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Online Courses Stalling Pa. Professors' Union Contract

Online education is playing a role in PASSHE’s contract negotiation with the professors’ union. Right now, professors are compensated at $800 per credit when developing a new online course.

By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent

HARRISBURG — Professors in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education are at a standstill in contract negotiations with the administration, and among their differences is whether to continue a $3.6 million to $5 million annual cost for online instruction.

A contract with PASSHE and the state system’s professors union, the Association of Pennsylvania State Colleges and University Faculties, expired 15 months ago.

Divisive issues holding up negotiations include health care, workload and pay for temporary faculty, according to union representatives. Just as divisive, the state is proposing getting rid of a system that has traditionally compensated faculty for developing and teaching online courses.

The professors, citing reasons of experience and quality, don’t want that to happen.

Since 1999, PASSHE has offered incentive payments for professors to develop online courses, called distance education, along with a per-student amount. Though the pay scale has been altered over the years, course development fees today are $800 per credit in each class for the first year of operation. Professors also get $25 per student and $100 per credit the next three times the course is used over the ensuing five years.

In 2010-11, course development incentives cost PASSHE $3.6 million. Final figures for the next year are not yet available, but estimates are close to $5 million.

Should that cost continue to rise, there’s no guarantee PASSHE would be able to cover it without raising tuition or other revenue sources. State funding, which makes up about 27 percent of PASSHE’s budget, was at $412.8 million for 2012-13, held flat from the previous year.

PASSHE consists of 14 universities statewide, with about 118,000 students.

Ken Mash, vice president of APSCUF, said not all faculty members are experienced in designing online courses, and the compensation makes up for the research needed to learn the system. Removing the compensation system could result in online classes with unlimited students or mandatory course models, Nash said, changing the quality of education offered.

“The system has recommended it be up to the department chair or dean to tell a professor how they need to deliver the class, either in person or online,” Mash said. “We don’t think that’s appropriate. Not everybody is equally equipped to do that.”

Losing the per-student fee on online education opens the door for unlimited class sizes for online courses, Mash said. That raises concerns about quality, he said, adding the organization is not against online courses that can be a good fit for non-traditional students.

From the professor’s standpoint, online teaching changes, and uploading recordings online doesn’t have the same feeling as, say, giving a lecture and calling on raised hands in a classroom, Nash said.

“I am not as comfortable teaching online as I am in my classroom, because I can’t replicate that kind of give-and- take between the students,” Nash said

PASSHE is not unique in this regard. Nationwide, administrators and faculty do not always share the same views on online learning. This summer, Inside Higher Ed released a study about distance education using two surveys, one of faculty and one of administrators, examining their attitudes and perceptions of online learning.

Forty-two percent of faculty members said they had more excitement than fear about online learning, compared to 80 percent of administrators. Around 30 percent of faculty members agreed their institution had a fair system of paying for online instruction, compared to nearly 60 percent of administrators.

PASSHE spokesman Kenn Marshall said in an email that, since the online course incentive was implemented in 1999, state universities have hosted hundreds of courses online.

Modern technology makes it easier to design the courses, he said, and the faculty is more experienced in this medium.

“The incentives worked and we don’t believe they are any longer necessary, especially given the fiscal challenges we are facing and our attempts to control student costs,” Marshall wrote.

Jonathan Robe, administrative director with research institution The Center for College Affordability and Productivity, said in an email to PA Independent that it’s important for traditional colleges to integrate online courses.

Otherwise, they run the risk of being run out of business if that model becomes dominant – especially as students seek low-cost options in higher education, he said.

But he was skeptical of the incentive, which could end up neutralizing any cost-savings.

“I almost think it would be better to have a separate entity in the university focus on online course offerings with a model that makes use of the gains of specialization in each of these areas,” Robe wrote, “rather than tell faculty something to the effect of, ‘OK, we’ll need each of you to figure out how to offer online courses as well as your traditional classes.’”

Whether the online education incentive is eliminated in this contract will depend on negotiations. But for the next two weeks, it’s all on hold, with a meeting scheduled Nov. 2.

Saturday, APSCUF leadership voted on a strike authorization, but that doesn’t mean a strike is imminent. A simple majority of the 5,500 dues-paying members would need to vote on a strike authorization, which would give the union’s negotiating committee the ability to call a strike.

The full membership vote on the strike arbitration is scheduled for the week before Thanksgiving, said APSCUF communications director Lauren Gutshall.

Before the vote over strike authorization, APSCUF approached PASSHE with a proposal for entering into binding arbitration to expedite the process. PASSHE denied the request.

In a letter to APSCUF, PASSHE Chancellor John Cavanaugh said that it would be “improper” to delegate bargaining responsibilities to a third party, who would not be responsible for the financial implications of his decision — and who isn’t obligated to consider the interests of Pennsylvania taxpayers.

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