Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring   2004    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  8, Issue  1

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Online Adjunct Faculty: Issues & Opportunities


Maria Puzziferro

Florida Community College at Jacksonville


Maria Puzziferro is the Interim Dean of Virtual College at Florida Community College at Jacksonville.



The growth and success of online courses would not be possible without the use of adjunct faculty. Adjunct faculty have always been widely used in higher education, especially in the community college setting. Nationally, adjuncts teach 30-50% of all credit courses, and compose about 60% of all faculty (Gappa & Leslie, 1993).

Who are online adjuncts?  How can we best support them and provide development to sustain quality programs?  This paper will share insights from Florida Community College at Jacksonville.    


The greatest growth in online courses has occurred at community colleges. In 2001-2002, 960 public two-year institutions offered distance education courses and had enrollments of 1,472,000, compared to 550 public four-year institutions with 945,000 enrollments and 710 private four-year institutions with 589,000 enrollments (U.S. Department of Education, 2003).

Staffing online courses poses a great challenge. The student demand for online courses has outpaced the full time instructional capacity at many institutions, creating an instructional gap that adjuncts readily fill. Though this is a relatively new phenomenon, critics feel that the rise in the numbers of online adjuncts could threaten the instructional quality of distance education programs (Carnevale, 2004). I will not debate the merits and pitfalls of this practice, or make assertions about the effects on student outcomes, though these are areas in which further research is greatly needed. However, this paper approaches this practice from the perspective that instructional quality is as much a function of institutional commitment to adjunct support, as of the adjuncts themselves. This paper will share insights about the use of online adjuncts at Florida Community College at Jacksonville (FCCJ), begin to build a profile of them, highlight some of the implications of supporting a “distant” staff, and provide a working support model.

Who are They and What Motivates Them?

Higher education administrators have always viewed using adjunct faculty as a cost-effective strategy, to fill gaps, particularly in high-demand areas that suffer from shortages of instructional staff. The plight of adjunct faculty has been well-addressed in the literature, including compensation, workload, benefits, access to professional development programs, and general isolation (Cassebaum, 2002; Fulton, 2000; Seifert, 2002; Wisneski, 2003).

There is little literature dealing with the recent explosion of online adjunct faculty. Most would agree that the explosion of online courses has intensified instructional staffing dilemmas. For a growing number of institutions, national recruitment of online adjunct faculty seems a promising solution. By recruiting outside of the local community, colleges are able to attract a fascinating and highly diverse group of faculty, who are not only diverse geographically, but also bring a variety of backgrounds, motivations for teaching, and experience. However, the tasks of recruiting, developing, supporting and evaluating online adjuncts pose multiple challenges.   

Recent literature asserts that online adjuncts are drawn to the freedom of time and space that online teaching offers (Reeves, 2002). Thus, the career of the online adjunct has proliferated interest among people who might not have considered adjunct teaching at all, and may thus have less overall experience. But, what else do we know about them?

From our interviewing experiences, adjunct faculty tend to fall into general categories that reflect their backgrounds and motivations (Schnitzer & Crosby, 2003):

  1. The Philosopher is a candidate who is likely not professionally employed in the field in which she is degreed. This type of candidate may perceive online teaching as an opportunity to finally utilize her advanced degree, while earning extra money.   
  2. The Moonlighter is a candidate employed full time in an academic secondary or postsecondary setting. She may perceive online teaching as a way to expand her repertoire of instructional experience, while earning extra money.
  3. The Full-Time Part-Timer is an online adjunct employed at several institutions, working mainly as a freelancer. She may be motivated by the financial incentives of teaching online, and also the vitae-building experience of teaching online at various institutions and using various modalities.
  4. The Seeker is looking for full time work at a higher education institution. She perceives the adjunct position as a stepping-stone, and is motivated by a combination of experience seeking, vitae building, and networking.   
  5. The Graduate is a candidate who is a graduate student, or recently graduated from an advanced degree program. She also perceives the adjunct position as a stepping-stone, in the same way as the Seeker.
  6. The Retiree is a candidate who is seeking part time work after retirement. She perceives teaching as an intrinsically motivating activity, as well as a way to earn extra money.


Florida Community College at Jacksonville (FCCJ) supports a total of 170 active online adjuncts. This number is constantly rising, as recruitment is ongoing. In the Spring 2004 semester, demographic information was analyzed and a survey was administered to better understand the online adjunct cohort, with a total of 80 valid responses. This information is currently being used to develop new and refine existing support and evaluation processes.   

Online Adjuncts are Mainly Teachers by Trade

Adjuncts were asked:


Which best describes you?

