Is Online Teaching More Time Intensive?

Is Online Teaching More Time Intensive?

This article originally appeared in Distance Education Report.

Early in my tenure as the director of online education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, I had an instructor insist that since he spent approximately twice as much time teaching his online course, he should get paid twice as much. To his great disappointment, that never materialized.

But the belief that developing and teaching online courses is more time-intensive than in-person courses is widespread, and is frequently cited as one of the top barriers to online teaching. I encounter this attitude routinely, whether talking to instructors at my institution, reading articles about online education, or attending presentations at national conferences.

A number of studies have examined instructor perceptions as they relate to developing and teaching online courses. Sure enough, a majority (usually about 70%) of instructors report they perceive developing and teaching online courses as more work. However, if we go beyond simply looking at instructor perceptions and examine the research that has tried to quantify time investment in developing online courses and teaching online, the waters become somewhat muddied.

Roughly a dozen studies have been conducted where researchers have attempted to compare the amount of time spent teaching online versus in-person courses. Not surprisingly, with the number of variables that must be considered (type and size of class, level of student, number and types of assessments, use of technology, amount of feedback given, etc.), this can be tricky, and the results of these studies have been mixed. Roughly a third of them suggest online is more work, a third suggest in-person is more work, and a third claim there is no difference. A nice summary of these studies can be found in the article “Teaching Time Investment: Does Online Really Take More Time Than Face-To-Face?” by Rebecca Van de Vord and Korolyn Pogue in the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.

If the literature on this is mixed, why is the belief so pervasive? Having had the pleasure of working with well over 100 instructors in the past seven or eight years as they developed and taught their first online course, I have a number of ideas.

First, instructors are often encouraged to have their online courses fully, or nearly fully developed prior to teaching them. In my experience, this is something that rarely occurs in face-to-face teaching. Fully developing a course prior to teaching it requires a tremendous amount of time, energy and effort. I can easily see how if instructors follow this direction, it can give them the impression that developing an online course requires more work and time. (Interestingly, a number of those instructors who fully developed their online course prior to teaching it told me that they were going to take the same approach for any future in-person courses they were teaching for the first time.)

At my institution, we see a good number of experienced faculty decide to give online teaching a try. Some have been teaching for years, and it has been years since they have had to prep a new course. I suspect that instructors sometimes forget just how time-intensive new-course prep can be. If the new prep is for an online course and the majority of the prep is done on the front end, they might in this way come to associate more work with the online format.

Online instructors often work with an instructional designer as they start their online course-development process. Many times instructional designers will encourage faculty to take a critical look at their student learning objectives, how they are developing and delivering content, if their student learning outcomes are aligned with course activities and assessments, etc. This approach to course development is much different from creating a course and teaching it chapter-by-chapter through a textbook, as many instructors do. This, too, could easily be giving instructors the impression that developing online courses is more work.

Another reason for viewing online courses as being more time-intensive relates to technology. Many instructors who teach online need to spend time getting up to speed with whatever learning-management system their institution employs, along with any technologies they may use in their course. I do think that this can involve additional time dedicated to course development, though usually not an overwhelming amount. In my experience, the majority of instructors at my institution who decide to teach online have already been using our learning-management system for their in-person courses. And though learning and adopting new technologies can be challenging, most instructors can become proficient in the latest technology in a relatively short period of time, often something like two to three hours.

Finally, some instructors feel the need to frequently “check in” on their online course —perhaps early in the morning, late at night, or multiple times during the day. While staying connected and being available to students is something I support, the feeling that an instructor is always “on” and must always be available to students can get to be overwhelming for some. Some studies have, in fact, shown that instructors do monitor or check in with their online courses more frequently than in-person courses, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they are actually spending more time in those courses.

I believe that most students respect instructors who clearly spell out expectations with regard to how long it will take to return emails (e.g., 24 hours) or grade and provide feedback for assessments (e.g., 72 hours). Some online instructors like the practice of setting aside blocks or chunks of time during the day to dedicate to grading, responding to student questions, etc., and they let their students know that. Such a practice can help alleviate the feeling that instructors need to constantly be checking in on their course.

Some in higher education have what I consider an unreasonable expectation that online instructors, and even student support services for online learners, be available 24/7. I don’t agree with that. Student support services are not available 24/7 for in-person courses, and I don’t believe they need to be for online courses either.

If space permitted, I would share a number of ideas on ways instructors could better manage the workload related to online teaching and how the overall design and structure of an online course can have a significant impact on the workload associated with teaching it. Both sound like excellent topics for future articles!

Van de Vord, R. & Pogue, K. (2012). Teaching time investment: Does online really take more time than face-to-face? International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol 13, pp. 132-146.