January 23, 2017

Initiating instructors to online learning: 10 fundamentals


Click to download the pdf

What? Not ANOTHER book from me? Well, no, not quite.

Teaching in a Digital Age‘ has been a great success but it appears it is being primarily used by faculty and instructors already committed to online learning, or on courses for post-graduate students, who don’t have much choice if it is set reading. That’s great, but even though it’s been downloaded over 40,000 times and is being translated into seven languages, there are still hundreds of thousands of faculty and instructors in North America alone who are either not interested in teaching online or are very nervous about it. The Babson 2013 survey for instance found that only 30 percent of chief academic officers believe their faculty accept the value and legitimacy of online education.  This rate is lower than the rate recorded in 2004.

One reason for this is that there are many misconceptions about online learning. At the same time, there are legitimate concerns about online learning being more work or about the quality of online instruction. Of course, reading Teaching in a Digital Age might help dispel the misconceptions and the concerns, but instructors resistant to online learning are not likely to engage with a 500 page textbook in the first place.

I therefore did a series of blog posts aimed at encouraging ‘resistant’ faculty and instructors to at least give online learning a try. The series was initially called ‘Online learning for beginners‘. Contact North liked the idea and suggested that the 10 posts should be re-edited into a 37 page booklet that can be given to faculty and instructors. This booklet is now available. It can either be downloaded as a pdf from the Contact North|Contact Nord website, or printed locally on demand and then can be physically given to instructors. Of course it is likely to be most effective if used in conjunction with Teaching in a Digital Age, but the booklet is written to stand on its own.

So I am hoping that you will find the 10 Fundamentals booklet useful, that you will pass it on or make it available to ‘resistant’ or undecided instructors, and that this will encourage them to seriously consider teaching online.

Let me know whether you think the booklet is likely to work, and, if not, what else could be done.

Welcome back and what you may have missed in online learning over the summer

Working in my study

Not a lot of work done this summer!

I hope you all had a great summer break and have come back fully charged for another always challenging year in teaching. I thought it might be helpful to pull together some of the developments in online learning that occurred over the summer that you may have missed. My list, of course, is very selective and personal.

Online learning for beginners

During the summer I developed a series of ten posts aimed at those considering teaching online, or brand new to online teaching:

This was in response to concerns that many instructors and faculty were not well briefed or aware of best practices and what we already know about effective (and more importantly, ineffective) approaches to online teaching.

The posts of course were linked to my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. However, the book itself is likely to appeal to those who have already made a major commitment to teaching well online. The blog posts in contrast aim to address some common myths and misconceptions about online learning and online teaching, and in particular to help instructors make decisions about whether or not to do online learning in the first place, and if so, what they need to know to do it well. Think of it as a prep for the book itself.

This won’t be directly relevant to most readers of this blog, but please direct any instructors or faculty in your institution who are struggling to decide whether or not to teach online, or must undertake it but are fearful, to these posts, as well as the book itself.

Contact North will be repackaging these blog posts and re-issuing them this fall; watch this space for more details.

Upcoming conferences

The big conference announcement is that the next ICDE World Conference in Online Learning and Distance Education will be held in Toronto in October, 2017, and the lead organiser is Contact North. This global conference is one of the major events in the world of online and distance learning and it’s the first time since 1982 that it’s been held in Canada. Next year’s theme is guess what? Teaching in a Digital Age. Well, that’s a coincidence, isn’t it?

Another major conference coming up at the end of this year is the OEB conference in Berlin in December.

Registration is also now open for the EDEN Research Workshop in Oldenburg, Germany, in October this year.

AACE’s World Conference on eLearning takes place in Virginia, USA, in November this year.

And, if you hurry, you might just make the 4th E-Learning Innovations Conference and Expo in Nairobi, Kenya from September 12-16.

Reports and journals

These are reports that have been published (or which I found) over the summer. I have blogged about one or two of them but for the rest I’ve not had the time. (Well, the weather’s been glorious here in Vancouver this summer and golf called and was answered.)

