Part One: The realities of online teaching.

I have been teaching in the online environment since 1996.  That was before there actually was an online environment.  So I have grown up with online learning, watching it grow through infancy to what it is today.

During that same time, I have been lucky enough to transform from my “regular job” as a police officer into teaching new recruits in the local police academy and eventually into teaching college courses online.  Over and over I hear, “When I retire, I’ll do what you do…teach online.”  I have older officers, and even those outside of the criminal justice world, asking, “How do I get into teaching online like you do?”  In this series, I will attempt to answer these questions and more – and give you a realistic understanding of the world of online learning and online teaching as it is today, along with some guestimates about what it will become in the future.

The Online College World

Back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, college life involved brick-and-mortar buildings,

Stetson University, DeLand, FL.

classrooms with chalkboards and learned professors, administration and records and transcripts and graduation addresses.  Some students commuted, some lived on campus, and some balanced work, school, family and play in order to attain that needed college degree.  Without invoking the sociological arguments that revolve around college and degrees and employment and student loan debt, suffice to say that now, college is different.

Think of this: graduating high school seniors in 2016 have never known life without the internet.  They have never known a world without a personal communication device that fits in a pocket.  Their adolescent world has always included Facebook (or MySpace), GMail, Twitter, instant phone closeupmessaging or texting, instant photo sharing, video-on-demand, movies-on-demand, and archiving of everything.  Any video they see has to be in High Definition, or it just isn’t right.  More importantly, the high school graduate of today has a very different view of what “individual privacy” really means.  For those who teach, understanding that this group expects instant responses to everything and a resolution of their needs immediately isn’t unreasonable – it is the norm.  So, we have Rule Number One of online teaching:  This ain’t no 9-5 job.

Most colleges, because of the online environment, have condensed the normal fifteen week term into “mini-semesters” of six or seven weeks.  Some have gone as far as to condense these terms into four weeks.  To really see how this works, we need to do the math.  A typical fifteen-week term has a class meeting in a classroom (remember the chalkboard, desks and the Learned Professor?) for three hours a week – one hour, three times, one-and-a-half hours two times, or one three-hour class.  With this three hours of meetings, we were expected to spend another three hours outside of the classroom on student-on-a-laptop-pvclass activities, such as readings, writings, or other experiences.  A typical traditional class would require the student to spend six hours per week on their studies for the class, times fifteen weeks – ninety hours total for the course.  If we condense that into a half-term, seven-week course, that ninety hours is condensed to 12.85 hours per week.  A four-week course means that students must dedicate twenty-two and a half hours a week to their studies.

In a fifteen week course, the professor might assign one writing assignment per week.  That is fifteen assignments, plus a term paper.  In a seven week course, we have the same requirement of fifteen written assignments and a paper, but they come in a double the rate – two or three a week per student.  That means that the professor will have to grade two or three times as many papers per week.  Then factor in that online courses do not have the normal restrictions on the number of students per class that a traditional classroom might have, meaning that an online class may have as many as thirty-five or more students in it.  A professor may have to grade over one hundred assignments per week per class.

ScientificReviewOnline learning design also means that everything is done in writing, whether it be on a discussion board, written assignments, class news board, email, text or other electronic instrument.  So it is typical to assign more than one learning assignment per week of traditional instruction.  Having four or five writing assignments per student per week is getting to be the norm.  I’ll do the math for you – that’s up to 175 graded assignments per week.

Doing more than one class?  I typically teach three to five online classes at a time.  That can mean almost nine hundred assignments per week.  And I haven’t mentioned an equal number of short discussion responses on a discussion board, all of which require grades.

And when the module ends on Sunday, the students all feel that it is reasonable to expect that their grades will be entered into the grade book online by mid-day on Monday at the latest – and will complain if that doesn’t happen.

Thankfully the weekly quizzes, mid-term and final exams grade themselves.

