How Many Online Courses Is Too Many?

What is the maximum course load that an online instructor should undertake? Does the fact that a person can work at home provide the increased energy and stamina to teach more classes than a face-to-face adjunct? Is there a set saturation point when teaching effectiveness is diminished in the online environment?  I believe there is, but what is the magic number? It is probably different for everybody and the number of classes is likely based on how much online teaching experience one has and the subject area being taught. There is a learning curve with online platforms, so experience does allow for better time usage. Writing intensive subjects can also be more time consuming due to the grading load and feedback requirements.

The institutions where I teach online all have class load limitations; they must feel there is a point where teaching effectiveness begins to diminish.  One University has a two-course load maximum per nine-week session.  You can teach an overload, but this requires Dean approval and cannot exceed four courses per term.  Another University has a strict four-course per term load for experienced faculty, with terms ranging from five-to-nine weeks. This University will limit the load to two courses a term for new faculty or for those teaching a specific class for the first time. In response to these limits, many online faculty teach at multiple schools and can amass very large loads.

In the book Make Money Teaching Online: How to Land Your First Academic Job, Build Credibility, and Earn a Six Figure Salary, by Danielle Babb and Jim Mirabella, Dr. Babb tells her story about teaching  80 classes at 13 online schools to make a six figure annual salary.  Dr. Mirabella teaches 50 online classes each year for a similar income. I have a problem with such an intense teaching load.  I don’t believe the students really get the attention they deserve. Does knowing that there are people out there teaching 50 online courses per year dilute the online education reputation and make it seem more like a factory setting? Absolutely.

I’ve found that I can handle about six classes at a time (based upon 9 week terms). Some of the classes I teach are paper-intensive, so the grading is time consuming. We all have the obligation to offer good feedback and quick turn-around times on grading.  I cannot overload myself. 

I am currently teaching four classes. I had offers for more classes in the spring semester and turned them down to keep from being overwhelmed. I felt it was the responsible thing to do, for both myself and for the students. I had planned on having six current classes, however, two of my classes recently canceled with a one-day notice. If I had not turned down the other classes, I would be in better shape financially now.  The other side of the coin is that all the classes could have been offered and I would be in my personal overload point.

It is always a gamble when the offers come in, should you accept or decline? I have not had a class cancel since August 2008, so I erred on the side of caution. I really felt it was not the right thing to accept anymore, recent history was showing that I would have a full-load. Now  I find myself with time to fill, an income drop, and I am questioning my choice.  Did I do the right thing? I guess I really did.  The money will be tighter for awhile, but I won’t have to resort to eating ramen.  Had I taken all the courses and none canceled, I would risk missing deadlines and losing future jobs.  I would be pushing myself and maybe not doing the best teaching job for my students.  Besides, nothing is permanent in this line of work.  There are more schools to explore teaching at, and more class terms starting every week.  I’m expecting the teaching deficit will be short-lived, and I will be back to my busy schedule soon.

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