Centre for Extended Learning (2016) How do we create useful online learning experiences? Waterloo ON: University of Waterloo.

This is an excellent guide to multimedia course design, combining Peter Morville’s user experience (UX) honeycomb and Richard Mayer’s theory and research on the use of multimedia for learning, to create a well-designed set of guidelines for online course design.

Daniel, J. (2016) Combatting Corruption and Enhancing Integrity: A Contemporary Challenge for the Quality and Integrity of Higher Education: Advisory Statement for Effective International Practice: Washington DC/Paris: CHEA/UNESCO.

No need to say more other than some of these corruptions will almost certainly be found in your institution. A great read and very disturbing.

Contact North (2016) Connecting the Dots: Technology-enabled Learning and Student Success Toronto ON: Nelson.

This is the result of a symposium organized by Nelson in Toronto earlier in the year  and looks particularly at three main issues in online learning:1. The notion of “program”; 2. The role of faculty; 3. The nature of student support services.

Garrett, R. and Lurie, H. (2016) Deconstructing CBE  Boston MA: Ellucian/Eduventures/ACE.

This is a report on a three-year study to help higher education leaders better understand competency-based education (CBE), including the diversity of institutional practices and paths forward.

Bacigalupo, M. et al (2016) The Entrepreneurship Competence Framework Brussels: European Commission JRC Science for Policy.

“The EntreComp Framework is made up of 3 competence areas: ‘Ideas and opportunities’, ‘Resources’ and ‘Into action’. Each area includes 5 competences, which, together, are the building blocks of entrepreneurship as a competence.” Something concrete at last on one of the key 21st century skills. Don’t ask me though whether I believe it – read it for yourself, if you can stand European Commission English.

IRRODL, Vol. 17, No. 4

From Rory McGreal’s editorial: ‘This one is packed with 19 articles and a book review. We begin with three articles from Africa on access, entrepreneurship, and openness. Then the focus changes to the teacher with a critique and a look at expectations and perceptions. Learning design issues are the focus of the next group of articles, including open design and guidelines. Investigations into factors affecting learning follow…. Finally, mobile learning issues are addressed in the last two articles.’ Something for everyone here.

Distance Education, Vol. 37, No.2  (journal) Special issue on building capacity for sustainable distance e-learning provision.

This is a specially commissioned set of papers around the theme of the last ICDE conference in South Africa. I found it difficult though to identify a consistent message between what are individually interesting papers.

I am well aware that there are many other ‘must-read’ reports that slipped by without my paying attention to them. Any further suggestions from readers will be welcome.

So the world didn’t stop while you were away. Enjoy your teaching this academic year.


Online learning for beginners: 10. Ready to go

Click on image to see book

Essential reading for online instructors

This is the last in a series of ten blog posts aimed at those faculty and instructors in higher education new to online teaching or thinking of possibly doing it. The previous nine are:

What you’ve learned

If you have read all previous nine posts in this series, you should now be aware of the following:

  1. Online learning can be done well, or it can be done badly.
  2. Online learning is a professional activity, with evidence-based best practices. You need to be aware of these best practices if you want to succeed in your online teaching.
  3. There are certain conditions where online learning is likely to work, and others where it will be difficult to succeed.
  4. You need then to choose the appropriate mix of online and face-to-face learning, dependent on the context in which you are working.
  5. There are many different approaches and technologies that can be used in online learning. The best choices will depend on your specific learning context but you need to be aware of the choices.
  6. Moving to online learning opens the opportunity to rethink the design of your teaching; indeed you will need to change from a lecture-type approach to a more interactive learning approach if you are to succeed online.
  7. It is important to work with professional instructional designers and media producers if you want a high quality online course or program.
  8. The technology, and to a lesser extent, the pedagogy of online learning continues to evolve.
  9. Thus although, at least in the beginning, it is important to follow best past practices, you also need to be aware of new developments and the potential for innovation in your online teaching.
  10. Really, in the future, online learning will not be considered different or separate from ‘teaching’. It will be an integrated, normal component of all teaching. So you might as well get to learn to use it well as soon as possible. Start now!

