How much ‘work’ should my online course be for me and my students?

How much work is too much (or too little) work for my students? How much work is too much work for my TAs or for me? How do I design an online course? A post where i propose ‘Total Work Hours‘ as a replacement for the Course/Credit Hour.

As we leave behind the emergency teaching processes that have spurred the development of online courses for end-of-term winter and OMG-summer courses the questions I’m hearing are changing. Fall course start in the Northern Hemisphere is still (only) 10 weeks away and I’ve talked to piles of people who are thinking about how they can revamp their f2f courses to create a fair and equitable learning experience for their students and for themselves.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to leave aside the section of the teaching population that is resisting this move. I would also like to firmly state that NO SESSIONAL/part-time teacher should be moving a course online for free. PAY THEM. The focus of this post is directed at those educators who are doing the hard work of trying to balance the needs of their department, the needs of their students and their own need to not overwork themselves in the fall.

Total Work Hours (TWH)

My recommendation for people planning their courses, is to stop thinking about ‘contact hours’. A contact hour is a constraint that is applied to the learning process because of the organizational need to have people share a space in a building. Also called a credit hour, (particularly for American universities) this has meant, from a workload perspective, that for every in class hour a student is meant to do at least 2 (in some cases 3) hours of study outside of class. Even Cliff Notes agrees with me. So… for a full load, that 30 to 45 Total Work Hours for students per course that you are designing.

But now we’re teaching online. Maybe we’re not even doing synchronous classes. How do we decide how much work to give students? 3 hours of videos plus 6 hours of readings?

I’m not suggesting you need to give students 9 hours of work a week. I’m saying that this is the current system. If you have two 90 minute f2f classes a week, you must have some expectation that students were reading something, working on a paper, or doing something else outside of class. Your first job is to figure out what you want that number to be. For the rest of this post we’re going to pick 6TWHs. It’s a nice number.

Who says we’re even allowed to do that?

The online guidelines from that same US government standards document linked above are interesting…

Distance education means education that uses one or more of the technologies listed in paragraphs (1) through (4) of this definition to deliver instruction to students who are separated from the instructor and to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor, either synchronously or asynchronously.

And then…

“in lieu of credit hours or clock hours as a measure of student learning, utilize direct assessment of student learning, or recognize the direct assessment of student learning by others, if such assessment is consistent with the accreditation of the institution or program utilizing the results of the assessment and with the provisions of §668.10.”

So, according to this, basically you can do whatever you want… unless you have specific accreditation guidelines, then you have to follow those.

But even if you do have those guidelines, you still have to translate them to your course. At the end of the day, you are the arbiter of what happens in your classroom, and the expression “recognize the direct assessment of student learning by others” gives you a fair amount of latitude. Let’s go with 6 Total Work Hours.

Scaffolding to 6 TWHs – Activity Method

Those 6 total work hours are going to work out to 90 hours of work over an average term of 15 weeks. (please note, the Carnegie unit wants that to be 120 hours, but we’re going to ignore that). We have 90 hours to work with over the term for a course. How do you want to break that down? It’s going to be drastically different for different courses and styles. But whatever you’re teaching, keep trying to think about it from the perspective of what a student is actually going TO DO.

Simple break down (not quite 90, yes i know)

Watch 3 hours of video* – 5 hours
Read stuff – 20 hours
Listen to me talk – 15 hours
Talk with other students in a group – 15 hours
Write reflections about group chat – 7.5 hours
Respond to other people’s reflections – 7.5 hours
Work on a term paper – 10 hours
Do weekly quiz – 3 hours
Write take home mid-term – 3 hours
Write take home final – 3 hours

A thousand variations of this might be imagined, and there are certainly some of these activities that are going to take less/more time depending on the contexts of each individual student. But imagine being a student (particularly a first year student) and getting a breakdown like this to help you see what you’re supposed to be doing. Don’t like that? Too easy for students? Meh. Don’t give it to them.

note: I haven’t given a mid-term or a final exam in about 10 years, I include them here for reference 🙂

A word on ordering this work in a given week

If you’re using anything that looks like this, a possible structure recommended by one of the faculty we were talking to was – read/watch, quiz, lecture, student group discussion, reflection. The reasoning here is that if you give learners (particularly new learners) a reading without some form of accountability (a quiz) they are much less likely to do it. I know that for me, when I’ve done the readings, I’m far more likely to attend class. Putting the student group discussion after the lecture gives students who can’t attend a synchronous session a chance to review the recording.

Or, i mean, you could just not lecture at all. YMMV.

But what about learning objectives?!?

The history of higher education is replete with successive models designed to improve ‘accountability’ and ‘standardization’ in the classroom. I’m not a big fan to be honest. I recognize that many of you are probably tied down by accreditation standards and may have mandatory targets that you need to reach in your 1st year course so that students can have what they need for their second year course. I get that. For those of you in this situation, I would ask you to imagine what students are actually retaining when they start that second year course. The fact that they ‘need to know it’ doesn’t make it possible for them to do it. Short of curriculum reform (DAVE WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THAT NOW), try to stay focus on what it is possible to do, not what we ‘need’ to do.

