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GetEducated.com's Guide to Finding Work as an Online College Instructor

Want to teach online, but aren’t sure where to send your resume? Curious about what kind of pay or working conditions you can expect?  
Online Teacher
First point to consider: full-time, tenure-track online teaching jobs are rare. Most online colleges hire adjunct faculty to work at a distance. 

Second: Not all schools offer the same deals. Employment conditions such as pay rate, required training, and class size vary widely.  

GetEducated.com has compiled this guide to show you what to look for so you can land work as an online instructor at the post-secondary level. 

Consider the following guidelines when searching for the best places to work:

Qualifications

Most online schools hire part-time adjuncts. To qualify, you’ll generally need to hold a master’s degree or be able to document that you’ve taken a cluster of advanced coursework in the areas you wish to teach.  

Though full-time jobs aren't common, some distance programs do hire online professors, including in tenure-track faculty positions. Full-time instructors typically need to hold doctorates or teach in high-demand career areas such as healthcare or accounting. They also may be required to take on mentoring, advising and assorted administrative duties.  

Those seeking part-time, adjunct positions will find the most opportunities for employment with online colleges. 

Pay Ranges for Online Instructors

Pay rates vary. A common fee you can expect to earn for a semester-long course is $1,500.  The University of Phoenix Online, for example, pays $1,250 to 1,500 for an accelerated five-week semester course in most subject areas.

Online courses are often "accelerated" to better fit the needs of older, working students. Online instructors may teach courses which are as brief as four to six weeks. Traditional universities with distance education programs are more likely to hire online instructors for ten-week, and sometimes even sixteen-week, semester-long courses. online teacher

When looking at pay per course, keep in mind the length of your term. Divide the fee by the weeks you will teach to find the best deals.

Most online universities pay a flat fee per course. But some pay per “head,” meaning your compensation depends on how many students sign up—and stay with you—for the duration of the course. Some schools hold instructors accountable for student completion. This means they may not pay you, or they may pay less, if any of your students drop out during the course. Some schools both pay a flat fee and give a bonus if your class size is larger than expected.

If you have a doctorate and a track record with a school, you may make more money. Graduate courses often pay more, as do in-demand subjects (online accounting, for example).

Online paychecks are apples, oranges, grapes—and sometimes lemons—all mixed together. Here are some examples (information reported by adjuncts spring 2009; rates subject to change):

• University of Phoenix: $1,250 to $1,500, five-week term
• Western International University: $1,500, eight-week term
• DeVry University: $2,860, eight-week term
• Southern New Hampshire University: $1,500 to $1,800, eight-week term
 National American University: $1,250, ten-week term
• South University: $1,500, five-and-a-half weeks
• St Joseph’s College of Maine: (for graduate courses): $2,360 for ten weeks
• Embry-Riddle University: $125 per head for undergraduate, $150 per head for graduate (but has premium rates for hard-to-recruit and high-demand areas, and pays extra stipends for course developers)
• Ashford University: $1,040 to $1,664 for five-week undergraduate courses ($1,040 is base, but salary is bumped depending on experience, Ashford seniority); additional premiums paid for high-demand courses and those with 60-plus students. For eight-week undergraduate courses: $1,664 - $2,662.40. For six-week grad courses: $1,352 - $2080
• Axia College: $1,350, nine-week course
• Chancellor University: Sliding scale, from 1 student per eight-week course (JD/Master's: $400, PhD $480) up to 10-plus students per eight-week course (JD/Master's: $1,600, PhD $2,000)
• Upper Iowa University: $2,100 for eight-week course (for instructor with three years' experience)

Number of Online Students

How many students are you comfortable teaching at once? 

Teachers say it depends on the subject. If you are going to be grading essays, for example, you don't want a class with 50 students. If you will have multiple-choice exams, this number might be more doable. 

Online schools will expect you to respond to student questions, either via email or message board; the more students, the more questions—and the more time you will spend to earn your pay.

Find out your prospective school's class size limit. A school like Upper Iowa University—which caps class size at 15, and averages even fewer students per class—may provide a more enjoyable, less time-consuming teaching experience than a school with 30, 50, or more students per class.

Number of Courses You Can Teach

Many schools limit the number of online courses or credit hours any one instructor is allowed to teach. Six courses per year might be typical (18 credit hours per semester). If a college pays you $2,000 per course, that’s $12,000 per year—with no benefits, pre-tax. 

If you want to make a decent living, then, you may need to teach at more than one school simultaneously—which online adjuncts frequently do, becoming full-time adjuncts by working at several schools at once. Even so, the money may not be enough to justify the rigorous workload. 

For example, if you are making $2,000 per course and teaching six online courses per year, and then triple this workload by adding two more schools, you'd still only be making $36,000 annually—with no benefits, while teaching a grueling 18 courses per year.

Those who wish to make a full-time salary doing online adjunct work will do best if they find courses that require the least amount of reading and grading time: those that use easy-to-grade or auto-graded assignments like multiple-choice tests.  

Grading or reviewing essays or complex written portfolios takes more time and should pay more. (This is, in fact, one reason graduate courses often pay at a higher rate than undergraduate ones.)

Asynchronous v. synchronous courses, video v. non-video 

Online Instructor at CoffeehouseSchools that want you to be available for “real time” lectures or virtual office hours may cut your flexibility and require you to spend more time on the job. Video lectures may require you to dress up or swap sweats for suits—which some might find a burden. It will certainly take you more time to “prep” for video lectures and online student meetings. 

Academic freedom

Some online schools have pre-set curricula, which can be easier and take less time for you to deliver—but which can be restricting, especially if you are used to creating your own material. 

Other schools may require you to develop courses yourself. This will require more work, but give you more freedom. 

You will have to decide which method fits you best. Keep in mind that if you are required to help develop a course, you should be paid more than if you are only asked to teach. 

Course development can range from writing single-lesson assignments to writing exams or complete sets of lectures and Powerpoint downloads. Course development fees can vary widely, from $1,200 to $5,000 per course. 

Make sure you understand what “rights” you are handing over if you write and develop a course. Most online colleges require course developers to sign a “work-for-hire” agreement which gives the college the right to own the course. This means you cannot freely take the course and use it to teach elsewhere. The course will belong to the college, not you.

Online course management platform

Whether a school uses Blackboard, Angel or another platform will affect your ability to teach the class with less time spent trying to navigate technical issues. See if your prospective school uses a platform you know. If not, assess the type of training that will be required before you can get up and running.  

Most online colleges require adjuncts to attend online training in the software system they use to deliver distance courses. Most colleges do not pay adjuncts to attend this training.  For example, Franklin College Online requires new instructors to attend a six-week online course. If you are already trained on one course management platform, you’ll reduce your unpaid time on the job if you apply only at colleges that use that platform.

Bottom Line

Which factors are most important to you? Ask before applying—and accepting—your next online teaching job. Doing so will help you find the best distance teaching job for you.

Related Resources

Online and Distance Jobs: Help Wanted
Online and Distance Jobs: Talent Available