I am employed as an adjunct at more than one institution and I hope to secure full time employment at an academic institution = 26%

I am employed full time at an academic institution and I teach online for FCCJ part time = 38%

I am employed full time at a non-academic profession and I teach online for FCCJ part time = 12%

I am retired = 3%

I am a graduate student = 0%

I am a freelancer, by choice = 21%


The proportions are significant, as they demonstrate that many online adjuncts are employed at other institutions and seeking a full time academic career, are full time teachers teaching online part time, or adjunct freelancers by choice. Evidently, the overwhelming majority are teachers by trade. It was also noted that the teacher population has taught in all modalities for 6 or more years (70 percent), but online for a shorter time (38 percent for 3-5 years and 46 percent for 2 or fewer years).

Of particular significance is the proportion of freelancers. There have always been adjuncts in traditional instructional settings who have, as a primary career, taught at multiple institutions. However, now it is not unusual for online adjuncts to teach at ten or more institutions all over the country. This has particular implications for the institution. Quantity and variety of experience suggests breadth of experience and expertise. However, time management, accountability, and conflict of interest are all concerns that need careful attention.

Sixty-five percent of adjuncts reported teaching at least one other course at another institution. Ancillary to this phenomenon is the use of pre-developed courseware for online delivery. Publisher content, as well as institution-developed content is widely used as a means to maintain quality and ensure curricular consistency among online courses. The implications for the career of the adjunct are significant; adjunct instructors may be able to teach more courses because there is less development time involved in the instructional preparation process.

Adjunct Faculty “Experience”

The phrase “experience teaching online is preferred” is a common one. But, what is “experience” in the online environment?  There are substantial differences in the preferred teaching styles across institutions. Each online program has its own focus, preferred pedagogy, and policies and procedures. Considering that most online adjuncts already have some teaching experience, evaluating how that experience aligns with the institutional definition of online teaching is an important consideration.

“Experience” begins with primary training. Adjuncts were asked where they received their primary training to teach online. Thirty percent reported being self-taught and 60 percent received training in institutionally sponsored workshops at FCCJ or their own teaching institution (38 percent and 27 percent, respectively). Adjuncts were also asked if they had ever taken an online course; 64 percent had and 36 percent had not.

This underscores the need to provide professional development programs online to enhance experience, orient new adjuncts to policies, procedures and pedagogical focus, and give them the experience of a student’s perspective in an online course environment.

Professional Development and Support for “Virtual Adjuncts”

It could be argued that in the new “online teaching” contexts, adjunct faculty who are drawn to distance learning are somewhat less concerned with the drawbacks of adjunct teaching documented in the literature. This is an area that warrants further research. However, some degree of integration is important to building a working relationship between the teacher and institution to increase accountability and promote retention.

How can we promote integration and retention of adjunct faculty?  The support structure should include some general guiding principles: bonding, two-way communication with accessible and available points of contact, and integration and professional development. Below are some strategies to facilitate these important elements for online faculty, including those at a distance from the institution.


The bonding process begins at the recruitment and hiring stage. Colleges may be reluctant to invest resources in hiring and developing adjuncts, because they view them as temporary (Cohen & Brawer). However, the transience of many adjuncts may in fact result from the lack of available resources. Retention is the overall result of a mutually positive experience in the hiring and support process.

First impressions from the timeliness of correspondence, congeniality and helpfulness of the staff, and the interview experience influence how the adjunct perceives his or her professional relationship with the institution, and the perception of how the institution values and regards part time faculty. Adjuncts who know that they are working for a professional organization that values them are more likely to feel a sense of pride in their affiliation, and feel accountable to the institution.

The orientation is a critical part of the bonding process, and should be an informative and welcoming experience for new adjuncts. The orientation must include information for administrative and technical support points of contact, an explanation of administrative procedures, instructional procedures, instructional requirements, technical requirements for teaching online, information about technical resources for teaching online, curriculum processes, information about copyright, and standards and expectations for distance learning instruction. There should also be discussion of strategies for solving teaching concerns, and strategies for teaching online.

There are many options, and combination of options, for the format of the orientation information and experience: a handbook, a web site, an asynchronous or synchronous meeting forum. An online orientation CD, with video-based campus tours and “meet-and-greet” is a relatively simple and powerful tool for encouraging bonding and providing information in a visually stimulating format.

Two-Way Communication and Points of Contact: The Virtual Mentor Program

Support must provide multiple points of contact and timely responsiveness. The Virtual College Office Staff at FCCJ is structured so that there are tiers of proactive faculty support and multiple points of contact. In this model, Associate Deans, Project Coordinators, and Mentors work together to provide multiple points of contact for new and existing online adjuncts.   

