With the influx of students in online, nursing programs, schools of nursing often depend on educators to serve in a part-time, visiting, or affiliate teaching capacity.1 Part of this growth has been attributed to the need to make higher education in nursing a priority to better meet the demands of the future health care environment.2 This call for increased advanced nursing education can present challenges for online programs, as the engagement of part-time faculty teaching in online programs with the school’s mission may not be adequate or consistent.3,4
A study examining factors that influence the engagement of part-time, online nursing faculty with their online institutions was conducted to assist nursing program leaders with attracting and retaining highly skilled faculty. The research findings are significant to nursing education. Data from this study could help create educational policies for working with and retaining part-time faculty in online nursing programs, which could aid in the consistent delivery of the educational mission, enhance student experiences, and improve retention.
The purpose of this mixed-methods study was to examine the factors influencing engagement of part-time online nursing faculty with their school of nursing. Part-time online faculty was defined as any nursing faculty member who was contracted term-to-term and worked based on program need. Full-time online faculty, at each institution, were excluded from the study. This study was based on perceived factors of influence related to engagement of part-time nursing faculty working with large and small, online nursing programs. The research question for this study was: What factors influence part-time online nursing faculty engagement with their online institution?
Kahn5 wrote a seminal work on engagement critical to the issue at hand describing a model of personal engagement based on a series of choices individuals make with regard to the energy to extend or withdraw themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally in any given role performance. There are numerous influences that may simultaneously promote and impede sharing oneself. Areas of influence include “individual, interpersonal, group, intergroup, and organizational.”5 (p719) This study seeks to understand the organizational influences within the context of the part-time faculty role.
Since the publication of Kahn’s5 seminal work, others have studied engagement and worked to develop a conceptual model to guide organizational behavior. Thirolf6 completed an extensive review of the literature in search of components necessary to create an operationally important model of faculty engagement. The author suggests that faculty identity will align with engagement and result in positive outcomes for the faculty member, students, and organization when a program of purposive academic and social orientation, communication, socialization, and faculty development is incorporated into the first several semesters of teaching for new faculty. This model, developed for the community college setting (where the author declares the needs of part-time faculty have been largely ignored) has implications for other institutions of higher learning that use part-time faculty.
Other studies have attempted to further define those experiences identified as important to faculty in regard to engagement. Meixner et al7 used qualitative methodology to examine the experiences of part-time faculty working within an undergraduate program in a public university. Three predominant themes were identified among the 85 surveys received including feelings of inconsistent outreach from the university and/or program they worked with; challenges of navigation such as difficulty maintaining student engagement, as well as faculty maintaining their own work-life balance; and feelings of disconnect secondary to the lack of supportive resources.7 Whereas this study was conducted without regard for the delivery mode of the education or the residency status of the faculty, other studies have been done with an eye to differentiating with regard to the specific teaching environment.
Mandernack et al8 surveyed work engagement of both full- and part-time faculty teaching in campus-based, hybrid, or online environments. Both full- and part-time faculty teaching in the campus environment (face-to-face) had the highest levels of engagement. Part-time faculty working in a hybrid environment exhibited the next highest levels. In this study, the lowest levels of work engagement were found in online, full-time faculty; part-time online faculty showed higher levels of engagement.
Yen and Abdous9 suggested that the lack of faculty engagement could negatively influence the student experience. Both faculty engagement and student engagement in online nursing education are of primary concern to both leadership and faculty in nursing programs.10 The significance to nursing is evidence to inform policy regarding part-time online nursing faculty engagement with their institution, which could ultimately lead to improved retention. Retaining quality part-time online faculty helps keep recruiting and training costs down.11 Engaged faculty can increase student engagement in online classes to improve student retention.12,13 Consistent engagement of part-time faculty also helps to maintain the quality of online education for students. Currently, there is a lack of research designed specifically to further define factors influencing the level of engagement for online part-time nursing faculty with their institutions. This study was designed to help fill the gap in this research.
Design and Sample
The mixed-methods study used an online survey, developed and piloted by the researchers, to collect data from 3 online nursing programs within 3 separate universities who enroll students across the United States. Convenience sampling was used to survey the faculty participants who taught in an online RN-BSN, MSN, or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) program. Institutional board review approval was obtained from all 3 universities.
The survey, created and delivered using an electronic survey software, consisted of 33 questions, which were organized into 3 categories: institutional culture, contact with the institution, and online course design. Each quantitative, nondemographic survey question was answered using a 5-point Likert scale, ranging from (1) strongly disagree to (5) strongly agree. There were 2 open-ended questions on the survey that asked for other factors impacting engagement and additional comments. The survey also consisted of 8 demographic questions querying participants about age, gender, length of online teaching, years of being a nurse educator, primary role in online teaching, position, highest level of education, and the main reason for teaching online.
