What's Full-Time for K-12 Online Teaching?—a Dilemma


After reading Keeping pace with K-12 online learning: A review of state level policy and practice (Watson & Ryan, 2006), I became concerned that policy makers need to take a closer look at the K-12 online teaching scenario itself. Based on Lawrence Tomei's (2006) post-secondary finding that "14 percent more hours were required to teach the same number of students online at a distance than in the traditional classroom" (p. 539), there is reason to suspect that per virtual course or virtual classroom, the time commitment for K-12 online teaching is also greater than teaching face to face. Yet states have not fully determined what constitutes full time for that environment, most likely because sufficient research is lacking for comparison. At the present time, most states are employing online teachers on a part-time basis, with Florida Virtual School (FLVS) being the exception. I'd like to elaborate on some of the realities, based on my experiences with traditional and online teaching.

Class size and course load matter and ultimately will affect the quality of instruction provided. At the post-secondary level, Tomei (2006) concluded that the "The ideal traditional class size was 17 students while the ideal online class size was 12 students" (p. 540). An average teacher assignment in a traditional secondary setting might be five to six classes with about 25 to 30 students in each class, depending on school district. The ratio is even higher in some K-12 online environments, although some states are setting limits on teacher-student ratios. For example, Minnesota's maximum is 40 students in any one online learning course or program, unless waived by the commissioner. In Alabama, class size is to be the same as for courses not taught online (Watson & Ryan, 2006). At FLVS, full-time instructors generally teach five courses; adjuncts teach one course; and each course has about 35 to 40 students. FLVS also indicated that an adjunct instructor generally spends about 15 to 20 hours per week teaching one course (FLVS personal communication, December 18, 2006). Using FLVS only as an example, it would then appear that three courses would take about 45 to 60 hours to meet the needs of all students appropriately. Reasonably, three courses would then constitute full-time with student load about 105 to 120 students.

The online environment features greater use of individualized instruction. Instruction in traditional settings is at best in small groups, rarely individualized, on a regular basis. In an asynchronous online environment with either virtual classrooms or virtual courses, providing highly individualized quality instruction for 175 to 200 students in five courses, as current numbers appear to indicate, would be an overwhelming task.

Why might this be?

Teaching online can be a 24/7 commitment. What adds to the time factor of K-12 online teaching compared to university online teaching is regular communications—not just with students, but with parents via phone, e-mail or chat—and to ensure that No Child Left Behind accountability criteria are met. At FLVS, for example, where instruction is individualized, instructors provide a welcome call to introduce the virtual course, the instructor and the school. They are expected to call students and parents at least once per month and to make monthly progress reports to keep both informed. The majority of such calls are often made during evening hours and weekends, as most students also attend traditional schools. Instructors are also expected to check e-mail and voicemail at least two to three times a day. They carry pagers for their first year of employment. As most new hires are adjuncts, they also are required to use the Staff Log Database. There is no first or last day of school or summer break. Students can submit work anytime, including weekends and holidays. Completion means finishing a class without a predetermined date (FLVS Instructors—the Real Story, http://www.flvs.net/general/documnets/Pre_Hire_7.swf ).

Interactions take a great deal of time. The virtual classroom is a structured environment that features interaction, which is the closest one can come to a face to face classroom in the online world. Teacher-student and student-student interactions play a key role in students' attitudes about online learning, their motivation, course completion and satisfaction and retention in a program. Perhaps the following data will illustrate its intense nature and instructor demands. I just finished teaching two 10-week online master's and doctoral courses with a combined total of 37 students. Note that this number might be typical of just one K-12 online class. Ultimately, students posted the majority of their 2,611 messages, which I read, to 15 graded topics among 27 course discussion threads. They sent another 244 courseroom e-mails to me and several additional e-mails to my personal account. Only one student phoned during that time, as telephone conversations were not required. I sent over 1,300 messages consisting of instructional or facilitative discussion posts, courseroom e-mail with weekly individual feedback to graded discussions, responses to e-mail and individual feedback in connection with iterations and final grading for three projects. There were also periodic communications via e-mail or phone with the department chair and proactive e-mails to students who were at risk for a variety of reasons and similar communications to alert university advising for additional student support. Add time for reading course materials, troubleshooting for errors in posted content and record-keeping, and one can see that these two courses were a nearly full-time commitment. Imagine multiplying this data to accommodate five courses. More than good time management is the issue. The quality of individualization would suffer.

So, there is a reason why "state-led programs usually employ teachers on part-time contracts" (Watson & Ryan, 2006, p. 27). It must be more than just "in order to maintain flexibility of options in the number and types of courses being taught" (p. 27) as the Keeping Pace document states. Teaching time is the issue. Policy makers will need to address this time factor in more detail, if online teaching is to become a viable full-time option to entice and retain experienced K-12 teachers. I agree with Tomei (2006): "Online teaching should not be expected to generate larger revenues by means of larger class sizes at the expense of effective instructional or faculty over-subscription" (p. 540).


  • Tomei, L. (2006). The impact of online teaching on faculty load:Computing the ideal class size for online courses. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education,14(3), 531-541.

  • Watson, J., & Ryan, J. (2006, October). Keeping pace with K-12 online learning: A review of state level policy and practice. Retrieved December 14, 2006, from North American Council of Online Learning, http://www.nacol.org/

About the author: Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education, and is currently an adjunct faculty member in the graduate School of Education at Capella University. She is also the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net.

About the Author

Patricia Deubel has a Ph.D. in computing technology in education from Nova Southeastern University and is currently an education consultant and the developer of Computing Technology for Math Excellence at http://www.ct4me.net. She has been involved with online learning and teaching since 1997.