Additional resources

Although I hope these posts have helped you decide to teach online, there is always more to learn. Therefore the following additional resources can contribute to your development as an online instructor.

  1. Read Teaching in a Digital Age. This free, online textbook is designed to help you develop the knowledge and skills your students will need in a digital age. It could be read from cover to cover, but it’s more likely to be useful as a resource to be dipped into as and when needed. The book covers:
    • the types of knowledge and the skills students need in a digital age,
    • how online learning can help develop these skills,
    • different approaches to teaching online,
    • how to decide on the right mix of online and face-to-face teaching,
    • how to find and use open educational resources,
    • how to choose between different media,
    • nine steps to quality online learning,
    • organizational requirements for effective online learning,
    • how to creative an effective online learning environment.
  2. Take an online course on how to teach online. This will not only provide you with the knowledge and techniques you will need, but will also give you the experience of what it feels like to study online. Look for programs that allow you to take (and pay) for one course at a time, such as UBC’s Master in Educational Technology. For a list of online programs that will provide you with a good foundation for teaching online, see: Recommended graduate programs in e-learning.
  3. Follow regular online publications written in non-technical language aimed at those teaching online, such as:
  4. For a list of the main journals on research and development in online teaching, see: E-learning journals, and/or the American Association of Computers in Education’s LearnTechLib. I recommend particularly:
  5. At the risk of repeating myself, work with your local Centre for Teaching and Learning, or Centre for Learning Technologies, or Centre for Distance Education, and attend any faculty development workshops on online learning. There is more to learn all the time.

The end

So good luck with your new adventure in teaching at least partly online.

If you have found this series useful, please pass it on to colleagues who you think may also benefit from it.

I’d also be interested in hearing from you of your experiences as newcomers to online teaching.

The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2015

The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines
Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2015

Online learning for beginners: 9. How can I do online learning well?

From this to this

This is the ninth in a series of ten blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The previous eight are:

Defining quality in online learning

OK, now you’ve looked at most of the pros and cons of online learning, you’re now ready to start. But you want to make sure that if you are going to do online learning, you are going to do it well. What will that entail?

First, let me define by what I mean by ‘doing online learning well.’ I define a high quality online course in the following way:

teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age.

Now of course that could equally define a high quality face-to-face or classroom course. Chickering and Gamson (1987), based on an analysis of 50 years of research into best practices in teaching, argue that good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty.
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Encourages active learning.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

These guidelines apply just as well to online learning as to face-to-face teaching. At the end of the day, the best guarantees of quality in teaching and learning fit for a digital age are:

  • well-qualified subject experts also well trained in both teaching methods and the use of technology for teaching;
  • highly qualified and professional learning technology support staff;
  • adequate resources, including appropriate teacher/student ratios;
  • appropriate methods of working (teamwork, project management);
  • systematic evaluation leading to continuous improvement.

However, because online learning was new and hence open to concern about its quality, there have been many guidelines, best practices and quality assurance criteria created and applied specifically to online programming. All these guidelines and procedures have been derived from the experience of previously successful online programs, best practices in teaching and learning, and research and evaluation of online teaching and learning. A comprehensive list of online quality assurance standards, organizations and research on online learning can be found here.

I’m not going to duplicate these. Instead, I’m going to suggest a series of practical steps towards implementing such standards. Chapter 11 of my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age,  sets out nine steps to quality online learning. Ideally, you should read the whole of this chapter before starting out on your first online course, but in this post I will provide a brief summary of each step.

I am assuming that all the standard institutional processes towards program approval for an online course have been taken, although it might be worth thinking through my nine steps outlined below before finally submitting a proposal. This would be a good way to anticipate and address any questions and concerns that your colleagues may have about about online learning. My nine steps approach would also work when considering the redesign of an existing course.

