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Preparing an Online Course

I'm taking a short break from designing my Blackboard shells for both an on-campus and online course because I'm exhausted. Don't let anyone try to persuade you that online courses and courses with online content are somehow "easier" to prepare and to deliver. The time and energy required is substantially greater than the effort to prepare a traditional university course. Universities need to consider this time and energy more accurately. The minor stipend I receive for creating an online course does not reflect the time I invest in the effort.

I definitely believe there are more benefits than negatives to providing online content to students, including extra content for traditional on-campuses courses. But, we have to admit that effective online delivery is time-consuming. The reasons for this are many; I can address a few now:

1) The course management software itself requires time and effort.

Everything online is simply more time consuming. The benefits include giving students the ability to access any papers or assignments they missed. The downside? Lots and lots of time setting up the course. Trust me, I reuse much of the content for courses, but it still takes hours to set up a new class each semester.

I've always used a spreadsheet for grading and stored important files on my computer. By comparison to an Excel spreadsheet, creating a course grade book online can be tedious. In a spreadsheet, I can create the columns in ten minutes or less. Online? I have to tweak and adjust the grading system for at least an hour. Even when I am able to copy the basic shell from course to course, I have to update assignment data. I'm pretty fast online, but it still takes a lot more time than my old Excel method.

To prepare a handout for a traditional course, I could either head for a copier or I could print the document at home. Yes, printing takes time, but I can do other tasks in the meantime. To deliver a handout online, I have to create a "folder" for handouts, convert the document to HTML or an Adobe PDF, and then upload the file. Uploading includes entering information about the file, such as the title and when it should be available to students. I've learned that sharing a file can take up to ten minutes, depending on technical issues. If you have numerous handouts, plan to burn a couple of hours.

These are only a few examples of how online can require more time to create and maintain due to the nature of the software. You do not merely "upload a course" each semester. When instructors do upload all files to one folder, with no effort to organize content, the students struggle. I compare organizing a course to preparing a brand new computer for use. While you could copy everything and hope it works, most people learn you have to move and test files and applications. With online course management, you need to upload and test assignments, handouts, links to external resources, and so on.

2) You need to create "virtual lectures."

Yes, I could resort to recording my lectures and then posting the audio, but it is more effective to create new lectures. I create podcasts and screencasts, which require editing. I'm a perfectionist, so an online lecture can take two or three times longer to prepare than a traditional lecture does. Yes, I can reuse lectures when I teach the same course or a similar course, but every new course means hours of new online lectures. I believe this is better for students, since they can listen to, watch, and read lectures as many times as they personally need. However, it does mean an instructor invests more time and effort.

3) You need to "guide" students more actively.

Online courses, at least in my experience, require daily attention to keep students on-task and participating. You do not need to respond to every online forum post or track every student activity, but you need to be "present" online to catch any problems quickly. The sooner you can help students with problems online, the better the course will function.

4) Servers go down.

Tomorrow, there's a 12-hour outage of our Blackboard system. That's a week before classes start and I'm still uploading content. During past semesters at other institutions, I've had course management systems go down for two or three days. This is particularly hard on students if the system is down over a weekend. Many non-traditional students count on weekend access to online course.

5) Administrators increase student caps.

Responding to student discussions and homework takes more time, not less, in an online course. Why do administrators still believe you can handle more students online, despite the need for more time to provide feedback? Administrators still embrace the myth that online is less time-consuming, so they increase enrollment caps. Some universities and colleges allow two or three times the number of students online as in traditional lectures. This is not helpful for the students and risks exhausting the instructors.

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I believe in online education, especially hybrid models, but I always tell instructors considering online courses that you can expect to spend 30 percent more time on the course. They don't always believe me until after the semester is underway.

More later as the semester starts.

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