Academic Workload in Online Courses (Distance Learning)


While distance education has been available in many forms for a long time, the technologies associated with the Internet are opening up new ways of delivering the educational product. In addition, the acceptance and use of these technologies are widespread, easing the transition from the traditional classroom in the eyes of university administrators, students, and academics—at least at first appearances. Coupled with this, the worldwide shortage of academic staffin the business schools, particularly in information intensive areas (Diamond & Wergin, 2002) and engineering (Thompson, 1999), and the general “graying of academia” (Hall, 2002) is encouraging school management to experiment with alternative forms of delivery. University administrations can see attractions in increasing numbers of students. Under what conditions will the Internet and its associated technologies provide an acceptable answer? While teaching in foreign parts and living at home may be attractive to some academics, what problems will be encountered by institution administrations in the use of these telecommuters?

In academic journals, research into online education is becoming part of mainstream literature, particularly the Information Systems literature (Alavi & Leidner, 2001; Piccoli, Ahmad, & Ives, 2001). The acceptance of such articles by leading journals is indicative of the serious view of the research within that discipline.

This article sets the professor’s workload against the student evaluations of an online distance class and a backdrop of relevant literature. It details the experiences associated with teaching a final year undergraduate class via the Web, with the students meeting face-to-face with the professor only once.


There is a considerable body of literature outlining potential differences in the performance of students undertaking distance education courses as compared to traditional classroom courses; see, for example, Neal (1998), Taylor (1998); Wetzel, Radtke, and Stern (1994), Storck and Sproull (1995), and Hara and Kling (1999). In general, these studies indicate that there are no significant differences in achievement and the satisfaction of students in distance education classes when compared to the more traditional modes of delivery. It should be noted, however, that finding empirically based research specifically related to online distance education is difficult, no doubt partly due to the recent nature of such delivery (see also, Schell, 2001). A number of studies do provide some indication of student perceptions of online distance education (Hara & Kling, 1999; Hiltz, 1997; Hornby & Anderson, 1995; Hsu and Backhouse 2001; Pear & Novak, 1996; Stahlman, 1996). In general, the benefits identified by students include convenience and flexibility, greater motivation to work, learning more and greater understanding of the course material, higher quality of education, better access to and communication with the professor, more communication with other students, and more active participation in discussion. Some also liked the unlimited access to self-assessment and immediate and extensive feedback. There has also been work done in relation to the Technology Acceptance Model (see, in particular, Cheung, Lee, & Chen, 2001), which indicated that perceived usefulness had the greatest effect on the behavioural intentions of students.

Against this, the following problems were identified (the overlap is intentional; different studies reported different findings): a high level of frustration and dissatisfaction, lower levels of satisfaction, technical and logistical problems, lack of interaction with the professor, difficulty in developing student friendships, more likely to stop “attending” and fall behind, lack of feedback and confusion about what was required, overwhelming amounts of reading from e-mail and online discussion, less interesting, and students less likely to ask questions. Recent work on collaborative technologies in education (Murthy, 2004) also draws attention to potential problems in the use of such technologies.


From the academic’s point of view, not all courses are suited to online distance education; there is often a concern expressed about the time taken to prepare and maintain such courses, motivate students, cope with an expected greater demand from students in online classes, and intellectual property issues. There is also a general worry about potential conflict between the administration expectation that such courses be provided cheaply and that they will be of high quality (see, for example, Hadidi, Sung, & Woken, 2001; Hara & Kling, 1999; Hiltz, 1997; Taylor, 1998; Ward & Newlands, 1998).

To some extent, online distance education can make the academic a telecommuter. The telecommuting literature lists many advantages and disadvantages for the telecommuter (see, for example, Ford & McLaughlin, 1995; Hiltz, 1997; Mokhtarian & Salomon, 1994; Turban & Wang, 1995). The advantages are mostly in travel, flexibility and convenience, transport costs, and control over one’s working environment, while the disadvantages centre on isolation and lack of social and professional contact with one’s colleagues, exploitation of the individual, and whether the home is suitable for working. In this case, a fairly extreme form of telecom-muting was practiced with the class and the professor thousands of miles (and many time zones) apart. It might be expected that the professor would experience some of the disadvantages of telecommuting.