For those with a bit more freedom, there are a pile of ways to pass that freedom along to your students. The standardization police have been telling us for years that each student must learn the same things. Poppycock. Scaffolding doesn’t mean taking away student choice. There are numerous approaches to allowing a little or a lot of choice into your classes (learner contracts come to mind). Just remember, most students don’t want choice – at first. 12-16 years of training has told them that you the faculty member have something you want them to do and they need to find the trick of it. It will take a while until those students actually believe you want their actual opinion.

You can have a goal like – get them acculturated to the field – and work through your activities to get there. It’s harder, they will need your patience, but once they get their minds around it, it makes things much more interesting.

Teacher workload

I have not found any real standard for how much work a faculty member is supposed to be doing. Putting aside the time it takes to redesign your course, exactly how many hours can you be expected to put into your course every week? How much of that work can you expect from your TAs.

That second question is easy, if your TA is being paid for 45 hours, that’s as many as they are supposed to work. If your design means they run out of hours, you are uh… going to have to do the rest of the grading.

But what do you need to grade? A short weekly quiz should grade itself online if you set it up properly. So that’s taken care of. That term paper above you’re going to have to read. That’s going to take a pile of time if you have 200 students.

My suggestion is simple. Choose the amount of time you are willing to commit to your teaching, and work through your assessments and interactions. Discussions can be peer reviewed or be participation marks. Term papers can be 3 or 30 pages long. What about those office hours?

If you’re teaching four courses for 15 weeks… and you put in 10 hours on each course, how does that break down to each discussion post your respond to? (ten hours is not a formal suggestion btw, it just divides easily by 4) Be honest about the time it will take to do all the things in your plan, a little bit of thinking now will make for a much better December.

Total Work Hours

I’m talking to many folks who are using this crisis moment as an opportunity to consider what we are doing in our classrooms. Our f2f courses have imposed a variety of structures on us (credit hours) that have shaped our teaching. Moving towards the fall, think about the work you think it’s fair for your students to do, think about how much work you can reasonably do – and design accordingly.

Edit: thought i would add this tweet. Notional learning hours. Just got this link from Simon as well https://www.qaa.ac.uk/docs/qaa/quality-code/academic-credit-higher-education-in-england-an-introduction.pdf

* suggestion that 3 hours of video actually takes 5 hours to actually do suggested by my good buddy Ashlyne O’Neil.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

15 thoughts on “How much ‘work’ should my online course be for me and my students?”

  1. The Oxford Tutorial offers a model. Tutor sets the task. So now there is an outcome. Suggests research but not all. Makes self-study key. Each student reads their paper to all. The study group in effect mark themselves and there is a clear comparison. Tutor adds her comments at the end so does not lead the thinking. Outcome versus process based. Relative performance clear. Low load on Tutor

  2. It’s not quite the same thing but if you or others readers haven’t seen the Workload Estimator 2.0 by Betsy Barre, Allen Brown, and Justin Esarey at Wake Forest then you should take a look: https://cat.wfu.edu/resources/tools/estimator2/. It’s based on the original tool developed at Rice which is also worth looking at because of the discussion and citations that are included: https://cte.rice.edu/workload

    I also think that interpreting the federal regulations for credit hours and direct assessment as “you can do whatever you want” is bad advice. I have not been involved in what the Dept of Education is referring to as “direct assessment” but I would be very surprised if it was a loose, laissez faire idea especially since it is put forth as an alternative to credit hours which are themselves closely tied to financial aid.

    Finally, I have a question about the advice that “NO SESSIONAL/part-time teacher should be moving a course online for free.” Am I correct in assuming that this also means that you believe that those colleagues should also be paid for developing or modifying courses that are taught in other modalities?

    1. Hi Kevin – I have seen the workload estimator. I think different people are going to need to use different tools… my concern with that tool is that it takes the estimations out of the hands of the faculty member. YMMV

      I appreciate your opinion of it being ‘bad advice’. Credit hours are tied to all kinds of things, including contracts… but if you’ve got to submit a rationale for a ‘credit hour’ for an asynchronous course, i think you should engineer it from the work a student is going to actually do.

      Faculty members have faculty unions that support them for the conversation regarding who does what. They also have contracts that stipulate whether they should be paid for those things. Sessional/adjunct instructors are not usually so lucky. If i can ring the bell to protect one group, it’s going to be that precarious group.

  3. I was reading this with great attention, but once I got to the part about TAs I was ready to start sobbing and so I stopped. 🙂

    But I do like the idea of work hours, and am going to take this idea into my conversations with faculty, some of whom are panicking again anticipating fall term.

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