Are Full Teaching Loads the Answer to the Recession?

jims80By Jim Shimabukuro

As we tighten our individual and collective belts in the university system where I work, I can’t help but worry about some of the decisions administrators are making to weather the current recession. I’m sharing these concerns in this publication because I sense that the underlying issues transcend the state I live in and weigh heavily in other systems throughout the U.S. and the world.

The decision that has my attention is the insistence on full teaching loads for faculty this fall and elimination of nearly all reassigned time activities. The assumption seems to be that non-instructional activities are expendable. This may be true, but it is not true in all cases. Many activities are actually aimed at exploring and developing innovative ways to accomplish traditional tasks, and in many instances, this involves the use of computer and internet technology. The point is that technology has the potential to cut costs and improve the quality of instruction and services.

The problem with indiscriminately cutting reassigned time funds for those involved in technology activities is that colleges may be simultaneously eliminating the sources of potential solutions and answers. By closing the door on innovation, we may be exacerbating instead of ameliorating the problems caused by the recession.

When I look back on tech-oriented activities that I pursued with reassigned time, I can clearly see the direct relationship between research and cost effective practice.

Like many of you, I’ve been involved in online instruction and college-related projects for many years. I began teaching completely online semester-length classes in spring 1997, over a decade ago, and nearly a decade earlier, in spring 1988, I experimented with a primitive bulletin board system (BBS) in one of my freshman composition classes. This was before the web was more than just an idea. I set up the BBS via a 2400-baud modem connected to an IBM-PC XT with a whopping 10MBs of storage. IIRC, it had the full 640KBs of RAM. The BBS ran off the standard phone lines. I had a 1200-baud modem on my home XT, and the two students who joined me in this experiment had a 300-baud and a 2400-baud modem connected to a Commodore 64 and an XT. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the stream of high-pitched electronic squawk that the modems produced when they made contact.

We hooked the PC-based BBS into a phone line in the college’s study lab and logged in to the board to complete the full cycle of activities for a single assignment that lasted about three weeks. The two students received, as a reward for participating, permission to be absent from class during that period. Despite a steady series of crashes (if anyone in the lab inadvertently picked up the receiver on the phone, the BBS went down), we persevered and were excited about actually teaching and learning online. It was our equivalent to walking on the moon.

For me, the upshot of the experience over twenty years ago was the conviction that completely online instruction was not only possible but cost-effective and potentially highly effective. Still, it took another nine years to convince my department to allow me to teach a fully online course.

The point of this story is that, throughout all these years, I received reassigned time from my instructional duties to pursue these interests. Without the release time, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it. The result, today, is fully online classes and other cost-effective technology, and in the remainder of this essay, I explain the savings that these represent.

Today, at the start of the fall 2009 semester, I find myself for the first time in nearly twenty years with a full teaching load and zero reassigned time. The mandate is from the top down. All instructional faculty are to teach a full load. An exception has been made for a few, for administrative functions, but the vast majority are left with no time to do more than teach. And for community college instructors, a full load is five classes. (In all fairness to the administration, though, I should say that I would have received a release from one of my classes if paperwork had been submitted in time.)

I’m teaching three different writing classes, all of them online: a transfer-level freshman composition class, two advanced expository writing classes, and two creative nonfiction classes. Those who have taught or are teaching fully online classes understand just how much preparation goes into each class. Far more, by a very wide margin, than that for traditional face-to-face (F2F) equivalents.

This teaching load means little time for innovative activities that directly or indirectly impact instruction. As part of my special assignments in the past, I’ve been developing and experimenting with blogs for student assessment and for planning student services. Much of what I’ve been learning about blogs is finding direct application in my online instruction, and, in turn, much of what I’m learning in instruction benefits my other activities.

For instruction, I no longer use the college’s server for course webpages. Instead, I’ve placed all of my course material in blogs that are provided free of charge by WordPress and Google’s Blogger. In this medium, the amount of developing power and speed over the old webpages is staggering. I do use the college’s Sakai CMS, but for its discussion forums and bulk mail services only. My students use Blogger to share their drafts with classmates.

I’ve been developing an online open textbook for my freshman comp class, and for the last year or so my students haven’t had to spend a dime for required texts. I’ve also created electronic journals to publish selected works from students in my advanced expository and creative nonfiction classes. One is already up and running, and the other is about half done. These, too, are based in blogs, and they allow me and the student editors to quickly select, edit, and publish exemplary papers. Publication costs such as printing, special equipment, and office space? None.

The use of web resources, such as blogs, that are off-campus represents a savings that’s difficult to measure. One of the most obvious is the elimination of reliance on college IT personnel to maintain, secure, and instruct users on the technology. Another is the elimination of reliance on the campus’s server resources.

But there are many other cost-saving results that may not be obvious. Instructors and students who learn to use non-campus technology and resources begin to realize that they can accomplish many other tasks with the same technology, thus placing little or no burden on the college in terms of cost or maintenance. Students will be able to use blogs for their other classes and eliminate the need to use the college’s resources to accomplish the same purposes. Staff will learn to use blogs to accomplish web-based tasks that currently require the assistance of the college’s IT staff and resources. This independence that off-campus technology offers can reduce the cost of campus-based technology, and the savings could be put to good use elsewhere.

Other “invisible” cost-savings that derive from the use of technology developed via released time are related to online classes. Online classes don’t require classrooms. If all of my classes were F2F and met twice a week, they would take up ten 75-minute time slots for an entire semester. This impact on the available classrooms is not trivial in terms of dollars and resources. To make the F2F classes viable, they need to be offered at times when students are willing to commute to campus. If rooms aren’t available in these prime times, the classes have to be canceled. Or new classrooms need to be built.

Traditional classrooms require a tremendous amount of electrical power for air-conditioning, lighting, daily maintenance, security, furniture, and equipment. Because writing instruction is heavily tied to the internet, many F2F classes are run in classrooms equipped with computers. The cost of maintaining computer labs and classrooms is absolutely staggering.

Finally, online instructors seldom use campus offices so the college realizes a savings in this regard. Furthermore, online faculty and students don’t drive to campus as often as others so they don’t add to the cost of maintaining parking facilities.

If administrators devote time to examining the full implications of faculty involvement in developing innovative practices through the use of technology, they may not be so quick to order a blanket cut of nearly all reassigned time. They may realize that, in the long run, the new technology may actually help to reduce costs at a rate infinitely greater than the dollar amounts for reassigned time. They may realize that the cost, today, may literally be an investment in the college’s future.

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