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Table of Contents
 


Editor’s Note
: Most instructors find teaching online courses requires more time than traditional courses. Both teachers and learners agree there is usually more interaction between teacher and learner and among learners than in a traditional course. Dr. Tomei’s study measures the difference in instructor time for parallel version of a live vs. online course and establishes ideal class size.

The Impact of Online Teaching
on Faculty Load

Computing the Ideal Class Size for Online Courses

Lawrence Tomei

Abstract

It is not uncommon for non-teaching administrators to view online, distance learning-based courses as the “mother lode” for sizeable tuition revenue increases. Why shouldn't an online instructor be capable of handling a hundred students? After all, there are no office hours, no classroom presentations, and no pencil-paper assessment.

This study examined the impact of substituting didactic instruction, face-to-face advisement, and pen and paper evaluations with web-based content, electronic information and inquiry, and online assessment. It analyzed the impact of distance learning demands on faculty teaching loads and computed the ideal class size for an online course.

Many readers are distance educators who, for the first time, will be provided with new facts to confront those who see online teaching as a panacea for expanding revenues and increasing student enrollment.

I. Introduction

The role of the traditional classroom teacher evolved over the centuries to include a common set of skills and competencies agreed upon by most in the discipline (Budin, 1991). For example, the traditional classroom teacher must be certified for the appropriate grade level. In the United States, the appropriate foci comprise early childhood, elementary, middle, and secondary concentrations. Only 5 percent of schools have grade configurations outside these age-centered criteria. (U.S. Department of Education, 2001) In addition, a majority of teacher preparation programs train their teachers in an academic content area first, followed by the theory and application of instruction. Successful educators are expected to pursue a continuous program of professional development that begins soon after certification and lasts until retirement. Finally, the traditional classroom teacher is expected to devote considerable hours both in and outside the classroom -- whatever is necessary to produce successful student learning outcomes (Kerr, 1989). Professional preparation, academic excellence, lifelong learning, and personal commitment are the hallmarks of the successful traditional teacher.

Since its arrival as a teaching strategy, many of these self-same characteristics have come to define successful distance educators as well (Cuban, 1986). In addition, new skills come into play before teachers assume the role of distance educator. Some of those additional skills include understanding the nature and psychology of distance education; identifying characteristics of successful distance learners; designing technology-based courseware; adapting teaching strategies to deliver instruction at a distance; evaluating student achievement in an online environment; and, recognizing the incremental demands of teaching (e.g., faculty load, online assessment, out of class interaction, etc.) under these new set of circumstances (Centre for New Technologies in Teaching and Learning, 2001). Of all the peculiarities of teaching at a distance, none appears so crucial to successful student learning than teacher-student interaction.

II. Research

Teacher-student interaction plays what is perhaps the pivotal role in student attitudes about online learning and distance education. Research agrees that student attitudes, in turn, are significantly affected by the manner and degree of this interaction. (Simmons, 1991; Ritchie and Newby, 1989).

Throughout a typical semester, distance learners interact with their instructors via synchronous and asynchronous communication media. Successful distance educators often require their students to email short messages within the first weeks of a course in an effort to detect any misunderstanding of course expectations, learning assignments, or lesson objectives (McLellan, 1991). Later, online chat rooms provide a forum for students and teachers to share ideas in a near real-time learning environment. Chat logs are easily captured by the technology for cooperative learning exercises. Both forums offer advantages and encounter limitations.

  • Asynchronous communication, most often in the form of electronic mail and threaded discussion groups, continues to represent the greatest use of technology in terms of quantity of teacher-student interaction. (Simonson, 2000.)

  • Synchronous communication often evidences itself as online chat sessions and claims a growing cadre of supporters with a penchant for improving the quality of teacher-student interaction.

Surveys show over 9,300 Internet service providers in 120 countries, 30 million regular Internet users in the United States alone, and 70 million Internet users worldwide (National Center for Education Statistics, 2000). The use of synchronous learning environments such as BlackBoard, FirstClass, CyberProf, TopClass, E-College, and WebCT continue to grow with nearly one million distance learners already online with that number expected to triple by 2004. (Simonson, 2000). Research indicates that students perceive significant advantages for online learning over traditional methodologies including better use of limited time and better access to courses and class schedules. (O’Malley and McCraw, 1999).

It is not uncommon for non-teaching administrators to view online, distance learning-based courses as the mother lode for sizeable tuition revenue increases. After all, to the uninitiated, the argument can be made that if a traditional classroom teacher can accommodate a class of 25 students with the demands of face-to-face instruction, scheduled office hours, and individualized grading, why shouldn't an online instructor be capable of handling a hundred students whose learning is assisted by computer, whose office hours are diffused 24x7 thanks to electronic mail, and whose instruction is available on-demand thanks to its digital format?

