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Academic workload formulas and e-teaching: A believerís perspective

Academic workload formulas and e-teaching: A believerís perspective

9 May 2012, by Professor Yoni Ryan

Yoni Ryan is Professor of Higher Education with the Faculty of Education at ACU. She has been a Director of Staff Development at the University of Canberra and ACU, and has a particular interest in the changing nature of academic roles consequent on the use of new technologies. She has taught, researched and consulted for universities and aid agencies in the Pacific, Africa and East Asia, and on for-profit education firms and online and ‘borderless’ education.



Professor Mike Ewing’s piece on Workload Allocation Models (WAMs) is timely in light of the increasing trend to ‘teaching only’/’teaching intensive’ positions in universities, and the little-examined issue of the impact of technologies on the work tasks of academics.

Clearly, Ewing’s argument that they are necessary evils (‘at best’) and at worst could engender a ‘work-to-rule culture’, has some rhetorical power. However, a recent study undertaken as an ALTC project on the workload associated with online and hybrid (face-to-face supplemented by online materials and activities) delivery indicates that current models are woefully inadequate as a reflection of the time needed to deliver quality teaching in a digital learning environment. As Coates et al. (2009) report, increasing workload is a major source of dissatisfaction among Australian academics, but the Coates study focused on additional administrative tasks and the pressure to publish as the major factors in increased workload. Our study examined WAMs in four universities (UNE, CQU, USQ and ACU), and interviewed 88 staff teaching online only units or hybrid units.

Almost all reported that their teaching time had increased with the pervasive use of eteaching as a routine element of their work. Three of the universities had no specific allowance for online delivery: it was calculated as if it equaled class contact time. One university covered the preparation time for a new online unit, but hedged around the need for updating and revising a unit for each offering, with a note that any allowance was at the ‘Dean’s discretion’. Almost all those interviewed reported that responding to emails from impatient students, moderating a discussion board, preparing materials and checking embedded links were time consuming, as was learning new digital applications, leaving them little time for scholarship and research. Yet all felt compelled to spend more time online, and ‘out of hours’ to provide students with the highest quality teaching they could.

Ewing argues that WAMs reflect an organisational rationale that inputs are easier to measure than outputs. Yet the tenor of higher education today is outcomes driven: numbers of publications per three year period, student progression rates, learning outcomes assured. The ERA audit of 2010 required just such a spreadsheet of time spent on research, teaching and administration as Ewing deplores, yet the results have not been made public, so we are unable to calculate how the average academic spends their time.

Our study starts from a different angle: by compiling a list of the actual tasks associated with teaching in a e-world: we found that the tasks needed to teach today are more numerous, and more time consuming than the historical tasks of preparing a lecture or tutorial, delivering it, consulting with students, and marking. We found very few examples of Australian universities including in their Position Descriptions for academic roles any acknowledgement of e-teaching tasks.

Ewing’s suggestions for WAMs are research-output oriented, not teaching oriented, though that is the prime activity of universities based on enrolment numbers and Commonwealth funding. He is right to argue that teaching load should be calculated on hours per week AND (not OR) units taught, and not ‘perhaps’ with an adjustment for numbers enrolled. We found many course coordinators managing classes of 300+. Yes, they often had tutors to take smaller groups, but still had to deal with the increasingly complex administrative tasks of counselling students in multiple programs, advising those tutors, and often developing course and unit materials without benefit of the course team approach that used to characterise the older distance education offerings.

Our interviewees reported little confidence in the capacity of WAMs to properly account for their work time. Ewing’s call to revisit the formulas is welcome: quality teaching is an infinitely more time consuming activity in our digital world, and if students are to be ‘engaged’ in learning, and engaged by teaching, WAMs must be rethought.

The full project report (Tynan, B., Ryan, Y. , Hinton, L. & Lamont Mills, A.) can be downloaded from


Coates, H, Dobson, I, Friedman, T, Goedegebuure, L & Meek, L 2009, The attractiveness
of the Australian academic profession: a comparative analysis
, LH Martin Institute, Melbourne.


The LH Martin institute will run a short course on Enhancing Academic Workload Management in July. The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of LH Martin Institute.

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