Instructor Qualifications

When talking about teaching college courses online, the question always comes up, “what are the qualifications that I need?”  Good question.

First, most accreditation bodies require that you possess either 1) a master’s level or higher degree in the topic that you are teaching, or 2) any master’s degree and a minimum of eighteen graduate hours in the area that you are teaching.

My own situation is a good example here.  I hold a Masters in Arts degree in Instructional Technology – basically a degree in Education, which is why I use M.A.Ed. after my name in academic settings.  I also have twenty-four hours of Masters and Doctorate criminal UCFjustice coursework, so I am qualified to teach in Education or Criminal Justice.  If I wanted to teach Early American History, I would need a minimum of eighteen hours of American History and I would be qualified to teach it (with the approval of the school’s credentialing committee.)  That then becomes Rule Number Two for Online Teaching: “If your aspirations are to teach college courses, get the educational background needed to get where you want to go.”

For practical purposes, you also need to be really good with computers and software.  Really good, and not just with Microsoft® Word™ and Excel™.  You need to be able to think in computer.  You do not have to be a programmer, but you need to be able to do these things:

  • Adapt your skills to the online learning platform, called a Learning Management System (LMS).  There are many different brands, and they are all basically the same.  However, you need to be able learn the shortcuts and tricks quickly, or grading those hundreds of assignments will take you forever.
  • Know how to use Word™, Excel™ and PowerPoint™ VERY well.  Extremely well.
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    Computer Software Tech Support

    Second nature well.  Be able to create documents that cannot be misinterpreted.  Be able to create narrated slide presentations to embed in your lessons online.  Embed?  Yes.  Know how to do that too.

  • Know how to create audio presentations and instructions to embed in your online classroom and online lessons.
  • Know how to explain to students how to use the various tools, functions and features of the online classroom in such a way as someone with no skills whatsoever can understand it.

This just scratches the surface.  You need to be really good with computer systems, and you need a really good computer with a fast, reliable internet connection.  Students expect that you will be online helping them, regardless of where you are, what the weather may be like, and how much you pay for internet service.  Suffice to say that if you are being paid to be online, you need to spend more for faster internet access.

Part One Conclusion

This is not meant to scare you away or even say that online teaching is a bad gig – it’s not bad at all.  In fact, it’s a pretty sweet way to make a living, whether it be full-time or a supplement to retirement.  But hopefully you can see that getting that job (or jobs) as an online instructor takes more than just filling out an application or stopping by the local college.  You have to understand the rigors of the position, have the skills and the motivation to be able to pull it off, and be ready to learn new things so that you can be the best online instructor that you can be.

So let’s review the first two rules:

  1. This ain’t no 9-5 job.  You will find that you are working in the early morning, late evening, and weekends, because that is what you students expect.  The college expects that, too.
  2. If your aspirations are to teach college courses, get the educational background needed to get where you want to go.  Research your specific field, the places that you want to work, then plot a course to get the education, training and credentials that you will need when the time comes.


Still interested?  Here is where we are going with the other three parts of this series:

  • Part Two: A Day In The Life of the Online Professor.  In Part Two, we will take a look at what the Online Professor has to do in a typical day, focusing on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
  • Part Three: Teaching Online – Education and Equipment.  Getting down to the specifics of education, training and equipment that you need to get selected and make sure that you can keep that new job – teaching in your pajamas.
  • Part Four: Getting that Online Teaching Job.  In Part Four we will look at what you need to do to get that job, from part-time adjunct to full-time professor.

Questions or comments?  Comment below or email Kevin Duffy at

Kevin Duffy, M.A.Ed. is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Daytona State College in Daytona Beach, FL.  As a lifelong criminal justice/public safety professional and police officer, Kevin has consulted, lectured and taught police and public safety personnel all over the world.  As a local cop in the Daytona Beach area, Kevin has done about everything one can do in policing except be a police chief.

Kevin is also a House Spouse.