Adding insult to injury, to date, distance educators had only their hunches and limited experience to defend against over-subscription to their online courses. They understood that online learners needed continuous feedback. They realized that their brand of learners expected near real-time responses any time of the day, every day of the week. They had a hunch that class sizes should be smaller, not larger. With this study, distance educators now have facts to confront those who see online teaching as a panacea for expanding revenues and increasing student enrollment.

III. The Questions

This paper seeks answers to the following questions in an attempt to establish a baseline for reasonable teaching load for distance educators.

  1. What are the teaching demands of an online course? What is the impact of substituting didactic instruction, face-to-face advisement, and pen and paper evaluations with web-based content, electronic information and inquiry, and online assessment?

  2. What is the impact of distance learning demands on faculty teaching loads? Communications involving asynchronous (email) and synchronous (online chat) interaction impact available faculty time. Does teaching at a distance require more or less of an instructor's time?

  3. What is the ideal class size for an online course? Given that the study examines instruction, advisement, and assessment, we should be able to compare apples with apples to arrive at the ideal online class size given available faculty and teacher-student interaction demands.

For reader clarity, it should be understood that this study did not undertake to answer the question: What is the level of student achievement in distance learning versus a traditional classroom format? This study does not purport to offer findings pertaining to successful learning outcomes or the quality of instruction using either format.
 

IV. Methodology

During a semester of GITED 511, Technology and Education, students had the option of completing their course requirements in either the traditional or online format. Traditional students attended evening classes one night a week for 15 weeks. Distance students proceeded sequentially through each of 15 sessions, communicating with the instructor via weekly emails, end-of-session posts, and periodic online chat sessions. The author was provided a unique opportunity to explore the similarities and differences among teacher-student communications comparing the impact on the instructor of both formats simultaneously during the same semester. During the semester, 11 students opted for the traditional format while another 11 students chose to take the course online.

The author had taught the course using the traditional format five times in previous semesters. The online format had been offered on three of those previous occasions. During the semester, each of the 22 students chose their instructional format and no attempt was made to select participants who either had or had not experienced online learning in previous attempts. After registration, it was determined that only two of the 11 individuals taking the online format had experienced previous online learning.
 

V. Findings

A. Traditional Format.

In its traditional presentation, the impact on teaching load is represented in Table 1. For comparison purposes later, the analysis is presented by session. Some hours varied by number of students enrolled and are highlighted in the table under Student Assessment.

Classroom content hours consisted of 15 sessions conducted one night a week from 5:30pm - 8:15pm. An additional 3.0 hours per week of required student readings, exercises, and projects were not considered part of this study.

Teacher-student interaction involved disseminating course-related information and responding to student inquiries. Counsel and Advisement was typically provided in the form of scheduled office hours from 4:00pm until the start of class at 5:30pm. However, some totals shown coincided with increased interaction associated with the typical beginning and end of a semester.

Student assessments consisted of two major projects and required considerable instructor attention for evaluation purposes. Project 1 (due Session 4) required students to prepare a 12-15 page report on a technology of their choice and needed a minimum of 22 hours (two hours per student) to assess. Project 2 (due Session 10) required students to apply the Technology Façade (Tomei, 2002) checklist to a school or organization and report the findings of their efforts; a minimum of 33 hours (three and a half hours each) was needed to assess this student project. The portfolio review (due Session 15) demonstrated student efficacy of their electronic portfolio and needed another 5.5 hours (thirty minutes per individual) for assessment.

Impact of the Traditional Format on Teaching Load. Some 136 hours of face-to-face interaction was found to be the norm for the 11 traditional students. The three-credit graduate course imposed a minimum of 40 instructional hours (.30 of total contact hours). Another 35 hours (.26) were expended in out of class advisement. Finally, 60 hours (.44) of assessment was needed to evaluate student-prepared projects. Faculty teach a full-time load comprising three courses and accounting for some 400 hours of instruction per semester.

B. Distance Learning Format.

Distance learners submitted weekly emails to the instructor to validate their progress through each required session. As they completed each session, students posted a synopsis of the readings and assignments in a threaded discussion group. Finally, students submitted two projects and an electronic portfolio to the instructor as email attachments.