Because no survey tool existed, the engagement survey tool was tested for content validity by administering it to 6 part-time online faculty, who were experts in online nursing education and had taught online for at least 10 years. Those 6 faculty who piloted the tool were excluded from the main study. They rated the survey tool in terms of item clarity, content relevance, and item importance. Modifications to the survey were made based on the feedback received from them, and institutional board review reapproval was granted. A post hoc Cronbach’s α for the tool was .88, indicating strong internal consistency among all survey items.
Following the survey modifications, an e-mail with the revised survey link, using the electronic survey software, was sent to 447 part-time online faculty among the 3 research sites using convenience sampling (site 1 sent to 353 participants, site 2 to 75 participants, and site 3 to 19 participants). The response rate was 57%, with 257 faculty responding. To increase the response rate, 2 reminder e-mails were scheduled, each 1 week apart. Study information was part of the e-mail statement notifying the participants of their implied consent by clicking on the survey link contained in the e-mail. The survey request for participation ensured anonymity, further indicated participation was voluntary, and no incentives or disincentives were associated for survey completion.
Data from electronic survey software were exported to Excel (Microsoft, Seattle, Washington) and analyzed with SPSS Statistics for Mac, version x.24 (IBM Corp, Armonk, NY). The data analysis consisted of measures of central tendency, as well as correlations between survey items and select demographic variables. The qualitative responses were examined using thematic analysis with patterns identified and recorded.
Ages of respondents ranged from 30 to older than 70 years; the majority (65.7%) were older than 50 years. Of these, 37% were 50 to 59 years old, and 26.8% were 60 to 69 years old. Faculty were predominantly female (96.5%). Their educational preparation ranged from 52.5% with an MSN degree to 35.4% prepared at the doctoral level. The majority of respondents had been teaching part-time online for 5 to 10 years (59.5%), with 17.9% teaching for less than 5 years and 22.6% teaching for 10 years or more.
The most significant factors that impacted the engagement of part-time online faculty with their institutions were feeling supported in the work environment with navigating student issues (mean, 4.72 of 5), the quality of online education provided by the institution (mean, 4.61), and a culture of respect from supervisors for online teaching and expertise (mean, 4.60). Faculty engagement was also increased by receiving advance notification about changes in their courses; communication, guidance, and support from online program administrators; and alignment of course learning objectives with assignments (Table). Job security with online teaching assignments was also important (mean, 4.48).
Additional factors that led to high engagement of faculty were built in rubrics for assignments, making them convenient to use (mean, 4.44); having input into the design of courses (mean, 4.42); and recognizing teaching excellence (mean, 4.39). Training and mentoring in online teaching (mean, 4.32) and sharing best practices related to teaching among faculty (mean, 4.32) also enhanced their engagement. Part-time faculty indicated that limiting discussion forums to only 1 per week (mean, 4.20) increased their engagement.
Having the ability to communicate and ask faculty and leadership questions about course content or delivery and the ability to discuss concerns with students via e-mail were important to faculty (mean, 4.15); however, it was not necessary to receive weekly communication e-mail updates (mean, 3.51). Of note, class sizes of fewer than 20 students increased faculty engagement with their institution (mean, 4.14). Faculty preferred recorded asynchronous sessions for communication of policy updates and course changes (mean, 3.63), not synchronous (real-time) sessions (mean, 2.87). The factor with the lowest score, having the least effect on influencing engagement, was communicating with the school by phone calls (mean, 2.52) (see Supplemental Digital Content, http://links.lww.com/NE/A463, Table, for all factor mean scores).
Spearman ρ correlation was used to examine relationships among the factors. The number of years of teaching online and degree to which academic freedom increased positively influenced engagement (r s = 0.167, P = .007). Negative correlations regarding type and frequency of communication also were significant. Monthly meetings held with part-time faculty (r s = −0.163, P = .009), weekly e-mails received from faculty and leadership (r s = −0.143, P = .024), and synchronous (real-time) communication (r s = −0.162, P = .009) were negatively related to faculty’s engagement. Other influencing factors on engagement were having only 1 discussion thread per week (r s = −0.157, p = .012), being able to provide input into courses (r s = −0.132, P = .034), and class sizes fewer than 20 students (r s = 0.147, P = .019). No other correlations were found among these particular variables.
There were 2 open-ended questions at the end of the electronic survey asking the participants to provide input about factors that influence their engagement with the institution. Among these comments, the researchers discerned themes, which were grouped into 3 categories to include pay/compensation, recognition/respect from leadership, and posting expectations.
Faculty identified pay and/or compensation as a factor motivating their engagement within their online institution. The ability to be compensated based on periodic performance reviews and/or time with the university was identified as important to faculty. One faculty member recommended “offering monetary increases in contracts based on performance and time of service” and commented “We should be paid more! Universities would collapse without us.” Statements such as these suggest the need for program leadership to consider potential merit raises based on performance for part-time online faculty.
