Online overload

This is a response to Mike Bogle’s comment on my last post – 

Mike has commented on the difficulties that students have in finding time to keep up with online work and on the difficulties that tutors have in balancing the workload for students.

When students are taking several courses with online components this can become a huge problem, because if everyone is under-representing the amount of online work it can grow into a huge commitment for students – especially when they’re working. For that matter, it’s not unusual for work online to come in addition to face to face work, rather than instead of it.

This is absolutely my experience and having thought about it a lot and how to overcome it, I think it’s down to a lack of joined-up thinking and the fact that academics tend to work individually. This is my experience, but has also been commented on in research, e.g. by Katz and Martin who discuss the difficulties academics have in collaborating.  

Katz, J.S. and Martin, B.R. (1997) ‘What is research Collaboration?’ Research Policy, Vol. 26, pp.1-18.

Why are some academics so reluctant to work holistically/collaboratively on a programme? Is it just a question of time? I don’t think so. It’s probably more to do with culture and a history of ways of working, academic priorities, lack of knowledge and understanding of the student experience of working online, and something to do with a ‘fear ‘of  or reluctance to embrace openness. Academics might think – Will I, as an academic, maintain ownership of my materials and control over my work, if I enter into this collaborative way of working? Ultimately this is more important to me than the student experience?

I think there’s a long way to go in breaking down existing norms and cultural hierarchies in Higher Education.

2 thoughts on “Online overload

  1. Chris Thomson May 12, 2010 / 4:29 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    We met at the NLC last week, and now I found your blog 😉

    Anyhow, here you and Mike raise the thorny issue of student workload. Whilst I agree that some of this is down to academics, a lot is also down to the students, at least in my experience of teaching in higher education. Its also not just an issue with working with other academics, a few comments will show this I think.

    In the last two mainstream departments that I have taught in assignment deadlines have been set jointly to avoid a rush of work for the students. Nevertheless students leave all their work to the last minute, sometimes seeking extensions which lead them into further difficulties. So I’m not convinced that coordinating formative tasks online or off-line would overcome this. Not that students spend much time on these type of tasks, if any…

    That said I do potentially see the benefit in reflective writing or PDP tasks if there was rota for core modules at least to take turns in telling the students to write something.

    Another issue is one of student interest, if one task fascinates them more than another then they will spend dis-proportionality more time on the interesting one. Maybe even more beyond the deadline if it is assessed work. I’ve seen this happen within courses (where part of the assignment is more attractive) and between courses. In my experience colleagues complain a lot if students seem to spend “too much time” on my assignments, even if the students go beyond what is required (is that not a good outcome???).

    Lastly students themselves can set unrealistic expectations of the own time. So some students I tutor with the OU take on too many courses at once for their available time, thus leading to problems.

    So I don’t think online work, or staff co-ordination are necessarily the key drivers, the three I mention here are at least as important, and much harder to control. Well unless we make the work dull…

    And a comment about reflective writing… well its always easier when facilitated, like now, when I realise I haven’t written anything on my own blog for weeks…

    Chris Thomson

  2. jennymackness May 12, 2010 / 8:44 pm

    Hi Chris – fancy meeting you here 🙂 Really great to keep in touch. Thanks for your interesting comments. I agree with all your observations about how students manage their time and determine what to focus on, although I think our degree of impatience with students is probably dependent on context.

    My work is almost entirely with post graduates, so added to the mix is how students manage their employed work, family life etc alongside their studies. I am usually full of admiration that they manage to study at all!

    In a course I am working on at the moment, employees in the retail business are working online for a PGCert, which is the first stage in their working towards their Masters. Their companies insist that they complete the course within one year – which means covering 6 10 credit modules (2 each term) in order to cover the content that the companies want and the students who are early career managers in their workplaces studying for 16 hours a week. And we all know that working online takes longer!

    In my mind, this might just be possible if the tutors would talk to each other and balance the workload of the two modules and the assessment requirements – but they don’t – and so as you have found the students focus on the module that interests them. I hate the thought that through poorly thought through course design we might be setting students up to fail or at least not fulfil their potential.

    Whilst on the course I am working on, the students in many cases could manage their time better – I can’t help but feel that the expectations that we, as tutors, have – should be reasonable and achievable.

    Thanks for making me think this through a bit further – and good to ‘talk to you’.


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