Impact of the Distance Learning Format on Teaching Load. As noted earlier, the environment of distance learning substitutes self-paced, web-based, digitized content materials for didactic teaching; electronic mail for face-to-face student advisement; and, student posts and online chats to augment traditional assessment. In each table, the term “instances” refers to the number of specific student inputs. Also, since electronic mail, posts, and online chats take the form of written communication, "words per week" refers to written instructor responses translated into contact hours for comparison. The effective typing speed for the instructor in this study was tested at 40 words per minute using the Angelfire web site at http://www.angelfire.com/ak/nutechbiz/typingtest.html.

The tables reveal significant variations in teaching load between the traditional and online formats:

Delivery of Instructional Content (Table 2). To receive credit for a completed session, students posted a synopsis of the readings and online instruction to the discussion group. Some posts required additional clarification resulting in more than the minimum number of posts (11 students x 15 sessions = 165). Each post required an average of 14 minutes for instructor review prior to formulating a response.

Online chat sessions were conducted three times during the semester for an average of 110 minutes each. Chats validated student understanding and enhanced collaborative learning. Instructor response involved a written critique of each session in the form of formal minutes sent to each student via email attachment.

For delivery of instructional content, the impact on teaching load was 59.18 hours compared to 41.25 hours of traditional instruction.
 

Student Counsel and Advisement (Table 3). Students submitted weekly emails to the instructor to document their progress through the sessions. During some weeks, students might close several sessions by posting and verifying activity; in other weeks, students might report no activity. Electronic mail replaced the traditional face-to-face interaction with online students and focused on administrative as well as academic aspects of the course. Each email required a minimum of nine minutes to review prior to formulating a response. For lengthy emails (particular to Sessions 11, 12, and 14), an additional four minutes per email was required.

For online counsel and advisement, the impact on teaching load was 40.43 hours compared to 34.75 hours for traditional students; a negligible difference.

Student Assessment (Table 4). The same two projects plus the electronic portfolio required the same 60.50 hours for instructor evaluation. In addition, the impact of manually entering instructor responses was calculated.

For online student assessment, the impact on teaching load was 56.22 hours compared to 60.50 hours of traditional assessment.

Recapitulation (Table 5). Table 5 presents the impact of the distance learning format on the teaching load of GITED 511, Technology and Education. A final Totals Column summarizes the percent of activity during each session for further comparison.

VI. Interpretations

Faculty contracts often take into account three commonly agreed upon elements. Most important is teaching itself. A majority of a full-time faculty load is rightly dedicated to the delivery of instructional content, advisement of student charges, and evaluation of student progress. Research fosters the continuous professional development of the individual while service to the school or community constitutes the third element.

Most educators are familiar with the 40-40-20 formula for allocating faculty time: 40 percent devoted to teaching, 40 percent to research, and 20 percent to service. (AAUP, 1968). However, the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages goes on to suggest that many institutions do not mandate research, so a more reasonable distribution is “something like 80 percent teaching, 5 percent research, and 15 percent service.” (Mancing, 1991). For this study, a full-time teaching load was based on 15-week semesters, 40 hours per week, for a total of 600 available hours per semester. An 85:5:10 ratio was used and when applied to the available 600 hours per semester, gave faculty 510 hours for instructional delivery, 30 hours on scholarship, and 60 hours on service. Contractually, if a faculty member is expected to offer three courses each semester, the target for each course, then, would be 170 hours (510 instructional hours divided by 3 courses). These available hours are used to draw our final conclusions and compute ideal class sizes.

A. Impact on Teaching Load. With a maximum allowable time per course of 170 hours, the surveyed class of 11 traditional students represented a less-than-maximum teaching load (136.5 hours). The online format, however, exceeded the traditional load (155.83 hours). In percentages, approximately 14 percent more hours were required to teach the same number of students online versus traditional classroom.

B. Teacher Roles of Content, Advisement, and Assessment. The variations in teaching load between the traditional and online formats are depicted in Table 6. Providing instructional content online required more time than the didactic, traditional format. It was interesting to note, however, that advisement required nearly the same amount of time for either format (34.75 hours and 34.73 hours). Assessment called for a higher percentage of teaching hours in the traditional mode (44.0 versus 36.0 percent). Regarding total hours, online teaching demanded a greater commitment across all teaching roles, particularly content delivery.

C. Weekly Impact on Teaching Load. Online teaching loads were much more erratic with peaks during periods of assessment and advisement (Sessions 6, 11, 14, and 15). Traditional teaching was stable for seven of the 15 weeks with three peak demands (Sessions 4, 10, and 15) coinciding with the assessment of student projects.

D. Ideal Traditional Class Size. The only variable factor (hours fluctuating with student enrollment) in traditional teaching involved student assessment (See Table 7). The ideal class size for the traditional format was calculated at 17 students.

