Time and Tasks in Online Learning

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Understanding how time “works” in online teaching and course design is often a challenge for online instructors, especially those new to online education. Four distinct yet related questions express the challenge:

  1. How do I determine the total time on task expected of students in my online course?
  2. How can I calculate how much time students will need to complete course assignments, assessments, and other tasks?
  3. What should students be doing with their time to effectively and efficiently accomplish the goals and learning outcomes?
  4. What should I be doing with my time as an online instructor?  

1. Determining Time on Task in Online Education

The academic credit model is based on classroom hours for students and corresponding contact hours for faculty. Online courses appear not to fit this model.

The consensus within U.S. higher education is that one college credit requires 15 hours of classroom time plus additional homework time for students (typically two or three hours per hour of classroom time). How can this model accommodate courses that have no seat time?

The answer is to de-emphasize the course mode (or course-delivery method) and focus instead on total time on task (by course and/or week). This is the approach taken by the New York State Education Department, Office of College and University Evaluation, in its current policies for online learning:

"Instruction" is provided differently in online courses than in classroom-based courses. Despite the difference in methodology and activities, however, the total "learning time" online can usually be counted. Rather than try to distinguish between "in-class" and "outside-class" time for students, the faculty member developing and/or teaching the online course should calculate how much time a student doing satisfactory work would take to complete the work of the course, including:

  • reading course presentations/ "lectures"
  • reading other materials
  • participation in online discussions
  • doing research
  • writing papers or other assignments
  • completing all other assignments (e.g. projects

The total time spent on these tasks should be roughly equal to that spent on comparable tasks in a classroom-based course.

In sum, regardless of course mode or type of learning activities assigned, the total amount of student time on task for any RIT course (campus, online, blended, independent study, etc.) should total 45 hours per credit/contact hour. For a 3-credit course, for instance, that works out to 135 hours total.

The hours per week will vary depending upon the length (in weeks) of the course. For an 8-week online course, for example, the instructor and/or course developer knows that students can expect to spend about, but certainly no more than, 17 hours per week on course work.

Learning hours per week for RIT’s major 3-credit course formats

Hours per week

2. Calculating the Time Needed to Complete Specific Online Tasks

The above guidelines from the New York State Department of Higher Education address how to determine not only total time on task, but also the time needed to complete specific learning tasks. For a variety of factors, it is far more challenging to determine the latter than the former.

Nonetheless, higher education literature offers at least three viable methods for calculating completion times for learning tasks in any course mode:

  • The experiential method: “Faculty can use their experience to estimate the time and effort needed by the typical student to engage successfully in each of the learning activities in a particular field, course, and program…Using these estimates, the designers of courses determine if students have the requisite time to meet course expectations.” McDaniel (2011)
  • The proxy method: The instructor and/or course designer calculates how much time it takes them to complete a given task, and then multiply this figure is by some factor. Carnegie Mellon University (2013) explains to their faculty, “To calculate how long it will take students to read an article or complete an assignment, you can estimate that your students will take three to four times longer to read than it takes you.”
  • The survey method: Surveying students after they have completed a given task “to ask students how long it took them to do various assignments, and use this information in future course planning.” Carnegie Mellon University (2013)

3. Learning Time for Students in Online Courses

Despite some significant differences in communication technologies and pedagogical methods, online courses are similar to on-campus courses in many important respects. Total time on task is the same for online and on-campus courses of equal lengths. Additionally, an online course will have the identical goals and learning outcomes as its on-campus counterpart and must be equal in content and challenge as the on-campus course (Vai & Sosulski, 2011).

How students spend their time in on-campus and online courses is directly related to the assignments, assessments, and other tasks given by instructors.

In the classroom portion of on-campus courses, students typically:

  • Listen to and take notes on lectures, presentations, and multimedia
  • Participate in whole-class and small-group discussions with other students and the instructor
  • Engage in experiential learning activities, such as labs, studios, and simulations
  • Practice developing new competencies
  • Take quizzes or exams
  • Write short in-class essays

Students typically do these outside-class activities in on-campus courses:

  • Read articles and books
  • Review class notes
  • Solve homework problems
  • Conduct and write-up research
  • Complete projects and other major assignments
  • Prepare classroom presentations
  • Meet with instructor during their office hours
The same categories of learning tasks or activities exist in both course modes, though online instructors usually modify the on-campus activities to make best use of online communication technologies and pedagogies.

Turner (2005) offers several representative samples of on-campus learning activities modified for the online learning environment:

  • An online lecture may be an instructor’s commentary on the readings, with links to illustrative images, media, or text.
  • Small-group work may be a quick breakout in the asynchronous discussion area.
  • Experiential learning activities can be online labs, interviews, activities within the community, and online field trips.
  • Whole-class asynchronous discussion area allows the instructor to expand upon the lecture and facilitates post-lecture Q & A and general student interaction.

As these samples suggest, online teaching and course design incorporates and, at the same time, changes the discrete on-campus activities. The online lecture is both lecture and reading. Individual time and effort spent in small-group work is visible and therefore measurable, and consists of research, reading, and writing. Experiential learning activities include student reports back to the instructor and/or the entire class. The online discussion is reading, writing, and (ideally) part of the instructor’s “lecture” component (Turner, 2005).

Example tasks and completion times for one week of a 16-week, 3-credit online course (Turner, 2005)

Tiime on task per week

4. Instructional Time for Faculty in Online Courses

The following (Vai & Sosulski, 2011) is most likely how a designer/instructor spends time in an online course:

  • Designing the course
  • Posting new material after the course has been fully designed and is “live”
  • Checking in on student interactions, participation, and questions about the course
  • Giving feedback on assignments
  • Class management


Carnegie Mellon University, 2013. Solve a teaching problem: Assign a reasonable amount of work. Retrieved July 3, 2013, from http://www.cmu.edu/teaching//solveproblem/strat-lackmotivation/lackmotivation-05.html#strat1.

McDaniel, E. A. (2011). Level of student effort should replace contact time in course design. Journal of Information Technology Education, 10(10).

New York State Education Department, Office of College and University Evaluation (2013). Policies: Determining time on task in online education. Retrieved July 3, 2013, from http://www.highered.nysed.gov/ocue/ded/policies.html.

Turner, T. (2005). Student workload in the online course: Balancing on a rule-of-thumb. Educator’s Voice, 6(3). Retrieved July 3, 2013, from http://ecollege.com/Newsletter/EducatorsVoice/EducatorsVoice-Vol6Iss3.learn.

Vai, M. & Sosulski, K. (2011). Essentials of online course design: A standards-based guide. New York and London: Routledge.