Online courses ‘more time-consuming’ to prepare for, study says

Tasmanian researchers find it takes 10 hours to plan an hour’s lecture for online students, compared to eight hours for on-campus delivery

September 21, 2017
Cracking a giant nut
Source: Getty
Hard nut to crack: current workload models do not take into account the extra hours required to prepare online modules

Online courses are more time-consuming for academics to prepare for than traditional teaching, according to an Australian study.

Analysing the responses of just over 2,000 academics to a survey conducted by the National Tertiary Education Union, John Kenny and Andrew Fluck from the University of Tasmania found that it took academics 10 hours to plan an hour’s lecture for online students compared with eight hours for a traditional hour-long lecture.

It took six hours to plan an online tutorial, as opposed to five hours for an in-person one, and 100 hours to plan an entirely new unit for online students compared with 96 hours for a course delivered on campus.

It also took significantly longer to substantially review or update teaching materials for online courses, while student consultation and assessment moderation for online students was more time-consuming, says the study, published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management.

Dr Kenny, a senior lecturer in science education at Tasmania, told Times Higher Education that the results exploded the myth that online education – a growing area of delivery – was less time-consuming than on-campus courses.

“In our experience...the prevailing pressure from administrators is that online students take less staff time to teach, [but] staff indicate that the materials take longer to prepare,” Dr Kenny said.

Interestingly, the study found no evidence that it took more experienced academics longer to complete tasks related to online teaching compared with younger, more tech-savvy scholars.

Dr Kenny and Dr Fluck argue that their findings could have significant implications for the caps on annual academic working hours implemented by Australian universities, since they believe that the current workload models do not take into account the extra hours that it takes to prepare tutorials and lectures for online students.

The Australian academics who responded to the NTEU survey worked an average of 50.4 hours a week, but some claimed to work up to 100 hours in a typical week. Sixty-two per cent of respondents claimed that they regularly worked on evenings or weekends.

Dr Kenny said that Australian universities needed to adopt a more uniform approach to workload allocation that took into account detailed evidence about the time it took to complete certain tasks because staff were often working large numbers of “invisible” hours.

“It is well-known that academic work is complex and difficult to quantify [but] with the lack of clear time-based standards to work with, we have noticed a managerial tendency to pile more duties, particularly compliance duties, on to the desks of academics without assessing the associated workload impact,” he explained.

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Reader's comments (1)

It is, as the report suggests, important that we have a sense of how much time is devoted to different roles and responsibilities within the institution. But it has been long known that online courses take longer to prepare than classroom versions. That one of the authors claimed the study "exploded the myth that online education . . . was less time consuming" is difficult to understand. Ask anybody that specializes in online education. They would have said as much fifteen years ago. And this is how it ought to be: a well designed, and resource-rich online course should take much longer to build. Experts outside of academia who build online instructional software and content will gladly tell you that millions of dollars can be spent on course development. The larger issue - one which we seem unable to grasp - is that individual faculty are ill-suited for preparing substantial, intelligently designed online courses. Given the narrow skill sets of faculty, limited time, lack of incentives, and near-non existent budgets, they can only repurpose classroom materials for their online students, which necessarily falls short of leveraging the full potential of the online environment.