E. Ideal Online Class Size. All three teaching components (instructional content, counsel and advisement, and student assessment) in the online format were affected by student enrollment. So, each component contributed to the total 170 available hours. (See Table 8). The ideal class size for the online format was calculated at 12 students.

VII. Conclusions

This paper sought to establish a baseline teaching load for faculty involved in online instruction. It was found that online courses required more time for all three elements of teaching: instructional content, counsel and advisement, and student assessment. In addition, online teaching demanded a minimum of 20 percent more time than traditional instruction, most of which was spent presenting instructional content. The weekly impact on teaching load varied considerably between the two formats. Traditional teaching was found to be more stable across the semester while online teaching fluctuated greatly during periods of advisement and assessment.

Finally, the ideal class size was calculated for each instructional format. Several assumptions were in force during the study. First, a 510: 60: 30 ratio (content to advisement to assessment) was assumed. Second, a three-course teaching load was calculated giving faculty a minimum of 170 available hours per course. Third, the 11 traditional and 11 online students used in the Fall 2000 semester surveyed were assumed representative of both types of students along with a mix of competencies and learning styles. Fourth, and finally, the GITED 511 course employed for the study was assumed to reflect the demands of a representative course of study. Under these assumptions, it was computed that the ideal traditional class size was 17 students while the ideal online class size was 12 students.

For the first time, research has shown that successful distance education is contingent upon smaller, not larger, class sizes – nearly half the size of its traditional ancestor. Online teaching should not be expected to generate larger revenues by means of larger class sizes at the expense of effective instructional or faculty over-subscription.

References

American Association of University Professors. “Statement on Faculty Workload.” AAUP Journal 54 (1968): 256-57. Centre for New Technologies in Teaching and Learning, 2001.

Budin, H. R. (1991). Technology and the teacher's role. Computers in the Schools, 8(1/2/3), 15-25.

Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines: The classroom use of technology since 1920. New York: Teachers College Press.

Honey, M., & Moeller, B. (1990). Teachers' beliefs and technology integration: Different values, different understandings. Technical Report No. 6. New York: Bank Street College of Education, Center for Technology in Education.

Kerr, S. T. (1989). Technology, teachers, and the search for school reform. Educational Technology Research and Development, 37(4), 5-17.

Mancing, Howard. Teaching, Research, Service: The Concept of Faculty Workload. Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. ADFL Bulletin, Volume 22, No. 3, Spring 1991.

McLellan, H. (1991). Teachers and classroom management in a computer learning environment. International Journal of Instructional Media, 18(1), 19-27.

O’Malley, John and McCraw, Harrison. Students Perceptions of Distance Learning, Online Learning and the Traditional Classroom. URL: http://www.westga.edu/~distance/omalley24.html.

Ritchie, H. and Newby, T. J. Classroom Lecture/Discussion vs. Live Instruction: A Comparison of Effects on Student Performance, Attitude, and Interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 1989.

Simmons, I.V. Survey of Students' Attitudes Toward the IHETS Delivery System, ERIC Reproduction Service, 1991.

Simonson, M. Asynchronous Distance Education and the World Wide Web, Nova Southeastern University, 2000.

Tomei, Lawrence A. The Technology Façade: Overcoming the Barriers to Effective Instructional Technology, Allyn & Bacon Publishers, Inc., 2002.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), "Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe Survey," 1999-2000.


Table 1.
GITED 511, Technology and Education, Traditional Format


Session Number


Classroom Content Hours per Week

Counsel and Advisement Hours
per Week

Student Assessment Hours
per Week


Total Contact Hours


Percent Per Session

1

2.75

3.75

 

6.50

4.8

2

2.75

3.50

 

6.25

4.5

3

2.75

2.50

 

5.25

3.8

4

2.75

1.50

22.00

26.25

20.0

5

2.75

1.50

 

4.25

3.1

6

2.75

1.50

 

4.25

3.1

7

2.75

1.50

 

4.25

3.1

8

2.75

1.50

 

4.25

3.1

9

2.75

1.50

 

4.25

3.1

10

2.75

1.50

33.00

37.25

27.0

11

2.75

1.50

 

4.25

3.1

12

2.75

1.50

 

4.25

3.1

13

2.75

3.50

 

6.25

4.5

14

2.75

3.50

 

6.25

4.5

15

2.75

4.50

5.50

12.75

9.2

Teaching Load

41.25

34.75

60.50

136.50

 

Percent

30.0

26.0

44.0

 

100.0

 

