert, writing center tutor, etc. Many of these positions can improve your skills as an educator; they also balance nicely with teaching duties and can help you make ends meet financially. Also, consider gaining work experience in your field of study outside of education. Many composition instructors, for example, also work in publishing; business faculty tend to operate their own businesses. There’s no reason you can’t supplement both your income and your professional development at the same time, and many online programs actively recruit faculty with practical application experience in their fields.

Finding a Full-time Position Online

Although it is certainly possible to find a good, full-time position in online education, these positions are highly competitive. There may be hundreds of internal and external applicants for a single position; nearly all of them will have almost perfect credentials. So the question becomes how to make your application stand out. Make an effort to document that you are updating and improving your credentials on an ongoing basis. Potential online employers will want to see regular participation in online pedagogy via the professional organizations you join, the conferences you attend, the presentations and publications you accomplish, the graduate courses you successfully complete, etc.

Do well in your part-time, online position(s); this is the proverbial "foot in the door." If you are an outstanding part-time employee, you will also stand out when it comes time to decide who to interview and hire for a full-time position. Consider non-teaching, full-time positions in education. There is a need for online educators to work in curriculum as subject matter experts (SME), faculty trainers, advisors, administrators, etc.

As opportunities to work in online education increase, there is no reason why you can’t be part of the trend. Be creative. Be persistent. You’ll find a whole new career awaits you in the virtual world!