Friday, August 08, 2008

restructuring the economy

Current U.S. Department of Labor figures show that in July 2008, the number of involuntary part-time workers (in jobs formerly full-time but cut to part time due to "Slack work or business conditions") was 4,174,000 compared to only 2,693,000 one year ago (July 2007). While the change from 2007 to 2008 was unusually large, it is part of a longer historical trend to a greater reliance on part-time and temporary workers across the economy.

The trend to greater reliance on part-time workers is one for which high education has unfortunately been in the forefront. Universities, colleges and community colleges have shifted more and more of their teaching responsibilities to adjunct faculty, who teach part-time, have few if any benefits, who frequently are given no office space and who have little contact with students other than in the classroom. Community College's in particular have grown more and more dependent on part-time adjunct faculty. Research by Grace Banachowski shows the trend:
According to Lombardi (1992), part-time faculty constituted 38.5% of the instructors in 698 junior colleges in 1962. This number increased moderately to 40% in 1971, and three years later grew to nearly 50%. By 1980, nearly 60% of the faculty in two-year colleges were employed part-time, and 65% in 1993 (National Center for Education Statistics in American Association of Community Colleges, 1995).
As community colleges deal more and more often with under prepared students needed extensive developmental (or as they used to be called remedial) course work to be ready for college work, the trend towards relying on adjunct faculty is troubling.

Yesterday (August 7) was the annual first meeting of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) Faculty Senate. Representatives from the 13 college districts around Kentucky gathered at the KCTCS offices in Versailles, Kentucky. At the end of the morning general sessions there was an unscheduled appearance by the KCTCS president Michael McCall. McCall offered general remarks of encouragement and optimism for the upcoming academic year, then opened the floor for questions.

The first question from the assembled faculty and academic deans dealt with the rising percentage of instruction being done at KCTCS college's by part-time adjunct instructors. The speaker raised concerns about the impact this was having on the quality of instruction. McCall's response was vague and general, full of platitudes about serving students and maintaining quality. McCall ended his response with a suggestion that individual colleges within the system would need to "examine" the balance between full-time and part-time instruction. [Notice this says nothing about changing the balance, or reversing the trends, only "examining" the balance.]

The next question Dr. McCall fielded was about on-line instruction and the new KCTCS Virtual Learning Initiative (VLI). The VLI is working to translate several KCTCS degree programs into a format in which all courses are offered in self-guided modules. Each course would be divided into smaller units, that could be taken in a week or two. Entry into modules would be 7 days a week, 365 days of the year, on demand from students. Because courses in the VLI program are detached from the traditional semester structure, and offered for fractional credit, all instruction for the program will be done by part-time instructors. Even full-time faculty who decide to participate as instructors will do so as overloads to their normal loads, but the plan is that most of the staffing will be done by new, part-time instructors, who will be paid on a per student per credit basis.

McCall's response to the question made it clear that he believes that this new model of on-demand education should replace all other forms of education in the KCTCS system. While he noted that we would have to wait to see how successful it the Virtual Learning Initiative was, he expressed the belief that it would be successful and that this model was preferable to the traditional model based on semesters.

Given McCall's response to this second question on the Virtual Learning Initiative, it is likely that when he said that KCTCS college's should "examine" the balance of full-time to part-time instruction, he really meant that they should be thinking in terms of moving entirely to part-time instruction!

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