April 25, 2015

MSW and Measuring Time: a post for #Rhizo15

I'm finally get around to Dave's challenge for this week: What should we count? I definitely don't want to try to measure learning with a number... but there is something that we measure all the time, so to speak: time itself. And that's what I want to write about in this post.

There is lots of say (and not enough time to say it in, ha ha), and I'm not sure where to start, so I'll just start with a post I read last night which I've been thinking about, it's Lisa's Rhizo15: Symbolic measurement. Lisa is one of my online teaching heroes, and every time we trade ideas about teaching (I have gotten so many ideas from her over the many years I've followed her blog!), I am struck by the impossible difference in our two jobs: we both teach online, but Lisa has over 200 students, while I have less than half that, around 80-90 students.

Now, it is not the number of students that is the problem in and of itself: Lisa and I both have the cognitive capacity and emotional capacity to work with all those students (we both love to teach)... the problem is TIME. I have just enough time, barely, to work with all my students on their learning process each week, but Lisa does not have that luxury of time, so she ends up having to focus on learning outcomes, as she explains in the blog post, knowing that this is just an administrative necessity. Luckily, the administrative requirements of assessment do not stop the students from learning all kinds of important things, as Lisa writes about so hopefully.

Minutes per Student per Week

I want to take up this idea of time and students, though, and I want to think about how I measure them together as I design my courses: I have 80-90 students in my classes each semester. That number of students, plus the 40 hours per week I have as a full-time online instructor, are determining factors for my course design. More specifically: that number of students, plus the number of hours per week, are what allow me to provide detailed feedback every week to every student about their written work. And I mean DETAILED feedback, sentence-level feedback of a kind that most students have never received about their writing before. It is a powerful type of feedback, very motivating and also very effective: the time I spend giving that feedback is then amplified by the even greater amount of time it takes for the students to revise their writing, as they actually learn something about the craft of writing. As a result, I am able to engage with the students in a way that is really satisfying for both the students and for me, totally different from what always seemed like very superficial, random engagement when I taught in a traditional way in a traditional classroom. I have taught this way since I switched to teaching online back in 2002; a lot has changed about my classes over the years, but this fundamental model of working with the students on their writing and revision every week has remained exactly the same. It works perfectly for me ... but only because of the numbers.

So, let's do the numbers: 40 hours per week as a full-time online instructor, of which I spend 30 hours giving feedback to students about their writing (I spend the other 10 hours doing what I would call professional development: interacting with colleagues online, doing course development work, all those activities that ultimately benefit my students but which are not directly "teaching" them). In any case, the core of each day, Monday through Friday, is giving feedback to students about their writing. So, let's call it 90 students in my classes (that happens to be exactly how many students I have this semester), 30 hours per week, which is 20 minutes per student per week. Minutes per student per week: MSW. My classes are 20 MSW.

That's an average, but it's a pretty good average; in fact, it matches up with another way that I think about how I measure my work, using two different averages: I figure about 30 minutes on average for feedback on an original piece of writing, and about 10 minutes on average for feedback on a revised version. (The length of the assignments is pretty much the same, 800-1200 words or so; you can find out more about the students' writing projects here: Project Nominations: a special post for #Rhizo15).

Again, these are all just averages, but they are pretty good averages, and they rule my life every semester all semester long: if the numbers didn't work, I wouldn't be able to get through the stack of student writing each week ... but with very rare exceptions, I do indeed manage to "clear out the stack" on Friday afternoon, very happy every week about all the fabulous work the students have done. I usually save what I expect will be a really fabulous story to do last of all on Friday, so last night, for example, I read this delightful take on Perseus and Andromeda as my last story of the week: Saving Andromeda. So, yes, the numbers are important, but don't get me wrong: while the numbers may give a sense of sameness about what I do, there is nothing boring or routine about my job at all! I may be spending the same amount of time each week reading the students' stories, but the stories are always so different, so creative, so unpredictable, that nothing ever feels the same. Every week is so different, full of wonderful new stories.

MSW and Teaching Load

But let's get back to the numbers. Dave had asked what number would be useful to report to administrators. There are lots of numbers I could report about my classes: number of blogs and posts and comments, number of words written, number of words read, etc. But the number that I see as really essential is the MSW: minutes per student per week. It is the 20 MSW that allows me to give substantial, encouraging feedback to students on their writing every single week.

But the university does not measure what teachers do this way. Instead, the university measures course load. According to the contract (a yearly contract; I'm an adjunct), I am supposed to teach three online courses per semester. Tenure-track faculty at my school teach two courses per semester (they can choose to teach online; few do). That is our so-called "teaching load," i.e. course load. Yet this course load measurement is absurd: it assumes that what you are doing is teaching the course (i.e. delivering content)... not teaching students. It assumes that the workload is the same for a course regardless of the number of students... which, sad to say, is true for lecture courses.

