Friday, January 29, 2010

Does it take me more time to teach online?

Common wisdom--as reflected in conversations I've had as well as many discussions on listservs like WPA-L and Techrhet--would have it that teaching online is vastly more time-consuming. People say the front-end work, the monitoring of the written conversations, the technology snafus--they all added up to a more time-intensive endeavor.

That has not been my experience.

Now, if you are not computer savvy, don't own a computer, or you work from a very slow Internet connection, teaching using the Web is going to take time. However, I think many of the time calculations people use are skewed against teaching online for a variety of reasons, many of them based on perception and/or the frustrated way we treat digital vs. real-life problems. (Getting lost walking to class on the first day: Funny story for students! Unable to upload a file to your online class: Agony!) Note that some studies support that teaching online is not significantly more time-intensive than onsite teaching (see Hislop, for example [1]).

Below, I unscientifically compare some of my typical teaching activities for an online and onsite (I'll call it face-to-face [f2f] here to differentiate them more easily) first-year writing course, and I rate which takes more time. The f2f course meets Tuesdays and Thursdays for one hour and 20 minutes.

Pre-term general prep: Same. In developing the concepts, themes, and structure for a course, I don't spend more time teaching one way than I do another. When I first started teaching online, granted, I had to prepare a lot of materials beforehand. You will too. However, I don't know that I spent more time than in those anxiety-filled nights before I stepped into my first f2f class (I read the text we were discussing about 17 times, burying it beneath annotations). In addition, I use a course Website for every course, online, hybrid, or f2f. Sure, if you don't know your campus course management system (CMS), it's going to take longer to set it up, much like it will take you longer to get to class if you don't know where to park. Also, I want to debunk the common misconception that you have to prepare everything ahead of time for an online course--unless that's what you do for the f2f courses you teach. I provide major deadlines to students in the beginning of the term, but otherwise I assign readings and other work and reveal resources on a weekly basis in my online course, much as I do in my f2f course.

Pre-term development of course documents: Online, more. F2f, you create a syllabus and other guidelines for your students. Online, you also likely create other materials to help orient students to the class.

Organizing the course: Online, more. A significant organizational component of the f2f class is often done for us by a registrar that tells students where to be and when. Online, you have to do this structuring.

Reading course texts: F2f, more. Especially when teaching a new text, I will pore over it for an f2f class in a way I find unneccesary when teaching online. I don't have a photographic memory, so when teaching f2f I spend lots of time looking over the text to try to prepare for unexpected questions. Online, I can refer to the text as I'm conversing with them on our message boards, so one good annotated reading is more than enough.

Other class prep: Same. Class prep here is not accurate, since my online "classroom" is asynchronous. But I spend about the same time preparing activities for my f2f class as I do developing online modules and lessons. For example, it takes me as long to set up an exercise on logical fallacies for either class. It takes me as long to create an f2f quiz as it does to create an online quiz. It takes me the same amount of time to create a presentation. Etc.

Traveling to class: F2f, more. On some campuses, this can eat up an hour or more of your time a week just walking around campus, let alone the actual travel to school if you drive there solely to teach.

Teaching the class: Same. Obviously, my categories are loose, but in my f2f class I'm in the class for two hours and 40 minutes total. That's the amount of time--and I actually restrict myself in this way--I spend facilitating and responding to posts, presenting a PowerPoint-type workshop, and/or doing other "teaching-like" activities online. This similarity can be even more obvious if you teach synchronously using live classroom software like Wimba. For many teachers, including myself, asynchronous tools replace f2f conversations that we have in class.

Using multimedia: F2f, more. Online, I create a link on the CMS in seconds to a video for the class to view and discuss. F2f, I have to spend time setting up a way to show the multimedia in my class, which can range from negligible if you have a well-equipped classroom to significant if you have to secure a projector, lug it across campus, set it up, etc.

Computer issues: Online, more. If you don't use a computer at all in f2f teaching, the results here are obvious: You depend on the computer online. Even though I do a lot with my CMS and email in the f2f course, I clearly don't rely on the Web like I do when teaching online.

Providing feedback on/grading substantive student projects: Same. As I mentioned in a recent workshop about teaching writing online that I facilitated (with a great group of faculty) at Georgia Southern, I don't talk too much about the paper/essay/project evaluation cycle, because it's the same for me whether online, f2f, or hybrid: I work with e-documents. I have to say here that there a slew of electronic tools to help you evaluate faster--and probably better--but they are available for any modality.

Conferencing/communicating with students individually: Same. Students in my online courses visit me in my office for a meeting an average of about one less conference per student than in an f2f course. Students in both types of courses email me a lot, although a bit more in the online class. Online students also tend to call me slightly more than in the f2f course. It basically equals out.

If you don't like working on the computer, teaching online may take more time, and it will certainly seem that way. If you're disorganized, teaching online will definitely take more time. If you live three hours from campus, teaching f2f is going to be a much more time-consuming endeavor. If you spend an hour after every class talking informally with students, f2f is going to take longer. So what you get is a temporal give and take: There' s not a universal truth here.

Really, I haven't been fair to online teaching, because I haven't at all touched on leveraging of the technology. F2f, we do the same things over and over--after all, that's part of teaching (and, I've discovered, parenting). Online, you can leverage the technology to save time. My weekly plans (html-based tables), general message board instructions, project-based writing workshops--I have large archives of those materials I re-create for the current course. Online, I'm not spending time making Word docs; I'm thinking hard about my students' writing!

You may still not agree with me, but I will close with my experience: Teaching online for me does not take more time than teaching f2f. In fact, because online I work with so much more of my students' writing, I think I work less--and I work smarter.

Your results may vary.


1) Hislop, Gregory W., and Heidi J. C. Ellis. “A Study of Faculty Effort in Online Teaching.” Internet and Higher Education 7.1 (2004): 15–31.


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