Adjunct Faculty Experiences in the OPM-University Business Model


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Brief Abstract

This session provides the results of a case study on the OPM-University Business model that can help academic administrators improve the roles and experiences of adjunct faculty in the context of instructional design and faculty development in online course development. It also discusses the use of Activity Theory for decision-making with the role of adjunct faculty in online teaching.

Extended Abstract

Adjunct faculty are university instructors who teach on a part-time basis. Adjunct faculty are also known as part-time or contingent instructors. Adjunct faculty now make up a majority of higher education instructors nationwide (, 2020). Adjunct faculty are now often being hired to teach courses in online programs (Mueller, Mandernach, & Sanderson; 2003). They are becoming a fundamental feature of the economic model that sustains online education (, 2014). They typically have lower pay levels compared to full-time or tenure track faculty and receive minimal benefits. They are the least expensive ways to deliver instruction at universities (, 2014). Declining student enrollments in private universities and declining federal funding in public colleges has forced many schools and universities to find ways to cut costs and try to maintain to run their schools (Nardworny & Larkin, 2019;, 2020). Part-time faculty far outnumber full-time faculty at many colleges ( Increasing the number of adjunct faculty is an economic solution as it minimizes costs and maximizes flexibility (, 2014). However, a university that runs solely on economics does not always serve students well. Universities and colleges that are committed to student learning should prepare their adjunct faculty so that they serve students effectively (Mueller, Mandernach, & Sanderson; 2003; Bettinger & Long, 2010). They should focus to help prepare their adjunct faculty to teach effectively for their online programs. To help them teach effectively, schools need to meet their development needs and also have them participate in faculty development related initiatives (Mueller, Mandernach, & Sanderson; 2003; Bettinger & Long, 2010; Forbes, Hickey, & White, 2010).

One such faculty development initiative for online teaching purposes is getting involved in the instructional design process for online course development (Barker, 2003;, 2019a). This instructional design process involves faculty working with the instructional designer (ID). In online learning, faculty need to focus on more learner-centered teaching rather than content-centered or teacher-centered. Online course designs that do not employ or use principles of instructional design can result in confusing students, avoiding opportunities for collaborative work, and students possibly not learning what they are expected to learn (Vasser, 2010). Traditional courses converted to online courses without proper consideration and implementation of online pedagogical principles and technology can result in an ill-structured design that can hinder learning and create frustration (Vasser, 2010). Without the help and oversight of an instructional designer, faculty could continue to see their role only as delivering content and as such do not follow a student-centered approach (McQuiggan, 2007). In order to convert a face-to-face course for distance education, faculty can benefit from collaboration with instructional designers (IDs) who help to integrate pedagogy with technology effectively and also provide the required expertise on how to deliver course content online.

The instructional design process involves course development where faculty and instructional designer (ID) work together to build the online course from scratch or convert an existing face-to-face course to an online course modality. During this instructional design process faculty and ID spend many months together (they start at least one semester prior or at least 4 months in advance of the semester the online course is supposed to be taught). During this time, they meet together regularly every week and brainstorm and exchange ideas and create, update or revise the course materials to have it prepared for online course delivery. This process for online course development has been known to provide an excellent context for faculty development purposes and also influences on faculty pedagogical knowledge and professional development. According to Felber (n.d.) there is no literature dealing specifically with adjunct participation in the centralized design of online courses has been identified, and hence indicates a research gap in this area. Adjunct faculty often are not made to participate in the instructional design process due to a lack of compensation from the university (Felber, n.d.)

Many higher education institutions believe that they must adopt online programs to better serve their constituencies, but making this decision requires faculty to adopt a new mode of teaching. Higher education institutions can build infrastructure to support their online program initiatives or they can partner with management organizations (Online Program Management Providers, OPMPs) that offer some or all of the services needed to make online programs successful. These services include marketing, admissions, and instructional design. This paper presents a case study that describes the interactions between the faculty at a research university, an online program management provider (OPM), and one instructional design firm that was outsourced by the OPM. It presents contexts from adjunct faculty who were only involved in teaching online courses and not in the instructional design process of these courses. This case study exposes the problems and issues that can arise in such a situation that impacts negatively on all adjunct faculty teaching experience and also on student learning experience with online courses.

