Measuring Time: Course Workload in the Online Domain

At the turn of the century, prognosticators and provocateurs alike were quick to point to perceived shortcomings of offering credit-bearing college courses in the online domain. “Sage on the stage” had long been supplanted by “guide on the side,” but the concept of asynchronous teaching, or providing and facilitating instruction without static meeting times and locations, seemed difficult, if not impossible, to quantify. Three hours of classroom time each week, coupled with outside reading/homework requirements, has often given way to some generic conflation of the two that is difficult to assess in a meaningful, holistic fashion. Additionally, students can end up with radically different “classroom” experiences not just across disciplines and departments, but within them as well. This gives legitimacy to student gripes about rigor, frustrating their (and our) expectations of college-level work.

Our faculty have begun investigating solutions to the problems that often result from inconsistent course workload expectations. Rigor—mentioned above—is somewhat of an elusive concept, as the subjectivity inherent in each of the various disciplines engender multiple definitions. Fortunately, there are technological tools that can help us evaluate rigor (specifically, how it is divided between classwork and outside work) in our courses. A particularly useful one is the Rice University Workload Estimator. This tool allows an instructor to set the parameters of a course (semester length, number of exams/reading assignments/writing assignments, etc.) in order to produce an estimate of the number of hours of outside work students are being asked to complete. An illustration may be helpful:

Course Workload Estimator

The above example is based on ENG 101: College Composition. Using the existing course as a guide, I entered an average number of pages (20) of weekly textbook (page density) readings. Since this is a 100-level course, new concepts (difficulty) will be introduced, but many of them would likely be familiar to high school graduates. The purpose for their reading would be to understand.[i]

Because ENG 101 is a writing class, I started with an estimate of 20 pages per semester, with the additional assumption that students are producing double-spaced documents of about 250 words per page (page density). Furthermore, since students are expected to stake claims and support them with evidence, I chose “argument” as the genre. In our First-Year Writing (FYW) courses, we provide feedback on first drafts, so I selected minimal drafting (no drafting and extensive drafting are the boundaries). While we do not give major exams, I factored in the number of reading quizzes, and I estimated that preparing for and taking each quiz requires about two hours. For “other assignments,” I was thinking about the sort of low-stakes assignments we might complete during each week; I estimated the need for about two hours per assignment. Finally, you will notice that I entered eleven for the number of weeks in the term. Based on the parameters, students in the course are asked to complete about eight hours of out-of-class work.[ii]

While there are certainly additional variables to consider, the Rice University Workload Estimator is a useful place to start when creating or revising a course. Within the online domain, distinguishing “classwork” from “homework” is not as cut-and-dry as it is in on-ground courses. It is not advisable to create four hours of recorded lectures and expect students to be engaged. It is also unreasonable to provide twelve hours’ worth of reading and check for understanding entirely through the use of discussion boards. Newer technologies (e.g. Voicethread™) can help bridge the gap between these two extremes, but there is no quick fix for making online courses “feel” as immersive as traditional ones. Educators must embrace the advantages the online domain offers rather than seek to translate traditional approaches.

[i] Note: the calculations involved for the estimated reading rate are explained in detail on the Rice website.

[ii] This just so happens to be the “textbook” ratio. For more information, check out the Rochester Institute of Technology and the U.S. Department of Education.


About the Author

17158880_10207900566504411_3766146520489075212_oThomas Davis is Chair of English and Communication and Associate Professor of English at Central Penn College. He has been teaching college writing—both online and on-ground—for the past twelve years. His research interests include writing pedagogy, computer-assisted composition, and political rhetoric. Davis, a doctoral candidate, expects to complete his PhD in Instructional Design and Technology by late 2018.


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