The nine steps are as follows:

  1. Step 1: Decide how you want to teach
  2. Step 2: Decide on mode of delivery
  3. Step 3: Work in a Team
  4. Step 4: Build on existing resources
  5. Step 5: Master the technology
  6. Step 6: Set appropriate learning goals
  7. Step 7: Design course structure and learning activities
  8. Step 8: Communicate, communicate, communicate
  9. Step 9: Evaluate and innovate

I am providing below a very brief description of each step. Just click on the heading for each step to see the full section in the book.

1. Decide how you want to teach

Of all the nine steps, this is the most important, and, for most instructors, the most challenging, as it may mean changing long established patterns of behaviour.

This question asks you to consider your basic teaching philosophy. What is my role as an instructor? Do I take an objectivist view, that knowledge is finite and defined, that I am an expert in the subject matter who knows more than the students, and thus my job is to ensure that I transfer as effectively as possible that information or knowledge to the student? Or do I see learning as individual development where my role is to help learners to acquire the ability to question, analyse and apply information or knowledge?

Do I see myself more as a guide or facilitator of learning for students? Or maybe you would like to teach in the latter way, but you are faced in classroom teaching with a class of 200 students which forces you to fall back on a more didactic form of teaching. Or maybe you would like to combine both approaches but can’t because of the restrictions of timetables and curriculum.

Considering using new technologies or an alternative delivery method will give you you an opportunity to rethink your teaching, perhaps to be able to tackle some of the limitations of classroom teaching, and to renew your approach to teaching. Using technology or moving part or all of your course online opens up a range of possibilities for teaching that may not be possible in the confines of a scheduled three credit weekly semester of lectures. It may mean not doing everything online, but focusing the campus experience on what can only be done on campus. Alternatively, it may enable you to to rethink totally the curriculum, to exploit some of the benefits of online learning, such as getting students to find, analyse and apply information for themselves.

Thus if you are thinking about a new course, or redesigning one that you are not too happy with, take the opportunity before you start teaching the course or program to think about how you’d really like to be teaching, and whether this can be accommodated in a different learning environment. The important point is to be open to doing things differently.

2. What kind of course or program?

In an earlier post, it was pointed out that there is a continuum of online learning.

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

From Chapter 11.4, Teaching in a Digital Age

Where on that continuum should your course be? There are four factors or variables to take into account when deciding what ‘mix’ of face-to-face and online learning will be best for your course:

  • your preferred teaching philosophy – how you like to teach
  • the needs/backgrounds of the students (or potential students)
  • the demands of the discipline
  • the resources available to you.

You will need to read Chapter 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age for help in making that decision.

3. Work in a team

Working in a team makes life a lot easier for instructors when teaching blended or online courses. Good course design, which is the area of expertise of the instructional designer, not only enables students to learn better but also controls faculty workload. Courses look better with good graphic and web design and professional video production. Specialist technical help frees up instructors to concentrate on teaching and learning.

Working in a team of course will depend heavily on the institution providing such support through a centre of teaching and learning. Nevertheless this is an important decision that needs to be implemented before course design begins.

4. Build on existing resources

The Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web, has an immense amount of content already available. Much of it is freely available for educational use, under certain conditions (e.g. acknowledgement of the source – look for the Creative Commons license usually at the end of the web page). Top universities such as MIT, Stanford, Princeton and Yale have made available recordings of their classroom lectures , etc., while distance teaching organizations such as the UK Open University have made all their online teaching materials available for free use. There are now many other sites from prestigious universities offering open course ware. (A Google search using ‘open educational resources’ or’ OER’ plus the name of the topic will identify most of them.)

But as well as open resources designated as ‘educational’, there is a great deal of ‘raw’ content on the Internet that can be invaluable for  teaching. The main question is whether you as the instructor need to find such material, or whether it would be better to get students to search, find, select, analyze, evaluate and apply information. After all, these are key skills for a digital age that students need to have.

