The Promotion/Tenure Dilemma: Maintaining a Research Agenda While Developing Distance Learning Teaching Excellence

The Promotion/Tenure Dilemma: Maintaining a Research Agenda While Developing Distance Learning Teaching Excellence
Donald G Hackmann

This reflective article shares an associate professor’s personal beliefs regarding distance education, his initial experiences with teaching distance learning courses, and his concerns with simultaneously sustaining a research agenda when teaching distance courses. The following recommendations are presented to assist in striking a workable balance between teaching and research: (a) participate in distance learning training offered by the institution, (b) consider releasing the faculty member from one course assignment during the initial semester of distance teaching, (c) consider scheduling courses for simultaneous delivery, (d) develop distance learning mentors and colleague support networks, (e) invite student suggestions, and (f) include the study of distance learning as one facet of the research agenda.

The use of distance learning technology to support the delivery of courses has become accepted practice at many institutions of higher education. Surveys conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) determined that fully 33% of the nation’s colleges and universities offered distance education coursework by 1995 and projected that another 25% would begin utilizing this format within three years (NCES, 1997). The technological tools anticipated to be most frequently employed to support distance learning courses in the coming years are two-way interactive video and Internet-based computer technology.

Distance learning education is very much a customer-driven phenomenon. Colleges and universities that resist distance learning channels, choosing instead to remain committed to traditional campus-based coursework, risk losing a significant portion of their current and potential student base to institutions that provide distance learning alternatives. Growing numbers of students, especially adult students, desire courses that are easily accessible and are offered in convenient timeframes, so that conflicts with career and family responsibilities are minimized. Many students do not want to waste precious time commuting to a traditional campus-based class when they can experience the same course via interactive video in a local school classroom or while sitting at their home computer.

When university officials elect to provide distance learning options for their students, they must construct state-of-the-art classrooms equipped with the necessary technology to support this delivery system. Due to the significant costs associated with this distance learning technology, the institution must now shift to a “We have built it; they must come” mindset to recoup this substantial investment. Faculty members most likely will be encouraged to restructure existing courses and develop new courses–if not entire programs–that use distance learning technology.

From the perspective of the individual faculty member, modifying or creating courses for distance learning delivery is not a simple task. Professors cannot simply deliver a standard classroom lecture in front of a video-camera, assuming that students at remote sites will experience the same quality of learning experiences that they would have received in a traditional face-to-face format. When preparing courses using two-way video or computer-based formats, a professor must engage in careful reflection regarding her/his pedagogical beliefs, in an effort to identify instructional behaviors that may need to be modified or discarded, in favor of methods more suited for distance education. Even though at least 80% of higher education institutions make distance learning training available to assist faculty with changing their instructional practices (NCES, 1997), professors must invest a significant amount of additional time, restructuring their lessons to make them suitable for distance learning delivery.

Tenure-track faculty, especially those employed at major research institutions, are faced with the dual challenges of building impressive research and publication records while demonstrating exemplary teaching competence. Although this is not necessarily a daunting task in itself, it can become more complicated when an untenured assistant professor is assigned a distance learning teaching responsibility. Since research productivity and teaching performance are often viewed as equally significanct when evaluating portfolios for promotion and tenure, an assistant professor cannot afford to interrupt his/her efforts in either area, even for a brief period of time. Consequently, the untenured faculty member may be faced with the dilemma of determining in which area of responsibility his/her time is best spent. Should course activities be revised to make them more suited for distance learning delivery, while the research agenda is abandoned, albeit temporarily; or should the research/publication agenda move forward at its current pace, thereby jeopardizing the instructor’s ratings on student course evaluations?

This article addresses the dilemma of attempting to strike a balance between maintaining a scholarly agenda while mastering distance learning instruction, viewed through the lens of one assistant professor’s experiences. It concludes by providing recommendations concerning how institutions can provide support for assistant professors as they work toward distance learning instructional competence.

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