Of course, the MSW makes most sense for a course where there is lots of one-on-one student contact, which is how my courses work. How would you measure MSW in a course where most of the contact is not one-on-one but one-to-many, where the teacher is teaching a classroom full of students...? MSW is very low in a traditional class, except for the few minutes of time each week when a student is actively in dialogue with the instructor. Just do the math: 150 minutes of teacher time per week, 30 students in the class, resulting in an MSW of 5.

Of course, the instructor is supposed to spend time outside of class responding to student work, just as I do. That's the key: tenure-track faculty at my school are supposed to spend 40% of their time on teaching, which is 16 hours per week. They only have two courses a week... and that could mean anything in terms of number of students of course, but let's assume they have the same number of students "per course" that I do, 30. So: 16 hours per week (6 hours in class, 10 hours outside of class) for 60 students total... for an MSW of 16.

Now, that's pretty interesting: their 16 MSW turns out to be very close to the 20 MSW in my classes. My way of teaching online represents a very different way of interacting with students than in a traditional classroom-based class with required seat time each week, but the MSW is more or less the same. Another big difference is that most faculty don't spend 16 hours per week on their courses every week; instead, they have huge bursts of grading activity at midterm, finals, etc. But that's a course design choice of their own making; if they wanted to, they could follow a very steady workflow model. Without that steady workflow model, it's actually pretty hard to know whether they are putting in 16 hours per week overall, but that's a separate problem. For the purposes of this post, I'll assume that, overall, they are putting in 16 hours as the university expects them to do.

So, when the tenure-track faculty are teaching two courses with the same number of students per course as my three courses, we end up with comparable MSW measures. But remember: these MSW calculations are driven not by course load; the course load does not even enter into the calculation! What enters into the calculation is NUMBER OF STUDENTS.

So, for example, if I had 200 students as Lisa does, my MSW would plummet to 9 minutes per student per week, less than half what I have available now. Even if I gave up my precious 10 hours per week of development time and worked like a machine, reading student papers 40 hours per week and doing nothing but that, the MSW would still just be 12, which I don't think would be enough to sustain the writing-intensive courses I currently teach. I would have to completely redesign my courses based on the lower MSW.

Dollars and cents

And what about the faculty at my school? How many have the luxury of teaching two courses of just 30 students per course...? There's no easy way to find that out, because the university regulates only the course load, not the student load. We have the student enrollment data, so it would be very easy to calculate the student load — we just don't want to do that. And one reason, surely, is because course sizes vary; they vary A LOT. In particular, my school, like so many public universities, relies heavily on huge lecture courses to make the budget work.

That's where the dollars and cents come in. So, let's take a moment to add another factor into the equation: measuring not time, but money. I make $42K per year, and even if you figure my benefits very generously (I don't know what the exact dollar figure is for my benefits), my instructional cost per student is appx. $300 per student (that's for 180 students total in a year). A tenure-track faculty member makes much more than I do, and they have a lower course load. So, if they teach courses the same size as mine, their instructional cost per student is higher both because they make more money and because they teach fewer students than I do: for a tenure-track faculty member, the instructional costs would be a whopping $700 per student, assuming that the faculty members are each teaching about 4 courses per year with 30 students per course for a student load of 120 per year (and I'm really guesstimating for average salary plus benefits, but you get the idea).

But is that really the student load...? There is no way to tell because we don't report faculty student load, only course load. And here's the thing: if you want to reduce the instructional costs per student, the single best way to do that is to increase the student load by offering big lecture courses. If you have a faculty member who teaches a big lecture course (the "large course" category at my school includes courses with 600 or more students), then the instructional costs shrink dramatically: if you teach 1200 students per year, for example, instead of 120, then the instructional costs drop from $700 per student... to $70 per student. Do we charge the student less tuition for those huge lecture courses? Of course not. KA-CHING.

But I'm not going to go there now; how money rules the university (and it does) is a separate subject.

MSW and learning

What I want to talk about here instead is student learning, and how MSW is a factor in that learning. You might rightly object that the MSW is not really the right number to measure, since what students learn is actually about the time that the students themselves spend and how they spend it, independent of teacher time, which is what the MSW measures. And I agree: students cannot learn without spending time, their own time, and the MSW is meaningless unless it is also part of the time that the student is spending.

But here's the thing: I see my MWS as a multiplier, a way to maximize student time. My goal is to give students encouraging, useful feedback that will lead to them spending more time on their work for the class because they want to spend that time, using the feedback they get from me (and from the other students) to improve their learning experience. Insofar as a student has time to spend on my course, I want to maximize that time by giving them really stimulating things to do with lots of feedback to propel them to go farther, to do more, to keep on learning, following their own learning path. The more time that I can devote to each student each week to help them in that endeavor, the better.

So, yes, I know that MSW is "just" a number, and it's not even a number that my university counts, but I know it is a crucial factor in my work as a teacher. Not all the minutes per student per week that I spend are of the same quality, but having those minutes to spend is essential: without them, how could I be a teacher? And, more importantly, how could I aspire to be a good teacher? I need time to teach (and learn about teaching), just as my students need time to learn (and learn about learning).

