As online education increasingly gains in popularity and availability, the debate about its merits in relation to face-to-face (F2F) education are constantly being debated. Some, such as Eckerd College President Donald Eastman, have declared that online education is not even "real" education. However, studies have indicated that there is, at worst, no significant advantage to be derived from one mode of learning over the other when all things are equal (Smith Jaggars & Bailey, 2010). However, other studies indicate that all things are not equal between the two models (Cavanaugh, 2005) and that in fact, significantly more time and effort is required to teach an online course (Worley & Tesdell, 2009). The question then becomes, are there hidden benefits to students when their instructors spend more time teaching them?
The Time Difference
Cavanaugh indicates four primary areas in which there are significant time differences between the online courses he examined and their F2F counterparts:
- Course Preparation – The online course took 35 hours of prep time compared to three for the traditional equivalent. This is the largest percentage difference in time between the two modes of education and the one which has the potential to yield the greatest benefits to students. It is unlikely that even the least tech-savvy instructor uses all of that extra time just figuring out how to port their materials online. Innovation and exploration of new resources is happening in that time, to some extent, and students will benefit directly from the greater focus that faculty give to preparing online courses.
- Teaching – Total teaching time for the two courses was 72 hours for the online version versus 27 for F2F. Another very significant increase over the traditional classroom and another area which may yield substantial benefits to online students. A major reason for the increased instructional time in the online course is due to the need to communicate with each student individually to some extent. While this may seem cumbersome, individual attention yields better learning, engagement, and retention.
- Office Hours – Each type of course required significant office hours, but there was a larger commitment for the online class, 44 vs. 32 hours. This seemingly subtle difference in availability on the part of the instructor could lead to more time spent with individual students and consequently, to better learning.
- Final Tasks – End of course administrative tasks required to close out a course were only required in the online class (three hours vs. zero hours). Though the smallest additional time commitment, this is the area most likely to cause instructor burn out and frustration because it represents additional administrative tasks that are required on top of an already substantial time commitment.
In support of these conclusions, Cavanaugh breaks down these time differences on a per student basis, as this table indicates:
Overall there is a significantly larger amount of time spent with each student by an online instructor delivering the same content than by a faculty member in a traditional class. Are these per-student time commitments simply a drain on the instructor or are there hidden benefits to the students that are attributable to the increase in instructor attention?
Hidden Benefits of Online Delivery
- Course Preparation – Focusing more on the design of a course and being pushed to implement innovative teaching technologies and methodologies yields learning benefits (Nagel, 2010). The amount of this benefit differs from teacher to teacher, but the need to deliver instruction mediated by technology opens up a vast range of possibilities for reaching students in new and engaging ways.
- Instruction time – There is a direct correlation between instructional time and student achievement. (PSEA.org), particularly if the inclusion of technologies which might accelerate learning is considered. One thing that the online model does is shift the balance of the teaching away from large-group instruction towards a more individualized model. While this may create more work for the instructor, it also benefits students by allowing the teacher to help individually guide their learning. In the traditional classroom the primary mode of teaching is mass instruction, which contrasts sharply when compared to the more individualized approach used in many online courses.
- Individual Attention – The Center for Public Education recommends that students receive more individualized attention as a means of boosting achievement. One-on-one interactions have the added benefit of improving student engagement, retention, and interaction. Much of this additional time may be dedicated to one-on-one conversations via instant messaging, email, Twitter, message boards, or Skype. This interaction actually provides a great benefit to students who might not receive the same level of individual attention in a traditional classroom.
Burnout: The Hidden Cost of Online Delivery
Teaching online may be beneficial for students and may provide some benefits for the instructor, such as added flexibility in their schedule, or the freedom to work from a particular location, but there is also a very real possibility that the added pressures to create and deliver a course online could be detrimental to faculty health or morale. A teacher’s time is not an infinite resource and many of educators have families and other responsibilities that could compete with the additional time necessary to prepare and deliver a quality online course. These competing draws on faculty attention, as well as the knowledge that it is easier to teach F2f courses, can become a drain on instructors. Add to that the fact that some teachers may become energized by the interpersonal interactions of a traditional classroom more-so than the mediated, asynchronous ones available online, and the medium itself may contribute to teacher burnout.
The debate is still open regarding whether online education as a whole provides better, worse, or the same educational benefits as a traditional education. Certainly there are many factors which complicate making a direct comparison between the hours spent teaching online vs. those spent in a traditional environment, but the time spent in the development of online courses could very be one of several areas where online learning provides an added benefits for students. Further research is necessary to find out for sure.