The key issue addressed in this article is what workload is required of the academic in order to set up and run an online course perceived as satisfactory by the students and university administration? Sub-issues include problems encountered, interaction and dependence on other staff and concerns for departmental administrations.


The data reported here relates to online distance students undertaking a senior- level Information Technology Management course for non-IS majors in a Business School at a university in the southern United States. The course is compulsory for Business School non-IS majors, and some 200 students take the course each semester. The online class had 38 participants, of whom only one had had any prior experience with distance education. Online distance education was not part of the regular delivery methods employed at that university, although most students were aware that this course would be run as a trial distance education class before it commenced. They were offered the opportunity to change to a traditional class if they felt uncomfortable with the online experiment—none did so; in fact, others asked to join. The course was run on WebCT and by the use of e-mail.

It was also relevant that the class selected for online distance delivery was a class scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays. This particular class was chosen for two reasons. First, it was intended to run “chat” sessions that would take place at one of the scheduled class times (5 p.m. in the relevant US time zone is early-mid morning the next day in Australia, where the professor resided). The time was seen as convenient to both students and professor. The second factor was that it was believed that a group of undergraduate students who enrolled in a 5 p.m. class would likely be attracted to this mode of delivery due to the likelihood of work, family, or other commitments. So it can be seen that, from a research perspective, there was some degree of self-selection involved here. This is perhaps an important issue in online education—prior research has indicted that online education is not for all, and certainly not for all, all the time (Dick, Case & Burns, 2002)

In terms of satisfaction, the students were very happy with the class and their learning experience. As a group, they found it enjoyable, would recommend it to others, would take another such class, and most felt they had learned as much as they did in other courses. Analysis of the departmental evaluations indicated that around 30% of students felt that they had learned more in the online class, that it was more intellectually challenging, and that it was more difficult. Against this, a small percentage (around 5%) felt that they had learned less, were less challenged, and that it was less difficult.

It is worthy of note that the students appreciated the flexibility ofthe class, the excitement ofbeing involved in something new and experimental, and gaining experience in the technology (these were non-IS majors). It should be recognised that these perceptions and feelings may have also influenced the reported levels of satisfaction. As an aside, the area where most students had difficulty was time management—although, in the end, they reported that they appreciated the opportunity to overcome these difficulties. Finally, one set of comments that was unexpected related to class participation—several students commented that they were happier using the online “chat” facility than speaking out in class. From the professor’s viewpoint, participation took considerable encouragement, and in the first couple of discussions, it was necessary to let the discussion wander widely in order to promote it, although the problem diminished as the class went on; in subsequent offerings of the class, it was less of a problem.

From a departmental view of learning objectives, the student perceptions discussed above were compared with the results for other sections of the same course run in that and the subsequent semester. No significant differences were noted; that is, all students taking this course felt the same way about it in terms of effort, learning, challenge, and degree of difficulty, regardless of the mode of delivery.

It seems reasonable to conclude from the above that the class was seen as a good learning experience and the individual student achievements were in line with both their own and the departmental expectations. In other words, it met the criteria of “satisfactory.”

The academic workload

It should perhaps be stated at the outset that the initiative for offering the online course largely came from the academic, with the enthusiastic support of the depart mental administration. The academic was familiar with the university and friendly with a number of the faculty there. He enjoyed traveling to that part of the world and also was keen to experiment with the development and delivery of an online class. However, the workload was considerable and over the course of the semester falls into the main areas described in Table 1.