The hiring Associate Deans interview and make hiring decisions, as well as supervise faculty, conduct performance evaluations and review curriculum. Upon hiring, the new instructor is referred to a Project Coordinator, who oversees and coordinates the course preparation process. This includes completion of paperwork, coordination of email, student information and web page accounts and; provision of course materials, textbooks, and software.

Mentoring is a proven, effective way to support new faculty, provide professional development, and help integrate faculty into the college environment. Mentoring relationships must provide professional support with technology and instructional issues, as well as a comfortable, professional and peer-based relationship (Kram & Brager, 1992; Welch, 1997). An important goal of the mentoring process is to allow the adjunct to integrate with the full-time faculty, and develop informative, collegial, and professional relationships. Colleges that implement programs that meet these goals report improved relationships between full-time and adjunct faculty, and a higher instructional quality in courses taught by adjunct faculty (Hoyt (1995).

The Virtual Mentoring program at FCCJ is designed with these goals in mind. Virtual Mentors provide technical and instructional support, such as preparing quizzes, assisting with the organization of course content in the learning management system and answering questions about the course curriculum provided. The Virtual Mentors act as the peer-based pedagogical and technical support contacts, working more proactively than reactively. A Lead Mentor (an appointed full-time faculty member receiving a stipend, or release time) works collaboratively with Virtual Mentors, who are drawn from the adjunct faculty pool. Virtual Mentors are responsible for up to fifteen new adjunct faculty. They are provided cell phones to contact adjuncts nationwide, and facilitate an online discussion forum, in which they provide assistance and answer questions online.

The specific duties of the Virtual Mentors are as follows:

  1. Act as a liaison between the administration and the adjunct.
  2. Develop professional relationships with new adjuncts through proactive email and discussion forum contact.
  3. Provide help upon request, but also share resources, ideas and opportunities.
  4. Facilitate an online orientation course, which all new adjuncts are required to go through and pass the required assessments before teaching online.
  5. Communicate processes for and monitors compliance with administrative processes and procedures.
  6. Act as a point of contact for questions/advice about teaching, pedagogy, and use of the learning management systems.


In our recent survey, 60 percent of respondents found the Virtual Mentors helpful, 17 percent did not find them helpful, and 21 percent did not use them. The open comments showed overwhelmingly positive comments about the Virtual Mentors, presumably from those who used them. The Virtual Mentors are most helpful to those adjuncts who are newer to online teaching, or those who are not already familiar with the institution.  

Integration and Involvement: Professional Development Opportunities

Two national studies conducted in the 1990s revealed that both two and four-year colleges generally do a poor job of helping faculty feel a part of the institutional environment (Haeger, 1998; Roueche, Roueche, & Milliron, 1995). Distance learning adjuncts, especially those who are physically removed from the institution, are particularly vulnerable to feeling isolated. Most institutions lack formal policies for adjunct integration, training, and professional development, as well as opportunities for informal, social, and collegial interaction (Haeger, 1998). In the online world, this is even more complicated by geographical dispersion.

FCCJ’s Online Certified Professor program is a professional development program, offered onsite and online, which provides incentive for adjunct faculty to improve their skills, earn a certification, earn a stipend upon completion, and network with both full time and other adjunct faculty. The program provides excellent incentives for largely academic-career adjunct faculty, who are motivated by experience, certification opportunities, networking opportunities, and financial gain. The program also provides an excellent venue for full time faculty to be involved with adjuncts, and build teaching community, mutual respect, and share talent.

The program consists of a series of required workshops, including basic and advanced learning management system, multimedia, and online pedagogy. The program culminates in a Capstone Training Day, which provides faculty with an orientation to the resources available to support online teaching, as well as online sites available as quality resources for online teaching. Nationally known educators and other guest speakers are invited to present a world-view of online learning. The final stage of the certificate program is peer mentoring. Participants must be mentored and provide mentoring for a specified number of hours. This is enmeshed with the Virtual Mentor Program.

Professional development and networking are critical, interrelated parts of the support process which we are always striving to enhance and improve. In our recent survey, 81 percent of the respondents expressed interest in attending online workshops and 67 percent expressed interest in collaborating and networking opportunities with other adjuncts. This is clearly an area in which ongoing investment of resources and staff effort is needed.


The growing number of adjuncts used to deliver online courses compels us to look at our current recruitment, hiring, screening, and support processes. Using a nationwide cohort of adjuncts also raises important instructional management considerations, and a reworking of our current processes and practices is necessary to develop effective management strategies to maintain distance-learning programs of high instructional effectiveness and overall quality.  



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Cohen, A., and Brawer, F. (1996). The American community college, 3rd. Ed. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

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