Table 2.
Distance Learning Format, Instructional Content

Session
Number

Delivery of Instructional Content
(Threaded Posts and Online Chats)

  

 Instances

Student Input
(Words)

Instructor Response
(Words)

1

1

131

0

2

1

25

0

3

0

0

0

4

9

1837

64

5

12

2781

246

6

16

3775

578

7

20

4735

782

8

21

1251

406

8

Chat

3245

650

9

25

3238

87

10

18

837

0

11

17

102

0

12

16

272

104

13

20

1251

504

13

Chat

3952

806

14

23

1937

636

15

24

4178

968

15

Chat

6892

1306

Totals

223

40,439

7,137

Teaching Load

 
56.22 hours

 

 
2.96 hours

 

Table 3.
Distance Learning Format, Counsel and Advisement

Session
Number

Counsel and Advisement
(Electronic Mail)

 

 
Instances

Student Input
(Words)

Instructor Response
(Words)

1

8

90

1272

2

14

300

3030

3

10

1743

166

4

12

2888

527

5

14

2099

494

6

8

1082

1088

7

20

3792

774

8

11

1461

99

9

8

2090

517

10

10

3060

454

11

12
4

6863

570

12

16
|4

15045 

626

13

8

1163

644

14

16|
4

9005

7652

15

13

5,584

1,856

Totals

192

56,265

19,769

Teaching Load

 
32.34 hours

 

 
8.09 hours

 

Table 4.
Distance Learning Format, Student Assessment

Session
Number

Student Assessment
(Attached Files)

  

 Instances

Instructor Response (Words)

1

 

 

2

 

 

3

 

 

4

5

948

5

1

1457

6

2

3633

7

1

1155

8

 

 

9

 

 

10

 

 

11

9

7091

12

 

 

13

 

 

14

 

 

15

8

5951

Totals

26

20,235

Teaching Load

47.79 hours

8.43 hours

 

Table 5.
Distance Learning Format Recap

Session

Instructional Content

Student Advisement

Student Assessment

Totals


 

 
Instances

Instructor Response (Words)

 
Instances
 

Instructor Response (Words)

 
Instances

Instructor Response (Words)

Words Per Session

Percent Per Session

1

1

0

8

1272

 

 

1272

2.70

2

1

0

14

3030

 

 

3030

6.43

3

0

0

10

166

 

 

166

0.35

4

9

64

12

527

5

948

1539

3.26

5

12

246

14

494

1

1457

2197

4.66

6

16

578

8

1088

2

3633

5299

11.24

7

20

782

20

774

1

1155

2711

5.75

8

21

406

11

99

 

 

505

1.07

8

Chat

650

 

 

 

 

650

1.38

9

25

87

8

517

 

 

604

1.28

10

18

0

10

454

 

 

454

0.96

11

17

0

16

570

9

7091

7661

16.25

12

16

104

20

626

 

 

730

1.55

13

20

504

8

644

 

 

1148

2.44

13

Chat

806

 

 

 

 

806

1.71

14

23

636

20

7652

 

 

8288

17.58

15

24

968

13

1856

8

5951

8775

18.61

15

Chat

1306

 

 

 

 

1306

2.77

Totals

223

7137

192

19,769

26

20,235

47141

100.0

Teaching Load

56.22 hours

2.96
hours

32.34
hours

8.09
hours

47.79
 hours

8.43
hours

Teaching Total
155.83 hours

Percent

38.0 percent

26.0 percent

36.0 percent

100.0 percent

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Table 6.
Variations in Traditional versus Online Teaching Load, By Elements

Traditional Format

Elements

Online Format

Percent

Hours

 

Percent

Hours

30.0

41.25

Instructional Content

38.0

59.18

26.0

34.75

Counsel and Advisement

26.0

40.43

44.0

60.50

Student Assessment

36.0

56.22

Total Hours

155.83


Table 7.
Calculation of Ideal Traditional Class Size

 41.25 Instructional Content

Counsel and Advisement

 X    Assessment

170.00 Total Available Hours

Assessment = 94.00 hours

 Therefore,

11 students : 60.50 hours : x students : 94.00 hours

x = 17 students


Table 8.
Calculation of Ideal Online Class Size

59.18 x Instructional Content

40.43 x Counsel and Advisement

56.22 x Assessment

170.00 Total Available Hours

Therefore,

11 students : 155.83 hours x students : 170.00 hours

155.83 x = 1870 hours

x = 12 students

 
About the Author

Dr. Lawrence Tomei is Assistant Professor and Coordinator, Programme in Instructional Technology, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

  
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