Most content is not unique or original. Most of the time we are standing on the shoulders of giants, that is, organizing and managing knowledge already discovered. Only in the areas where you have unique, original research that is not yet published, or where you have your own ‘spin’ on content, is it really necessary to create ‘content’ from scratch.

Chapter 10, Trends in Open Education, in Teaching in a Digital Age is essential further reading on how to make full use of already existing resources.

5. Master the technology

Taking the time to be properly trained in how to use standard learning technologies will in the long run save you a good deal of time and will enable you to achieve a much wider range of educational goals than you would otherwise have imagined. There are many different possible technologies, such as learning management systems or video recording. It is not necessary to use all or any of these tools, but if you do decide to use them, you need to know not only how to operate such such technologies well, but also their pedagogical strengths and weaknesses.

There are really two distinct but strongly related components of using technology:

  • how the technology works; and
  • what it should be used for.

These are tools built to assist you, so you have to be clear as to what you are trying to achieve with the tools. This is an instructional or pedagogical issue. Thus if you want to find ways to engage students, or to give them practice in developing skills, such as solving quadratic equations, learn what the strengths or weaknesses are of the various technologies for doing this.

6. Set appropriate learning goals

An instructor (particularly a contract instructor or adjunct) may ‘inherit’ a course where the goals are already set, either by a previous instructor or by the academic department. Nevertheless, there remain many contexts where teachers and instructors have a degree of control over the goals of a particular course or program. In particular, a new course or program – such as an online masters program aimed at working professionals – offers an opportunity to reconsider desired learning outcomes and goals. Especially where curriculum is framed mainly in terms of content to be covered rather than by skills to be developed, there may still be room for manoeuvre in setting learning goals that would also include, for instance, intellectual skills development.

What this is likely to mean in terms of course design is using the Internet increasingly as a major resource for learning, giving students more responsibility for finding and evaluating information themselves, and instructors providing criteria and guidelines for finding, evaluating, analysing and applying information within a specific knowledge domain. This will require a critical approach to online searches, online data, news or knowledge generation in specific knowledge domains – in other words the development of critical thinking about the Internet and modern media – both their potential and limitations within a specific subject domain.

It is pointless to introduce new learning goals or outcomes then not assess how well students have achieved those goals. Assessment drives student behaviour. If they are not to be assessed on the skills outlined above, they won’t make the effort to develop them. The main challenge may not be in setting appropriate goals for online learning, but ensuring that you have the tools and means to assess whether students have achieved those goals.

And even more importantly, it is necessary to communicate very clearly to students these new learning goals and how they will be assessed. This may come as a shock to many students who are used to being fed content then tested on their memory of it.

7. Design course structure and learning activities

In a strong teaching structure, students know exactly what they need to learn, what they are supposed to do to learn this, and when and where they are supposed to do it. In a loose structure, student activity is more open and less controlled by the teacher. The choice of teaching structure of course has implications for the work of teachers and instructors as well as students.

‘Strong’ teaching structure is not inherently better than a ‘loose’ structure, nor inherently associated with either face-to-face or online teaching. The choice (as so often in teaching) will depend on the specific circumstances. However, choosing the optimum or most appropriate teaching structure is critical for quality teaching and learning, and while the optimum structures for online teaching share many common features with face-to-face teaching, in other ways they differ considerably. Chapter 11 looks at several specific areas where online learning requires a different approach to structure and learning activities from face-to-face teaching. It is probably in this step that the differences between face-to-face and online learning are greatest.

8. Communicate, communicate, communicate

There is substantial research evidence to suggest that ongoing, continuing communication between teacher/instructor and students is essential in all online learning. At the same time it needs to be carefully managed in order to control the teacher/instructor’s workload. Students need to know that the instructor is following the online activities of students and that the instructor is actively participating during the delivery of the course.

Chapter 11 sets out a number of strategies for ensure good communication with online students while managing instructor workload.

9. Evaluate and innovate

The last step emphasises the importance of both evaluating how well the online course or programs actually works, with a particular emphasis on formative or ongoing evaluation, and the importance of looking constantly for ways to improve or add value to the course over time.

