Researcher looks to empirical evidence to determine why teaching online courses seems to take longer than face-to-face courses.

online-course-timeDoes the development, and teaching, of online courses really take longer than for face-to-face courses? One researcher recently set out to discover if these existing beliefs can be supported empirically, rather than anecdotally.

And though Lee A. Freeman, associate professor of MIS and Information Technology at the College of Business at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, did find these beliefs to have empirical support, the reasons why developing and teaching online courses take longer may be different than those propagated by “trade press and qualitative perceptions.”

For example, one key finding of Freeman’s study, “Instructor Time Requirements to Develop and Teach Online Courses” found that the widespread belief that a technology learning curve leads to increased time spent for developing online courses is incorrect. Often, it’s the pedagogical learning curve that hinders progress for professors teaching online courses.

Another finding indicates that after initial online course creation and delivery, professors see a notable decline in time needed for teaching, with time spent per course equaling that of a face-to-face course.

“Instructors, department chairs, deans, and program administrators have long believed that teaching online is more time-consuming than teaching face-to-face,” explained Freeman. “Many research studies and practitioner articles indicate instructor time commitment as a major inhibitor to developing and teaching online courses. However, while they identify the issue and provide possible solutions, they do not empirically measure actual time commitments or instructor perceptions when comparing online to face-to-face delivery and when comparing multiple iterations of delivery.”

(Next page: Findings from the survey; survey details)

According to Freeman, 165 instructors, who teach both online and face-to-face, from three diverse universities across the country, were surveyed. These instructors have been teaching at the university level for an average of 14 years, and developed their first online course in 2001. Each respondent has developed an average of 2.13 distinct online courses and has taught an average of 2 distinct online courses.

The survey defined “online courses” as those with greater than 80 percent course content delivered through a LMS. Approximately 75 percent of the respondents indicate that a face-to-face version of their online course exists and pre-dates the online version. None of the respondents indicate that their online course pre-dates a face-to-face version.

[More on the survey’s methodology can be found in the report.]

Course development time and planning: In general, more faculty begin online course development earlier, and fewer faculty wait as long to start online course development. Also, a majority of the course content is developed by the instructor. 

The survey found that [of the respondents]:

  • For face-to-face courses, only 7 percent begin course development more than 16 weeks (approximately the beginning of the preceding academic semester) prior to the start of the course. This compares to 12 percent beginning their online course development more than 16 weeks prior.
  • Over 70 percent wait to within 8 weeks of the start of the course to begin development of their face-to-face course, whereas this number is only 40 percent for online courses.
  • 46 percent complete their online course development in 8 weeks or less, and a full 87 percent complete their online course development in 16 weeks or less. 12 percent take longer than 20 weeks.
  • In terms of actual hours, 29 percent need over 100 hours (median of 70 hours) to develop their online course.
  • 53 percent indicate that they develop over 90 percent of the course content themselves. Over 75 percent of the respondents develop at least half of the course content themselves. Textbook publishers and instructional designers also provide content, but not to the same extent, though 81 percent of the courses utilize a textbook.
  • When asked about the entire course (content, assessments, structure, design, etc.), 59 percent indicate that they develop 91-100 percent of the entire course with only 8 percent indicating they develop less than 10 percent of the entire course.

Course enrollment: There is not only a tendency towards smaller enrollment in online courses, but also an apparent demarcation within online courses at around 30 students.

The survey found that [of the respondents]:

  • 30 percent of the online courses enroll between 21 and 25 students with 76 percent of the courses enrolling between 6 and 30 students.
  • For face-to-face courses, 21 percent of the courses enroll between 21 and 25 students with only 61 percent of the courses enrolling between 6 and 30 students.
  • While both course types also show high numbers of courses with enrollments of 46+ (15 percent and 14 percent for online and face-to-face, respectively), 21 percent of face-to-face courses enroll between 31 and 45 students where this accounts for only 7 percent of the online courses.

Course development and delivery perceptions: The time required to develop and deliver online courses decreases significantly by the third course.

The survey found that [of the respondents]:

  • 81 percent agree that it is more time consuming to develop an online course than a face-to-face course.
  • However, subsequent online course developments are less time consuming that prior online course development, said the majority. This is also true for perceptions of teaching an online course for the first time compared to subsequent courses [82 percent agree with this statement].
  • By the 3rd time teaching an online course, there seems to be no difference in time when compared to the 3rd time teaching a face-to-face course [41 percent agree with this statement].

(Next page: Pre-semester setup, instructor interaction, and grading & assessment)

Components of development and delivery: Content development, pre-semester setup, and overall involvement in the class decrease in time consumption by the third iteration. Yet, Grading & Assessment time consumption actually increases.

The survey found that [of the respondents]:

  • When teaching a course the first time, Content Development (85 percent) is more time-consuming for online courses than face-to-face courses.  The same can be said for Pre-Semester Setup (82 percent) and Instructor-Student Interaction (75 percent), while Grading & Assessment (54 percent) and Overall Involvement in the Class (56 percent) are less so.
  • Comparing the 2nd time teaching a course in both modes, the areas noted above remain mostly the same in terms of time consumption.
  • For the 3rd time teaching a course in both modes, Content Development (49 percent), Pre-Semester Setup (48 percent), and Overall Involvement in the Class (51 percent) have lower ratings than in previous iterations. These three components are still more time-consuming for online courses than face-to-face courses.  However, Instructor-Student Interaction (66 percent) remains high, and Grading & Assessment (66 percent) is at its highest level yet.

Learning curves: The problems, “myths,” and concerns associated with online course development and delivery are more likely associated with pedagogy than with technology.

The survey found that [of the respondents]:

  • Instructors make it through the Online Technology Learning Curve faster than the Online Pedagogical Learning Curve, and they make it through the Face-to-Face Pedagogical Learning Curve the fastest.

“Trainers and support personnel should make instructors aware of realistic expectations in terms of the pedagogical learning curve and the technological learning curve,” noted Freeman. “These two areas, while linked together because of online courses, should be treated separately when possible.”

Freeman also concluded that instructional designers should look for ways to remove time-consuming (and perhaps unnecessary) pedagogical approaches during online course development.  Additionally, designers should remind instructors that there were also “hurdles and problems the first time they taught in the classroom, but now (after many years and iterations) the class runs smoothly.”

“Ideally, future studies can expand the data set to include a greater number of institutions, and therefore better representation across academic disciplines,” emphasized Freeman. “…generalizing these data to all academic disciplines should be done with caution.”

For more information on the survey, including overall perceptions, instructor excitement over time, and future research implications, read the full report here.


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