Recognition/Respect From Leadership
Feeling respected and receiving recognition from leadership were identified as factors motivating online faculty to engage with their schools. Comments in this category demonstrated negative past experiences some faculty had with their leadership, as well as what they desire to occur in interactions in the future: “More recognition of the work of faculty by the manager would be helpful… feels as if the only direct communication is regarding issues or concerns. This can be demoralizing.” Another respondent stated, “I can teach anywhere online—being treated respectfully as a colleague and being recognized for the value good faculty bring make the difference in my selection [of a school].” Another faculty member commented, “I doubt that they know I exist.” These comments highlight the need for respectful communication at all levels within online programs. Remaining cognizant of using a respectful tone in written and verbal communications with part-time faculty might improve their satisfaction, which could increase their feelings of engagement.
Posting expectations on online discussion forums was also evident in the qualitative data, with some part-time faculty indicating the requirements were unrealistic. Comments included, “I can be as effective posting 3-4 days a week [vs 5 days a week]” and “Best practices used to be 15% instructor presence in the weekly forums, and this was increased to 20%, because most were already performing at this level. This doesn’t leave room for an off or busy week for the instructor.” Even though the comments indicated part-time faculty might not favor some posting requirements, online leadership should consider the impact faculty interactions have on student learning and satisfaction. As our previous research indicated, online MSN students demonstrated improved learning and satisfaction when their faculty posted more on discussion forums.2
The response rate of 57% may indicate part-time online nursing faculty were eager to share their perceptions of what factors influenced their engagement with their online institutions. Receiving support with navigating student issues was the top influence on the engagement of faculty with their online institutions, followed by the school offering quality online education. Respect from administrators for faculty expertise followed by advance communication of course changes to faculty was also an important factor. Faculty want communication, guidance, and support from the school. Of the top 5 factors influencing faculty engagement, 4 related to the culture of the online institution.
While examination of the top factors is necessary to determine what faculty most appreciate in their part-time assignments, it is telling to examine those factors with the lowest mean scores. Required synchronous and required asynchronous sessions were rated low. The only lower factor score was communication via telephone. Faculty preferred e-mail communications with their institutions, although not weekly.
Online course design factors, which influenced engagement, included built-in rubrics and 1 discussion forum per week, not rated high with mean scores of 4.44 and 4.20, respectively. It can be surmised that while these course development factors were neither the strongest nor weakest influencers, they figure into the faculty engagement to some degree. The results indicate part-time online nursing faculty prefer teaching a course that is both organized and faculty workload friendly. Because the majority of online courses are already developed when online faculty teach them, a prearchitected course with a design that is easy to follow by faculty appears to be a factor influencing engagement.
Because 65.7% of respondents were older than 50 years, the data may have reflected a low importance on the factor of job security and compensation because of plans for retirement or a sense of clarity with pace and direction of their careers. The data describe the overall demographic of nursing faculty, which closely resembles the data from the National League for Nursing suggesting the majority of faculty, both full- and part-time, are from the Baby Boomer population.14 Further, it is possible that the number of part-time positions held, or the fact that many are full time at one institution while teaching part-time at another, may also inform the lack of emphasis on job security as an engaging factor. The age of the study participants corresponds to the age demographic of nursing faculty as a whole. This consistency in age may help to make the data results generalizable.
Interestingly, 34.4% of the faculty surveyed teach online to augment their income, with 21% teaching part-time online for multiple employers, and 35.8% have another full-time nonacademic position in nursing. Online nursing education leaders need to be flexible in allowing for multiple employers for part-time online nursing faculty.
The correlation data, although revealing some significant correlations, were not strong enough to provide insight into how best to engage faculty of varying lengths of experience and educational levels. Additional study is required to make meaningful recommendations.
The participants were chosen by convenience sampling from 3 online nursing programs that offer RN-BSN, MSN, and DNP degrees. A majority of the sample taught in either an RN-BSN or DNP program, which may limit the generalizability of the results across MSN programs. In addition, the 1 research site with the greatest potential number of participants conducts frequent synchronous meetings for information sharing. Part-time online faculty perceived synchronous meetings (mean, 2.87) negatively. Therefore, this is a finding to consider carefully when determining if synchronous meetings can be a successful factor to promote faculty engagement at other institutions.
The study of factors that influence engagement of part-time, online nursing faculty with their online institutions provided some evidence on which to base faculty retention practices for online administrators. Engagement with the institution was strongly increased when faculty were supported in handling student issues. The quality of the online courses provided by the institution influenced faculty engagement with that institution. Online course design was assessed and found to have some influence with engagement. Faculty expressed that providing input into courses was important. Interestingly, the type and frequency of communication influence nursing faculty engagement and should be carefully considered when creating processes and policies. Now that these factors have been identified, research is needed to evaluate if using them translates into higher quality and more engagement for faculty teaching in online nursing programs and their students.