Chapter 11 suggests ways to conduct both the summative and formative evaluation of online courses in ways that include evaluating specifically the online components.

Building a strong foundation of course design

The nine steps are based on two foundations:

  • effective strategies resulting from learning theories tested in both classroom and online environments;
  • experience of successfully teaching both in classrooms and online (best practices).

The approach I have suggested is quite conservative, and some may wish to jump straight into what I would call second generation online learning learning, based on social media such as mobile learning, blogs and wikis, and so on. These do offer intriguing new possibilities and are worth exploring. Nevertheless, for learning leading to qualifications, it is important to remember that most students need:

  • well-defined learning goals;
  • a clear timetable of work, based on a well-structured organization of the curriculum;
  • manageable study workloads appropriate for their conditions of learning;
  • regular instructor communication and presence;
  • a social environment that draws on, and contributes to, the knowledge and experience of other students;
  • a skilled teacher or instructor;
  • other motivated learners to provide mutual support and encouragement.

There are many different ways these criteria can be met, with many different tools.


Despite the length of this post, it is still a brief summary. You are strongly recommended to read the following chapter in full:

Indeed, you are now at the stage where are should be reading the whole book, and in particular the early chapters on epistemology and teaching methods.

Up next

Ready to go‘. This will be the last post in this series. It provides a brief summary of the previous posts and suggests further professional development activities that will better prepare you for online learning.

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

Online learning for beginners: 8. Won’t online learning be more work?

Books lots! 2

This is the eighth in a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The previous seven are:

More work?

The short answer is, yes, of course, at least in the short term. This is because online teaching is the same as any other skill. When you first start, you have to learn a lot, and do things you haven’t done before. For instance, as I discussed in earlier posts, you have to think carefully about why you are using online learning, talk to colleagues and work with other professionals such as instructional and web designers, master the technology, such as video recording or a learning management system, and basically re-think and re-design your teaching. This will take time, and your first online course will undoubtedly be more work and more challenging than your most recent face-to-face course.

However, in the long run, there is no reason why online teaching should be more work than face-to-face teaching, all other things being equal (which, of course, they never are in teaching). As always, there are important conditions to be met, if you don’t want to be swamped with extra work. So let’s look at what these conditions are.

Re-design your teaching

In a previous post in this series, I warned against trying to move your face-to-face teaching online, by just recording lectures. Although this may seem to be a time saver when developing an online course, it can cause a lot more work down the line. There will always be some students who don’t understand parts of a lecture and if something isn’t clear all students may have the same problem. When this happens, watch the e-mails or phone calls or even tweets roll in from students – or watch the course completion rate take a dive.

The answer is to use what is called ‘learning design’ or course design: setting clear learning outcomes or objectives for the course, breaking down the learning into manageable chunks of time for the students, providing appropriate learning activities for online learners, for instance, online discussion forums, and ensuring that assessment and feedback is continuous throughout the course, all the time thinking of the context in which the online learner is working. The trick is to move much of the work of finding, analyzing and applying content, and development of skills such as independent thinking, critical thinking, and problem solving, from you to the students, but under your guidance.

For most instructors, this means spending a good deal of time preparing the course in advance of its actual delivery. This means having the weekly modules that students study ready well in advance of the opening of the course. Although there will always be the need for minor changes to content in subsequent years, the bulk of the design and development of the course is done in the first year of its offering.

Most instructors in fact find a time shift when they move to online teaching. The more time you put into the development of the course in the first year, the less time you find yourself spending on content delivery during the delivery of the course, because it is already there. Multiply this over several offerings of the course and the time shift can lead to either significant time savings for you, or, more likely, your spending your time better in working directly, if online, with students, such as monitoring and contributing to online discussion of the course content.

For this reason, many institutions now offer funding to enable you to ‘buy yourself out’ of a face-to-face class for one or two semesters in order to prepare your first online course. Once you have some experience in this more traditional form of online learning, you can move to more ‘agile’ designs later, but that is another matter altogether. The first time out, you and your students need a clear structure and framework for the course.

