Does it Take More or Less Time to Facilitate and Develop an Online Course? Finally, Some Answers

How much time does it take to teach an online course? Does teaching online take more or less time than teaching face-to-face? How much time does it take instructors to develop an online course? — Instructor Time Requirements to Develop and Teach Online Courses (Freeman, 2015)

Time business conceptA study released in March of this year set out to answer these burning questions that the majority of online educators would like answers to. There’s considerable anecdotal evidence that favors both sides—it takes more time versus less time to facilitate an online course when using a face-to-face course as benchmark. The purpose of this study was to nail down the facts—to measure the perceptions of and actual time spent developing and teaching online courses. The findings are significant for institutions and educators involved in online education for several reasons. Professional development for one. The report reveals areas where survey-respondents struggled during the course development phase, and where the majority of time was spent when facilitating (the conclusions are surprising). Secondly, results may be helpful for institutions when considering compensation and work-allocation models. Institutions can use the results as benchmark, at the very least the study may act as catalyst for constructive conversations about compensation and support for online course development and facilitation. And finally, it may help online instructors gain insight into their own teaching experiences by considering the experiences of  other educators that have experience with face-to-face and online courses.

This post highlights the findings and suggests factors for educators to consider when it comes to, 1) the time spent developing online versus face-to-face courses, and 2) how much time is invested in online facilitation, and how it compares to face-to-face instructions.

Survey Details
To put the results into context—the survey gathered data from 68 instructors from a total of 165 solicited from three universities across eight academic disciplines. Each respondent had developed an average of 2.13 online courses and had experience teaching an average of 2.03 online courses, and had been teaching at the university level for an average of 14.2 years (Freeman, 2015).

1) Course Development Time: Pedagogical Learning Curve Steepest
Survey results confirmed that developing online courses is indeed more time consuming than developing face-to-face courses. Though the time required declines when the same instructor develops a second or third online course. Twenty-nine percent of respondents indicated they spend over 100 hours (median of 70 hours) to develop their (first) online course. This significant number of hours is likely due to the fact that 59% of respondents developed over 90% of the course without any assistance, which included developing content, assessments, assignments, and time associated with course design. The other 41% received course design support from instructional designer(s) and/or used ready-made content available through textbook publishers. Also significant is the technological learning curve which was found to be shorter than the pedagogical learning curve, in other words instructors required more time to determine how to implement pedagogical methods, how to create learning experiences and deliver content appropriate for the online format than they did learning about the features and nuances of the technology used to deliver the course. The learning curve is described as the time it takes to “get used to” the course elements [platform, tech features] and/or the method of teaching.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 9.42.50 AM
(Freeman, 2015)

Developing a quality online course is complex due to the fact that technology adds yet another layer to course design and one that requires a unique skill set. In addition there is an interdependent relationship between technology and pedagogy specific to online courses—for instance the features of a LMS platform will determine and shape the course and the teaching methods. Using the discussion forum as an example—the flexibility of the forum feature—how easy it is to set up by the course designer for group assignments, and how it can be used by students for a group assignment whether it can facilitate the communication and collaboration that is required for the assignment will dictate how effectively the ‘method’ is executed in the course.

Online course design requires a breadth of skills that includes technical knowledge, not only familiarity with LMS features, but also outside tools including social media platforms that can enhance student learning.  Knowledge of user-focused design, or web design principles is also critical in delivering an intuitive, learning experience for students (How Five Web Design Principles Can Boost Student Learning). Second are the pedagogical methods, in other words how learning is sequenced, framed and presented to students.  This array of skills required is far beyond the scope of most faculty, who are experts in their field of study, not necessarily course design. Realistically creating an online course requires at least two or more individuals with specific skills sets working together to develop an engaging, intuitive and quality learning experience.

The onus is on institutions to provide not only professional development for faculty in course design principles and strategies, but to provide support in the technical and pedagogical aspects.

2) BIG Time Commitment Facilitating First Online Course — Levels Off After 2nd Time, But Grading Involves More Time Investment
Though respondents in the survey originally perceived that teaching online took more time than teaching face-to-face, by the third time facilitating respondents reported that it took them about the same amount of time as it did a similar face-to-face course.

There is supporting evidence to the earlier finding that teaching an online course the second and third time becomes about as time-consuming as teaching a face-to-face course the second and third time.  The factors that still remain more time-consuming for online teaching compared with face-to-face teaching, even after teaching the course three times, are Instructor-Student Interaction and Grading & Assessment, the two specific factors  that can not be prepared in advance for online courses (unlike Content Development and Pre-Semester Setup).

Sixty-nine percent of survey respondents indicated that it took ‘much more’ and ‘more’ time to facilitate an online class for the first time. Yet by the third time, it dropped to 25% in this same categories (table 4 below), which does support the learning curve theory. These findings suggest that acknowledging that more of the instructor’s time will be required the first and even the second time facilitating a course, is important for both the instructor and the institution. Though it does also suggest that professional development is needed for instructors—development focused on facilitation skills that will support skills specific to the uniqueness of online instruction. Such training can potentially reduce the learning curve for instructors, as well as reinforce the building of effective skills, best practices, and efficient use of time.