So, that is my number-crunching for Rhizo15 this week. And thank you for taking the time (!!!) to read about what I learned from the crunching. And now, it is Saturday, so I am going to go do ... nothing. Whoo-hoo!

Aliud agendi tempus, aliud quiescendi.
There's a time for working and a time for resting.


  1. I engage with the 4th year (what we call the Honours year after the 3 year undergraduate but before a Masters) in Marketing Research, where they have to produce a small thesis. I agree completely with you, it's all about the one-on-one interaction with the student's actual writing. I've argued quite strongly that the focus needs to be more one-on-one with editing and direct interaction and less on course work (chalk-and-talk) - and the results my students have received which is well above the national average (the same course is s taught on a number of campuses nationally) bears out my argument. But it's so much more easy to measure and account for a three-hour lecture than 9 interactions of 20 minutes each.

    1. Oh, that is so good to hear, Kathryn! I never felt like I did a good job teaching writing when I worked in a regular classroom (I taught composition as a graduate student, and then I taught 2 years in a classroom at Univ. of Oklahoma before switching to online). The opportunity to focus on the student's writing, to create a course where each student is revising as much or as little as they need, etc., — all of those features of the online environment have been such a big boost for me as a teacher. My students are mostly graduating seniors, and they often have not had a college writing course other than Freshman Composition in which they wrote, got feedback, and REVISED based on that feedback. And without revising, how can they really improve their writing?
      Meanwhile, I love this phrase "chalk-and-talk," ha ha. I had not heard that one before. I'll be using it in the future for sure! :-)

  2. Very thought-provoking points here! It's a good question, why we measure teaching loads by courses rather than number of students. Of course, it allows more and more students to be loaded into courses without it seeming, on the surface, like more "work" for faculty.

    I thought, too, about the issue of how we charge students the same even if it costs less to teach them in big courses than small. But then I wondered--even if it were feasible to charge varying amounts, if it were less for large courses, could that lead to a two-tier system where only those who can afford it get the smaller courses?

    Thanks for this post, which really made me think!

    1. Oh, that is great, Christina: I am glad to hear that! I was a little scared when I finished this blog post (which is already too long) and realized that I was left with more questions than I had started with. But that's probably a good rhizomatic measure: making questions arise! Because until we at least ask the question, we're not going to get an answer... and there are so many questions we need to be asking about higher ed right now. I really believe that instructor-student interaction along with student-student interaction are some of the most important things to ask questions about, questions for which we need honest and creative answers!

  3. Laura, I think the best posts leave us with more questions than we start with, but that's just me. What I like here is how you demonstrate that we become what we count and that what we count has ethical implications. The more counting posts I read, the more convinced I am of this. I understand why you count the minutes that you spend on average reading student documents, but I wonder if there is a way to count the quality of those minutes. I don't know of such a measurement, but I think it would be handy. If you have it, send it along, and I'll use it. Thanks.

  4. Hi Keith, I would say the quality of my reading is pretty steady because it is VERY active reading; I send back sentence-by-sentence comments to the students (or paragraph-by-paragraph when the writing is really smooth & professional... not often the case), so because I am actively engaged and responding, the feedback is good. The real question is how those minutes work as a multiplier: for example, I include lots of links to online resources, either writing help (e.g. these posts about writing mechanics) or research possibilities, where students could read and learn more about their topic online. The real power of my comment would come if/when students click on those links and really explore... that would be good to know... and probably depressing sometimes too, ha ha. But I make the same good faith effort with every single student, in part because of what I believe about teaching, but also because I really enjoy the whole process. I couldn't stop myself from commenting if you see what I mean. That's how I gravitated to this whole system: it's very sustaining/sustainable for me. :-)

  5. This is wonderful, to be able to put my experiences in perspective based on your experiences. The idea of breaking down my workload to 9 MSW explains my challenges in a nutshell! What might be interesting to discuss also is brain space - I wonder if there's a way to use numbers to show the amount of time we spend thinking, planning, scheming for both the class development and for interactions with students?

    1. The numbers are so frustrating in exactly that way, Lisa: the amount of INDIRECT time is also a huge factor (I really would be frustrated if I did not take a couple hours each day to connect with people online, read, blog, reflect, etc.) ... along with QUALITY of time spent, as Keith asked above. So the numbers help to clarify some things, but only up to a point, and their power is limited. There are so many factors that go into a good learning experience, and I guess most of them are beyond our control (but it's always good to be hopeful, of course!). Yet factors like class size and course load, the stuff that makes up the MSW, are very much under the university's control. I am really lucky with my job: the Dean set up my job in the way that he did; he believed it would be a good experiment for online courses, and it also happens to be cost effective. Unfortunately, though, there are only a couple of other full-time online instructors like me. Since OU is a research school, the emphasis is on tenure lines, not on innovative teaching positions. But I take every opportunity I can to talk about my job because it really is a good model I think, good for the instructor and good for the students too. In part because of the good MSW. :-)


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