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At Georgia Perimeter College, Online Teaching Has Its Benefits — Tenure

Michael T. Bradley is a full-time online- only professor. In the virtual classroom of his “World Religion and Introduction to Ethics” classes at Georgia Perimeter College, a two-year college in suburban Atlanta, Bradley employs a teaching style that both personalizes him to his students and encourages them to interact with one another.

Bradley also narrates video clips on lecture topics and assigns “self field-trip” special projects such as having the students observe religious ceremonies and then writing a narrative report about their experience.

“My teaching environment is different than the classroom setting, but the goals are the same: maximize the student’s educational experience,” says Bradley.

Bradley has been teaching online full time for three years and has served as an adjunct professor since 1991. What makes him unique among online-only professors across the country is that he’s on a tenure-track. Bradley is one of three professors who are part of a new program instituted this fall at GPC where full-time online-only professors achieve tenure under the same conditions as classroom professors. That means teaching for five years at the rank of assistant professor, or higher, before being eligible to apply for tenure. The professor then is evaluated by a series of committees for his teaching effectiveness, service and professional accomplishments related to school.

“The online-only tenure track program allows us to develop a core group of professors who are experts not only in the discipline they are teaching, but also in teaching in the online medium itself, says Dr. Mark Griffin, executive director for GPC online. “The tenured professors then can mentor full- and part-time faculty about available resources for online education. It strengthens the overall instruction in the online environment.”

Griffin says the school has seen a 40 percent annual increase for each of the past two years for online enrollment. GPC first began offering online classes in 1998, and within two years the college had expanded its online offering to 39 courses. For the Fall 2008 semester, the college’s online program enrolled approximately 6,000 students in over 500 different courses, according to Debi Moon, former assistant vice president for education affairs at GPC, who was involved in the creation and selection process for the online tenure track program. In the Fall of 2009 the college will hire full-time chairs for each online department.

“Online education is the fastest growing area of the college now,” says Moon, who is currently an associate professor of business at GPC and teaches online as well.

GPC is currently searching for six more hires to its online-only tenure track program. The disciplines for the new hires will be biology, chemistry, economics, English, history and Spanish, which add to the existing online tenure track professors in political science, arts appreciation and philosophy and religion. Griffin says the college will consider adding to the program on a year-by-year basis, factoring projected enrollment into their decision.

GPC’s online tenure track program has attracted the attention of other college administrators, who have contacted Moon seeking information about implementing such a program at their own institutions.

“Online programs are growing, and they are no longer an afterthought,” says Moon. “I think more schools will realize if they are going to have a large-scale online program, online tenure tracks make sense.” Yet, online only tenure tracks remain rare. The American Association of University Professors isn’t aware of any other school with such a program.

“We’d argue that it makes sense,” says Martin Snyder, AAUP’s director of external relations and himself an online professor for the University of Maryland University College. “As an association, we would argue that full-time faculty, whether they teach face to face or online should have the same rewards, the same role in developing curriculum, and generally the same role in designing academic programs of an institution. In order to do that, a professor must first have tenure.”

University of Phoenix, which has a large online school, has no plans for an online only tenure track program in the future.

“It doesn’t fit our faculty model,” says Dr. Marla LaRue, dean of the College of Education at the university’s New Mexico campus. “We are practitioner-based. We have approximately 20,000 online professors across the country. They are typically contracted by the course and are career professionals who teach a specific subject related to their area of expertise.”

Bradley says he feels fortunate to be able to pursue his passion of online teaching on a tenure track that will provide him with long-term job security. He is aware that many online educators work as adjuncts on a part-time or temporary full-time basis with no guarantees beyond the current semester, a situation he can relate to.

“GPC has committed itself to moving towards greater opportunities for online educators and I am proud to be part of it,” he says.

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