APU Careers & Learning Online Learning Original

How Universities Can Best Manage Online Faculty Performance

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Public University

In recent staff meetings at one of the universities where I teach, the topic of how best to manage online faculty performance came up. The conversation quickly moved to scrutiny of different reports and analyses for judging faculty performance. The focus of the discussion became the proper measurements such as how often a professor visits an online classroom or contributes to online discussions, or how quickly he or she answers emails or grades assignments.

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However, after about 30 minutes of these debates, Fred, one of my colleagues, bravely stood up and offered a different perspective. Fred pointed out that what we are after ultimately as a higher education institution are two things: student success and student satisfaction.

From a student success standpoint, we want students to maintain persistence, pass classes and complete their programs. And from a student satisfaction standpoint, we want them to have as fulfilling and positive an educational experience as possible while doing so. That’s the big picture in higher education.

Fred noted that the school monitors metrics such as attendance, discussion activity, email reply times and grading times as part of the university’s strategy. It assumes that these behaviors will lead to improvements in student success and satisfaction, but we don’t necessarily know that to be true. And even if it often is true, it certainly isn’t going to be true for all faculty and all students in all cases.

Rather than focusing on attendance, discussions and turnaround time for routine course tasks on the assumption that they are directly correlated to success and satisfaction, Fred’s point was that we might be better off simply focusing on direct metrics for student success and satisfaction.

Monitoring of Faculty Performance at Schools Commonly Varies

Fred’s is not an unprecedented idea. I’ve taught for some of the biggest brick-and-mortar schools in the country. Most of them simply assign courses to their faculty and tell them to have at it. They are hired for their credentials as experts and educators.

Those faculty members are given the latitude to teach their classes as they see fit with very little policing or oversight. The only times that an administration would intervene would be:

  1. If the grade distribution in the class is way off what should be expected
  2. If students are complaining about their experience in the classroom

These two factors are derived directly from student success and student satisfaction. The first factor looks squarely at student success — the percentage of students who are making it to the finish line in each class and whether that percentage is in line with what the university would expect from rigorous curriculum and sound teaching practices. The second factor focuses on student satisfaction — whether or not students are having constructive and positive experiences in their courses.

In my experience, this faculty performance model really works. I still teach as an adjunct for the University of Central Florida (UCF), the largest university by enrollment in Florida and one of the largest public research universities in the nation. At UCF, there is no micromanagement of classroom work in terms of attendance, discussion contributions, grading times or other metrics. The university trusts me to make the decisions that are best for my classes, so I simply handle them the way I think they should be handled.

Recently, American Public University made a paradigm shift in this direction with its “Just Go Teach” initiative. This initiative provides online faculty members with a greater degree of autonomy in teaching and managing their classes, and this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. I applaud APU for taking the lead on these efforts within the online higher education industry.

In People-Driven Organizations, There Will Always Be a Few Who Require Closer Monitoring

In my many years of teaching for both UCF and APU, intervention in my classes has never been needed. Many of my colleagues have had similar experiences. Of course, in any people-driven organization, there will always be a few who present challenges and require closer monitoring, but thankfully they tend to be few and far between.

Implementing a Better Way to Monitor Faculty Performance

So might higher education institutions be better off focusing on assessing student success and satisfaction and leaving the logistics in accomplishing those goals to each faculty member’s discretion? Perhaps.

But this isn’t always as easy as flipping a switch. For example, sometimes accrediting authorities dictate that colleges and universities must adopt minimum standards for consistency in faculty performance or classroom experience.

In addition, they must enforce those standards through their administrative oversight. In other cases, key stakeholders such as Boards of Governors or Boards of Regents may be philosophically opposed to this laissez-faire approach to faculty management.

But assuming any such obstacles could be overcome, how might a university go about implementing such a policy? The answer is by adopting an approach similar to UCF and APU.

For the student success component, universities could scrutinize grade distribution reports and appeals. If too few or too many students are passing a given professor’s class or if students are complaining en masse about the grades they are receiving from that professor, this may indicate a problem with student success.

For the satisfaction component, universities could obviously focus on the student course evaluations as well as any complaints from students about the quality of their experience. If students are consistently giving low ratings to a class or if they are routinely complaining about their professor, this tells us there may be an issue with student satisfaction.

If a faculty member has a problem with student success or satisfaction in the courses, a supervisor would contact that instructor and help to fix it. Parameters on faculty performance could then be implemented to the extent necessary to ensure that benchmarks are being met.

But if there are no such problems, the school could leave the decisions on course management to the faculty members themselves. There is no need to fix something that isn’t broken.

The message to university faculty then becomes: “We hired you because you are a competent, qualified teacher. We trust you. So teach your classes how you see fit using your professional discretion. If students succeed at the rate they should and if they are satisfied with your course experience, we will not bother you. If it works, it works. But if not, then let it be understood that we will intervene to the extent necessary to make sure these two things are happening consistently in all of our courses.”

This philosophy expresses a confidence in instructors that is sometimes lacking in higher education. It affords to professionals a trust that they have earned through their studies and careers.

With that trust comes an understanding that universities are still ultimately responsible for safeguarding the quality of the education experience for their students. They can and must do everything necessary to ensure students are successful and satisfied.

But these two objectives are not mutually exclusive. In fact, by affording faculty trust and discretion, universities enable those faculty to create optimal learning experiences for students. In letting loose the reins on educators, their true talents and efforts are brought to the fore. And everybody wins as a result.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Public University. He holds a J.D. in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. Gary teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Public University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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