Table 1. Summary of the tasks involved in the class

Instruction related

i. Selection and assignment of weekly readings – in most cases these were a textbook chapter

ii. Production of a set of PowerPoint slides for the key issues in the reading – these were heavily based on the material supplied by the textbook author

iii. Preparation of a set of study notes for each week – a page or so stressing the important issues and providing “real world” illustrations and practical examples

iv. Development of a mini lecture – a 5-10 minute audio file, in most cases similar to the study notes

v. Run a weekly 1% hour long “chat” session, similar to a tutorial for discussion of the week’s topic

Assessment related (and learning reinforcement)

i. Preparation of a weekly multiple-choice quiz, (adapted from a test bank supplied by the textbook author) and run on WebCT – the objective of the quiz was to force the students into the textbook

ii. Selection or development of an assignment topic for each week

iii. Posting a “discussion topic” for each week to encourage the students to contribute their own experiences to illustrate the chapter topics

iv. Develop “mid term” quizzes and the exam

v. Grading weekly assignments, commenting on discussion contributions, and marking the exam questions.


i. Monitoring and advising student progress

ii. Dealing with and advising on “technical” problems

iii. Following up assignment submission


i. A visit to the School, taking one face-to-face class, and meeting individually with most students. The primary purposes of the visit were to explain how the rest of the semester would unfold, to stress the required time management skills, and to leave the students with a feeling that the professor was “warm and friendly”-in other words, very approachable-and they should not hesitate to do so should any such need arise.

The tasks in Table 1 required over 1,200 e-mail messages and over 1,000 WebCT messages. It occupied on average, about one and a half to two days of the professor’s time each week. This is a substantial workload for a three-hour class; however, it should be noted that in subsequent offerings of the course in this way, these times were considerably reduced—to perhaps around eight hours a week. At the conclusion of the first course, the academic made several changes for next time, including setting up study groups so that students could turn to each other for help, providing more assistance to the students to ensure they could deal with the technology, and stressing time management skills even more strongly. Another potential improvement would be the use of the chat room facilities for one-on-one “consultations”—perhaps this could take place at a set time each week or by appointment, set up by e-mail.

The groupings of the above tasks would suggest that there might be some scope for much of the work to be performed by a person other than the principal instructor. This may have important implications for the scalability of the experiment, however, it should be noted that students tend to prefer interaction with the professor rather than an administrative aide for at least academic-related issues, indicating care will need to be exercised in the allocation of the tasks.

The professor did note some of the disadvantages of telecommuting—any contact with the departmental staff was by e-mail, any help sought or advice requested had to be by asynchronous means, and he had little or no professional or social interaction with other members of staff. On occasion, it was necessary to requests favours from other staff members, such as supervising the final examination or dealing with students who missed it, and following up on the occasional instance of a student failing to respond to e-mail. While not onerous, these activities could eventually promote some ill-feeling towards the telecommuter.


This practical experiment has:

• Supported (to some extent) that such courses might be best suited to only some students some of the time;

• Demonstrated that such courses can have high achievements in terms of satisfaction and learning objectives;

• Provided a comprehensive list of the academic and administrative tasks associated with the development and delivery of online classes;

• Given an indication of both the initial and ongoing workload associated with such classes; and

• Provided an insight into some of the issues associated with working in this way.

Online education can be expected to grow over the next decade or so as more and more universities offer it for more and more classes. There is no doubt that, in its infancy at least, it enjoys a degree of novelty and excitement and provides a different experience for many participants. However, the above study raises some critical issues for development and delivery, for university administrations considering introducing such classes, for the academics who may push for or be called upon to teach them, and for the students who will take them. These issues need early consideration as the technology can be expected to continue to develop and new problems will continue to arise.

key terms

Distance Education: A form or educational instruction where the students and academic staff are to be found in separate venues. It may involve computing resources and communications technology or the material can be paper-based and forwarded by post of fax.

Online Class: A class offered to students using mostly computing and Internet-based resources, where a large amount of the interaction with the professor and other students takes place via computer and tele-communication technologies.

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