Why Online Learning Takes Longer

Novices to online teaching often fall into a logical trap: If students are in class with us for less time, then we obviously need to add more activities for them to complete online to make up the gap.

But that logic assumes that we are making a 1:1 substitution, that work completed together in real time takes the same amount of time when done alone. But that underlying assumption is flawed. When we add more work to an online course, we are overloading student capacity (and in the case of younger children, overloading caregiver capacity).

Why does asynchronous work take longer?

One reason that asynchronous work takes longer than work completed in class is related to the Zone of Proximal Development. This concept originated with psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who posited that when a group of people works together to build knowledge by sharing the little pieces of information or understanding that they have (or when a professor provides guidance about how to tackle something new), the group is capable of achieving more than any of the group members can achieve alone.

Notice that the drawing of the lightbulb requires contributions from every pencil to be complete. Some colors are represented more than others, but all of the colors together combine for a more comprehensive picture. A single pencil could draw the lightbulb, but the resulting picture wouldn’t be as rich or complex. Synchronous learning works the same way, thanks to the Zone of Proximal Development.

Practicing new or complicated ideas with peers, with tutors, or with an instructor can give people the opportunity to challenge themselves while still getting support and guidance. Vygotsky used the term “Zone of Proximal Development” (or ZPD) for this middle ground between what a student can do alone and what they just aren’t ready for yet, even with help.

With over time, and with support from their learning community, students develop proficiency in the new skill or knowledge. The boundary of what they can do without help expands, and a new ZPD emerges to help them push toward what they can’t do yet.

When we teach in real time and walk students through new or difficult content (or activities related to that content), we are operating in that ZPD. In a synchronous session, students have the benefit of learning from us and from their classmates, whose insights and questions can help fill the gaps in their understanding or recall.

In an asynchronous online activity, we have to assume that students are working alone. (They may have the advantage of a family member or housemate who understands and can explain the lesson, but banking on that support isn’t wise or equitable.)

Without a real-time learning community to support them, the cognitive load of learning new things increases. When working asynchronously, a student not only needs to be able to decipher the concepts or skills in the lesson itself, but also needs to be able to decipher our instructions, the learning platform(s) required to complete the assignment, and our expectations for what qualifies as successful and proficient completion of the assignment. Each additional task or requirement to be deciphered adds to the cognitive load, which adds to the completion time.

In a recent webinar offered by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Joshua Eyler, author of How Humans Learn, urged educators to think hard about workload. He proposed realigning our target for how much work seemed reasonable, and then dialing the workload back even more. For many of us, this advice may seem counter-intuitive. How will people learn anything if we give them less work to do? But the concepts of ZPD and cognitive load help us understand that students are actually doing more cognitive work, not less, in order to complete assignments solo.

Strategies for Creating a Reasonable Workload

Be Transparent
  • Provide clear and detailed instructions — including instructions for how to use required technology.
  • Explain how each task or assignment connects to overall course goals. If the insights and analysis gleaned from early low-stakes assignments will roll into later higher-stakes assignments, be explicit about what that might look like.
  • Use synchronous class time to make sure students have appropriate access to require technology and a basic understanding of the process and requirements for asynchronous tasks.
Be Realistic
  • Ask yourself honestly how long each individual task within an assignment is likely to take.
    • Does the assignment require students to learn a new skill, grasp a new idea, or get accustomed to a new type of text? If so, add at least 25% to your time estimate for that task.
    • Does the assignment require students to use technology that they are unfamiliar with? If so, add another 25% to your time estimate for each new tech skill.
    • Does the assignment require students to produce something (a type of writing, a multimedia submission, a mathematical proof, whatever) that they’ve never done before? If so, add at least another 25% to your time estimate.
    • REAL-WORLD EXAMPLE: My rising 3rd grader was recently given an assignment to produce a 5-minute video, including video editing, a visual background, and background music. No software was provided for this assignment. No synchronous instruction was done on creating the content for the video or on the required elements of video production.
      • For my son to complete this assignment, I would have had to (a) coach him on producing the two different pieces of content, (b) find, install, and teach myself how to use a video editor, (c) teach my son how to use the video editor to record and edit the video, and (d) coach him on how to find and incorporate an appropriate visual background and music.
      • The entire project was estimated as taking 90 minutes (and there were two other assignments to be completed in this same 90-minute block of time).
      • This is an unreasonable set of expectations, not just for a rising 3rd grader, but even for university students.
  • Try out the Rice Workload Estimator to get a rough idea of how long your assigned online tasks will take. (The estimator is geared for university-level work, but may be of use for high school as well.) The estimator is far from perfect, but it can help flag areas where you are substantially underestimating completion time.
Be Supportive
  • Provide lots of scaffolding to reduce the cognitive load on students. Make sure assignment instructions are clear and detailed.
    • If you teach younger children, remember that this scaffolding also needs to be clear to caregivers, who were not there for any synchronous instruction and whose kids may not be reliable sources of information on what was said in class.
  • Provide options for guidance if students (or families, for K-12 students) get stuck. (That doesn’t mean you need to be available 24/7 for troubleshooting purposes.)
  • Provide offline options for additional explanations when possible.
    • For example, if you are asking students to use a new technology tool, you can link to step-by-step guides on that tool or make a short screencast video that walks students through the process.
Be Patient with the Process
  • Trust the process. I can feel the hyperventilation through the computer screen. Yes, this approach requires more work for you upfront — sometimes a lot more. But investing extra time now will save both time and frustration later (for you and for your students).

Published by Jaime Lynn Longo

I am a composition scholar, an educational developer, a practitioner of transformative education both in and out of the classroom, and an accidental instructional design evangelist.

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