Outsourcing Online Coaches

Public colleges without deep pockets can face challenges as they seek to ramp up online course offerings. For one thing, it’s not easy to quickly recruit the teaching assistants or “coaches” needed to help faculty members manage larger classes and keep students on track.

Enter Instructional Connections, a relatively new venture attempting to tap into this market. Launched in 2010, the nonprofit firm grew out of a for-profit company that offers online services to public universities. It has brought in a pool of academic coaches to offer support to fast-growing online degree programs at public institutions, with a focus on education and health care.

A key selling point for the service is cost savings. Online courses backed by Instructional Connections cost 33 to 40 percent less to run per student than do those overseen solely by adjunct faculty, said Robert F. Williams, the organization’s president. That’s because the coaches allow universities to create larger classes.

The service’s “bench” of coaches also helps improve academic quality, asserts Williams, by assisting both students and the “university-paid instructor of record.” The teaching assistants report to university-employed faculty members and are paid by Instructional Connections, which in turn is on contract with the university.

“It allows the professors to really focus on the teaching,” said Williams.

The firm’s teaching assistants are “practitioners” who work in their fields, and often must clear minimum educational requirements. For example, all coaches in nursing hold at least a master’s degree. And partner universities get to review the CVs of each coach.

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