Online learning for beginners: 8. Won’t online learning be more work?

August 7, 2016 Tony Bates

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This is the eighth in a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The previous seven are:

More work?

The short answer is, yes, of course, at least in the short term. This is because online teaching is the same as any other skill. When you first start, you have to learn a lot, and do things you haven’t done before. For instance, as I discussed in earlier posts, you have to think carefully about why you are using online learning, talk to colleagues and work with other professionals such as instructional and web designers, master the technology, such as video recording or a learning management system, and basically re-think and re-design your teaching. This will take time, and your first online course will undoubtedly be more work and more challenging than your most recent face-to-face course.

However, in the long run, there is no reason why online teaching should be more work than face-to-face teaching, all other things being equal (which, of course, they never are in teaching). As always, there are important conditions to be met, if you don’t want to be swamped with extra work. So let’s look at what these conditions are.

Re-design your teaching

In the previous post in this series, I warned against trying to move your face-to-face teaching online, by just recording lectures. Although this may seem to be a time saver when developing an online course, it can cause a lot more work down the line. There will always be some students who don’t understand parts of a lecture and if something isn’t clear all students may have the same problem. When this happens, watch the e-mails or phone calls or even tweets roll in from students – or watch the course completion rate take a dive.

The answer is to use what is called ‘learning design’ or course design: setting clear learning outcomes or objectives for the course, breaking down the learning into manageable chunks of time for the students, providing appropriate learning activities for online learners, for instance, online discussion forums, and ensuring that assessment and feedback is continuous throughout the course, all the time thinking of the context in which the online learner is working. The trick is to move much of the work of finding, analyzing and applying content, and development of skills such as independent thinking, critical thinking, and problem solving, from you to the students, but under your guidance.

For most instructors, this means spending a good deal of time preparing the course in advance of its actual delivery. This means having the weekly modules that students study ready well in advance of the opening of the course. Although there will always be the need for minor changes to content in subsequent years, the bulk of the design and development of the course is done in the first year of its offering.

Most instructors in fact find a time shift when they move to online teaching. The more time you put into the development of the course in the first year, the less time you find yourself spending on content delivery during the delivery of the course, because it is already there. Multiply this over several offerings of the course and the time shift can lead to either significant time savings for you, or, more likely, your spending your time better in working directly, if online, with students, such as monitoring and contributing to online discussion of the course content.

For this reason, many institutions now offer funding to enable you to ‘buy yourself out’ of a face-to-face class for one or two semesters in order to prepare your first online course. Once you have some experience in this more traditional form of online learning, you can move to more ‘agile’ designs later, but that is another matter altogether. The first time out, you and your students need a clear structure and framework for the course.

Also, it is at this stage of course development that working with other professionals such as an instructional designer and web designer is most valuable. They should be able to provide the necessary advice and above all a framework and timetable for your work in designing the course.

Managing class size

I mentioned earlier that online teaching should not be more work, all things being equal. However, sometimes the aim is to use online learning in order to handle large classes or take extra students. These pressures may be coming from the administration rather than from you – or alternatively you may be concerned about the quality of the teaching of large face-to-face classes when many are delivered not by you but by teaching assistants who have barely more content knowledge than those they are teaching and who in particular may not have good lecturing skills.

The general rule for the most appropriate numbers for an individual instructor to teach online is pretty much the same as for face-to-face teaching. Once the instructor:student ratio goes over 1:30, it becomes harder to individualize the teaching and the instructor’s work load increases, unless the course is focused mainly on quantitative or ‘objective’ outcomes that can be automatically assessed, through, for instance, computer marked assignments. It is generally the marking that leads to overload when classes get beyond 30 per instructor.

However, because with online learning the content is available at any time and any place for students, there is some scope for scaling up the teaching to handle larger numbers. In particular, if the teaching content on the course is well developed by a top quality professor or instructor, all students will receive the same quality of content instruction. This means then that learner support and student assessment (marking) can be supported by contract sessional instructors as class size increases.

The availability of funding for hiring additional sessional instructors will depend on the business model behind the online program. If you are merely moving students from an existing face-to-face course to an online course, then there will be no extra money from tuition fees. However, if the online program is attracting new students paying additional tuition fees, then the extra funding can be used to hire more sessional instructors. In many North American universities, the tuition fee once an online course is developed more than covers the cost of additional sessional instructors, even with ‘steps’ of 30 students (i.e. for every additional 30 students you hire another sessional). Much of this of course will depend on faculty agreements, but from your point of view, re-design of a large face-to-face course by moving it online can not only improve the quality but also enable you to manage your own workload better.

What I would advise against is the use of graduate students as teaching assistants for online courses. The re-design of online courses requires instructors who can go beyond the ‘recorded’ content of an online course and can push students in online discussion groups, for instance, to challenge ideas and go deeper than just the formal online content. This requires sessional instructors with a good understanding of content and good inter-personal teaching skills to handle the extra students as class size increases.

In summary then, managing your workload as online class size increases requires several conditions:

  • ‘core’ content of high quality that does not need to be changed a lot from year to year;
  • learning/course design that provides a strong structure for students so that it is clear what they need to do when studying;
  • professional instructional design and web/media design support;
  • flexibility to hire additional, well-qualified sessional instructors as class size increases.

In the end, this may mean moving to a team approach to teaching large online classes. In some cases, the senior instructor’s responsibility may not involve direct teaching at all, but being responsible for the curriculum/content, setting learning outcomes, designing assessments, and supervising the learning support and assignment marking provided by sessional instructors.

Shifting from content to skills development

What online learning can do is enable you, as an instructor or teacher, to move away from ‘sage-on-the-stage’, where you are responsible for choosing and delivering content, and assessing how well students have comprehended this content, to ‘guide-on-the-side’, where students find, analyze and apply content, and develop higher level skills through practice, often working with other students online, through discussion or project work, but always under your guidance, or under the guidance of a team of sessional instructors that you monitor.

Implications

  1. Such changes inevitably mean more work, and more challenges, initially, in moving to online learning, but the benefits in both the quality of what your students learn, and the quality of your own engagement with students, can be substantial.
  2. There are also strategies for managing your workload when teaching online, so that over time you can balance better your teaching, research and administrative responsibilities.
  3. But online learning is not something to be undertaken lightly. You need to do it professionally, or it will be both more work and very frustrating.

Follow-up

For more on the design of online courses, see:

Later posts in this series will go into more detail about providing support for online learners that will also enable you to manage better your workload.

Up next

What can I do for myself?

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

Get the students to do the work!

Get the students to do the work!

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