There are certain widely held ideas about how time is used in distance education. One is that distance education “takes more time” than face-to-face teaching. This is one of those axioms that people accept and repeat, but don’t think about. Because as soon as you start to think about it, questions arise: Exactly what takes more time? Course development, or teaching? How much more time does it take? Does it take less time to teach the second time you teach it? What about the third? What takes longer to master—the technology, or online pedagogy? Lee Freeman, who administers the online MBA program at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, decided it was time to answer those questions and maybe challenge a few misapprehensions about time in online teaching. He surveyed instructors in all different schools and colleges of his institution. He came up with some useful facts and busted some myths.
The big findings
What Freeman calls his “big finding” is that, relative to face-to-face development, online course development really isn’t as terribly time-consuming as people say. The extra time spent developing an online course as opposed to a face-to-face course is proportionately similar to the extra time spent teaching the online course compared to classroom teaching. And guess what? “Teaching [online courses] isn’t all that bad either,” as Freeman says. “Basically,” Freeman says, “after the second or third time the instructors are comfortable with it and that learning curve has been reached.”
This curve is reached relatively soon for online pedagogy and even faster for the technology itself. “After the first or second time people were comfortable with the technology and beyond that they figured out how to teach it,” Freeman says. In Freeman’s research, it appears that it takes an instructor a little longer to figure out what they want to do with the course pedagogically than to become comfortable with the technology. “That’s one of the biggest things, that the technological learning curve is shorter than the pedagogical learning curve,” Freeman says. “The technology’s not the problem. It’s not what’s making people take longer when they teach.”
Second (and third) time’s the charm
Freeman was able to demonstrate that, once past the first online course, there is a significant reduction of instructor time. This leads him to believe that much of the complaint of excessive time consumption probably comes from the first-time experience. One implication of this is that, if instructors can be conscientiously coached through their first online experience, they are likely to find things much better on successive tries. Freeman’s data doesn’t challenge the assumption that it takes longer to develop an online course than a face-to-face course. What he has established is that the teaching, as well as the development, become less time consuming, and that that change can come as early as the second or third time out.
Four lessons for distance ed administrators:
What are the lessons for distance education administrators in Freeman’s investigation? The research suggests four ideas:
- Make sure faculty understand that they’re starting something new. You have to make sure faculty understand that, while they may be teaching the same content, there is going to be a bump that they have to climb over. It’s going to take some time and some effort but it will get better.
- Teach your faculty to think about their course in a different way, to be ready to do things differently. Let them know that teaching online gives them an opportunity that they may overlook in the classroom because they are habituated to the way they have always done things. In teaching online, the nature of the technology allows and sometimes requires teachers to change things. Whatever kind of change that may be, the directors and instructional designers, while not pushing any particular technique, should always be showing what’s available and reinforcing new ways of doing things.
- Use your instructional designers. As the faculty member is developing the course with the instructional designer, the designer should be on the lookout for time consuming approaches. If they see that the teacher setting up a time consuming situation for themselves, the instructional designer should alert them and where possible suggest ways to get the same results by doing things differently.
- The more an administrator knows about the process of course development, the better he/she can manage.Program managers and administrators should be sure that they understand what online instruction takes and that they communicate it well. If they do, they will face fewer instructors coming back saying they’re never going to teach online again. As Freeman says, “Let them know that what happened the first time is not going to be the constant truth of what’s going to happen every time.”