Also, it is at this stage of course development that working with other professionals such as an instructional designer and web designer is most valuable. They should be able to provide the necessary advice and above all a framework and timetable for your work in designing the course.

Managing class size

I mentioned earlier that online teaching should not be more work, all things being equal. However, sometimes the aim is to use online learning in order to handle large classes or take extra students. These pressures may be coming from the administration rather than from you – or alternatively you may be concerned about the quality of the teaching of large face-to-face classes when many are delivered not by you but by teaching assistants who have barely more content knowledge than those they are teaching and who in particular may not have good lecturing skills.

The general rule for the most appropriate numbers for an individual instructor to teach online is pretty much the same as for face-to-face teaching. Once the instructor:student ratio goes over 1:30, it becomes harder to individualize the teaching and the instructor’s work load increases, unless the course is focused mainly on quantitative or ‘objective’ outcomes that can be automatically assessed, through, for instance, computer marked assignments. It is generally the marking that leads to overload when classes get beyond 30 per instructor.

However, because with online learning the content is available at any time and any place for students, there is some scope for scaling up the teaching to handle larger numbers. In particular, if the teaching content on the course is well developed by a top quality professor or instructor, all students will receive the same quality of content instruction. This means then that learner support and student assessment (marking) can be supported by contract sessional instructors as class size increases.

The availability of funding for hiring additional sessional instructors will depend on the business model behind the online program. If you are merely moving students from an existing face-to-face course to an online course, then there will be no extra money from tuition fees. However, if the online program is attracting new students paying additional tuition fees, then the extra funding can be used to hire more sessional instructors. In many North American universities, the tuition fee once an online course is developed more than covers the cost of additional sessional instructors, even with ‘steps’ of 30 students (i.e. for every additional 30 students you hire another sessional). Much of this of course will depend on faculty agreements, but from your point of view, re-design of a large face-to-face course by moving it online can not only improve the quality but also enable you to manage your own workload better.

What I would advise against is the use of graduate students as teaching assistants for online courses. The re-design of online courses requires instructors who can go beyond the ‘recorded’ content of an online course and can push students in online discussion groups, for instance, to challenge ideas and go deeper than just the formal online content. This requires sessional instructors with a good understanding of content and good inter-personal teaching skills to handle the extra students as class size increases.

In summary then, managing your workload as online class size increases requires several conditions:

  • ‘core’ content of high quality that does not need to be changed a lot from year to year;
  • learning/course design that provides a strong structure for students so that it is clear what they need to do when studying;
  • professional instructional design and web/media design support;
  • flexibility to hire additional, well-qualified sessional instructors as class size increases.

In the end, this may mean moving to a team approach to teaching large online classes. In some cases, the senior instructor’s responsibility may not involve direct teaching at all, but being responsible for the curriculum/content, setting learning outcomes, designing assessments, and supervising the learning support and assignment marking provided by sessional instructors.

Shifting from content to skills development

What online learning can do is enable you, as an instructor or teacher, to move away from ‘sage-on-the-stage’, where you are responsible for choosing and delivering content, and assessing how well students have comprehended this content, to ‘guide-on-the-side’, where students find, analyze and apply content, and develop higher level skills through practice, often working with other students online, through discussion or project work, but always under your guidance, or under the guidance of a team of sessional instructors that you monitor.


  1. Such changes inevitably mean more work, and more challenges, initially, in moving to online learning, but the benefits in both the quality of what your students learn, and the quality of your own engagement with students, can be substantial.
  2. There are also strategies for managing your workload when teaching online, so that over time you can balance better your teaching, research and administrative responsibilities.
  3. But online learning is not something to be undertaken lightly. You need to do it professionally, or it will be both more work and very frustrating.


For more on the design of online courses, see:

Later posts in this series will go into more detail about providing support for online learners that will also enable you to manage better your workload.

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How can I do online learning well?

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Get the students to do the work!

Get the students to do the work!