Screen Shot 2015-05-08 at 9.55.10 AM
Annotated screenshot that shows two-thirds of  respondents by the third time facilitating online indicate that it took ‘somewhat more’, ‘more’ or ‘much more’ time to grade and assess students in an online course than face-to-face (Freeman, 2015).

A startling (and significant) finding of this study is the time dedicated to grading and assessing online students. It appears that the time dedicated to grading students’ work actually increased from the first to third time of facilitating an online course (table 4). Two-thirds of the respondents indicated by the third time it took ‘somewhat more’, ‘more’ or ‘much more’ time to grade and assess students in an online course than face-to-face.  I find these results encouraging since an instructor’s feedback of students’ work is a critical component that can motivate students, deepen their knowledge and push them to think critically (Getzlaf et al., 2009). Implications are that skill development in this area are needed and will benefit not only students but can help instructors to provide feedback more efficiently. There are several technology tools and applications that can help instructors achieve efficiency and to make the most of giving feedback using online tools that deliver meaningful, quality feedback for students (Morrison, 2014). Again professional development is needed in the area of grading and assessment to support instructors in their efforts.

By no means is this study the definitive answer on the time requirements for developing and facilitating online courses, but it is an excellent starting point for conversations about ‘time’ needed to create quality online learning experiences.


4 thoughts on “Does it Take More or Less Time to Facilitate and Develop an Online Course? Finally, Some Answers

  1. Thanks for sharing and summarizing this study, Debbie! I have to wonder, though, if this is not just comparing apples with zebras. It is based on some notion of an “average” that is meaningful to individuals when the amount of variation is, no doubt, enormous, and it makes it sound like you actually KNOW how much time you can/should/must spend on course development and on grading and assessment. But how do would anyone know that? Basically, my course development time expands to fill all time available during the summer, and my teaching time expands to fill all time available in the school year. If I budget 30 hours per week for teaching during the school year, well, that is how much time I will spend (details about that here:, knowing that I could spend 100 hours per week if I had the time (I could read all the posts in all the blogs, which would be awesome), while also knowing that I could get by with 20 hours per week if for some reason I needed to do that for some externally imposed reason (i.e. if my school imposed some kind of service requirement with my job so that I had to spend 10 hours per week in committee meetings…eeeeek!). So too with course development: it’s all about AVAILABLE time, and then deciding how best to spend that time. Today I spent about 8 hours redesigning the three course blogs for my Indian Epics class ( I didn’t have to do that, but it seems to me a good thing to have done for lots of reasons (student engagement, sustainability, optimizing search and discover, etc.), and since we are just at the beginning of summer, I have the time spend this way; if it were August and school was about to start, I would never have contemplated spending the time on something that is not essential. So, I’m really not sure what studies like this about abstract “average” can do for real instructors. It seems to me that more important are the time resources each instructor has and their approach to time management, project management, etc., so that we can each be optimizing the amount of time we have available (whatever that might be!) for maximum learning impact. And for maximum pleasure too (I had fun today!).


    1. Laura you bring up some really good points. My average time developing a course will differ from your average, and differ again from a colleague. And as you mention, we are working within parameters of a work week, and time we have in a day to dedicate to what we want to dedicate our time to after our work day is done (whether it’s course re-design (as in your case) or watching a favorite show or other). Though I do see great value in the comparisons this study draws out from the respondents. The idea of more time versus less time to develop an online course in comparison to a face-to-face course, and the time it takes to develop a second and third online course (and the same goes for facilitating). The more-than-less-than comparison to an face-to-face class reveals some important things, first that it is just as time consuming, if not more, to facilitate an online course than a face-to-face course. The same goes for course development. This can settle the position some may put forth, that it takes less time to facilitate an online course.

      Another comparison that is helpful is the allocation of time in the tasks associated with facilitating and developing a course. First it delineates the two, design and delivery, and breaks it down further into five categories: 1) Content Development, 2) Pre-Semester Setup (Syllabus, Schedule, Assignments, etc.), 3) Instructor-Student Interaction, 4) Grading & Assessment, and 5) Overall Involvement in the Class. Though seemingly obvious, I’ve read several articles (even papers) that lump the tasks of course design with facilitation. This is really helpful for institutions (and educators) to consider – given it provides task breakdown. Back to the comparison aspect, I find Table 4 of the study most telling, as the instructors rate the time they spend on the tasks the first, second and third time they develop and facilitate a course. I find it fascinating how the (perception of) time investment shifts on the 2nd and 3rd time around — that tasks that appear to have steep learning curve are content development and pre=semester set-up, yet the task involving interaction by the instructor don’t. The instructors are still investing time interacting, and appear to spend considerable time grading (that presumably includes providing customized feedback). Though designing an online course is dynamic, and re-design is an ongoing process–which suggests this is an area of further professional development for faculty.

      Admittedly though, this study is certainly not the end all in determining time spent on development and facilitation, but at least it’s a starting point! As always Laura, thanks for reading, commenting and sharing.


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