In addressing research quality, I conducted an analysis of my literature review sources to determine citation quality and thoroughness. See Analysis of the “Scholarliness” value of the Literature Review

This research uses an interpretive case study methodology to examine a private research university’s partnership with an OPM provider to develop online master’s degree programs, with the outsourcing of instructional design services to an Instructional Design Firm (IDF). The primary data sources come from interviews, participant observations, and documents from the OPM, the IDF, and the institution. For anonymity purposes, the names of the organizations participating in this study have not been disclosed. 

The study uses the Activity Theory (AT) as a framework to describe and analyze the complex work/activity system involved in developing online courses. AT is an umbrella term for a range of social science theories and research originating from Soviet psychological activity theory pioneered by Lev Vygotsky, Alexei Leont'ev, and Sergei Rubinstein (Cole & Engeström, 1993). It is widely used in theoretical and applied psychology, education, professional training, ergonomics, social psychology, and work psychology. AT is specifically useful in qualitative research methodologies (e.g., ethnography, case study) in providing a method of analyzing and understanding a phenomenon; finding patterns and making inferences across interactions; and describing and presenting phenomena through a built-in language and rhetoric. AT offers an external perspective on human practices. It is a descriptive meta-theory or framework rather than a predictive theory (Engeström, 1999). An activity cannot be understood or analyzed outside the context of which it occurs. The components of any activity are organized into activity systems. See Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Engeström’s (1999) model of an activity system. Source: (Engeström, 1999)

AT is well suited to the discovery and sense-making nature of this study (See Figure 2). According to Bradford et al. (2011), AT is a good framework for an organizational self-evaluation of its “technology-enhanced learning” (TEL) or online learning practices. In adjusting the model to the case of faculty and their teaching practices when launching online programs via a business relationship, the faculty becomes the subject with teaching as an object of active learning with an outcome target of new competencies. The resulting model incorporates key actors’ roles in making an impact on faculty approaches to teaching design (See Figure 2 below). In this study, the activity is the instructional design process within the context of developing higher education online programs.



Figure 2. Activity System context for the RU (Research University--->R University) and OPM (Online Program Management Provider) business partnership with outsourced Instructional Design Firm (IDF)

Session Outcomes

The presenter/researcher will share the results of this study that will be helpful for all Higher Educational Academic Administrators to make the best decisions on the roles of Adjunct faculty with instructional design services and faculty development in the OPM-University Model. The presenter will also share the positive and negative experiences of Adjunct faculty in this partnership model. The presenter will then describe what Activity Theory is and share the importance of the use of this theory for decision-making with the role of adjunct faculty and full-time faculty in online teaching and learning. Quotes from OPM managers, university administrators, and adjunct faculty will be shared as evidence to help the audience understand effective decision-making and the overall picture. The format of this session is a conversation rather than a formal presentation. The presenter will be putting results and ideas out that would invite questions and commentary. The following steps will be followed

  1. Think Assertion

  2. Evidence

  3. Commentary 

Learning Outcomes for the audience:

  • Improve the roles and experiences of adjunct faculty in the context of instructional design and faculty development in an OPM-University Partnership model

  • Apply effective strategies to make the best decisions on the roles of Adjunct faculty with instructional design services and faculty development in the OPM-University Model that are in favor of the entire university and student learning experiences

  • Apply Activity Theory for decision-making with the role of adjunct faculty and full-time faculty in online teaching and learning


List of References for this proposal

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. CC BY

Note to Reviewers: The conference track I have chosen for this session is 'Research, Evaluation, & Learning Analytics.' I am covering the research technique. However, my research study also provides results relevant to leadership and institutional strategies. So my session also fits the 'Leadership and Institutional Strategies' Track. This work fits both tracks and I would request you to suggest the best fit for this session.