Are Online Instructors More Likely to Burn Out?

To online students, instructors might seem like faceless entities endlessly assigning work and answering e-mails, but on the other end of that bandwidth is a real person; a person, some say, who might be at an increased risk of burnout compared to their physical classroom counterparts. But while it can happen, emphasis must be placed on the word 'might', because not nearly enough research has been done to arrive at a definitive conclusion about online teaching and burnout statistics. Schools offering Instructional Design degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

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The Tough Side of Online Teaching

A growing number of students are taking online courses (12 million took some or all of their classes online in 2009, a figure expected to nearly double by 2014, according to research firm Ambient Insight). Lack of face-to-face interaction and feelings of isolation. Constant availability. Depersonalization of colleagues and students. More reading requirements and less lecturing. Greater effort to teach and develop courses.

These are just some of the examples of what might stress out online instructors. For the most part they simply feel over-worked, finding the need to respond to numerous e-mails and writing class instructions rather than delivering them orally to be more demanding than teaching in actual classrooms. Also, students are not only allowed but encouraged in many cases to access online studies at their own convenience, leading to an expanded and time-consuming schedule for instructors.

And that's not all. A 2009 survey showed that online faculty sometimes question the quality of an online education and complain of a lack of institutional support. Finally, some experts fear that the lack of personal interaction in the online learning environment could lessen the satisfaction instructors might ordinarily feel about teaching, leading to an emotional letdown that could easily result in burnout.

A Lack of Conclusive Studies

So does all this mean that in fact online instructors are more likely to suffer from burnout than in-class teachers? Definitely maybe . . . or in other words, no one really knows for sure. Surprisingly, few studies have been conducted to show clear evidence one way or the other. To date, only one paper has been published on the subject (Journal of Distance Education, 2009), despite interest and ongoing debate, and the findings from that study are largely inconclusive.

Likewise, a 2005 study of 76 online instructors showed that they felt less competent when compared to the average teaching population (both college professors and K - 12 teachers), but the study group was deemed too small to arrive at any concrete conclusion about online teaching and burnout.

So why the non-answers?

One reason could be that stress levels vary from one individual to another. One online instructor might easily adapt to the lifestyle of an online teaching environment, while the next may crumble under the seemingly endless hours and lack of traditional structure. And in some universities, a better job is done of pairing the right kind of instructor with online teaching to avoid any problems down the road. 'It needs to be a good fit,' says Professor Christine Maslach of University of California - Berkeley (Inside Higher Ed, May 2011).

Help On the Way?

So, can anything be done for those instructors who find online teaching stressful and who could potentially suffer from burnout? Yes. In fact, some say technology - which created the online teaching environment in the first place - is in some ways coming to the rescue.

Synchronous tools allowing for real-time video lecturing can help solve the problem of alienation some instructors feel. And social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook provide another real-time avenue for instructors to interact with students and colleagues.

These things are helping, and it's hopeful that newer technology will continue to blur the lines and reduce the burnout factor between live and virtual classroom teaching. Because let's face it: with a projected 22 million students participating in online studies within the next few years, it's evident that the demand for, and on, online instructors - and the ramifications of these demands - are issues that cannot be ignored or taken lightly.

Is an online education more effective than classroom learning? While online classes continue to grow in popularity, the debate between virtual and live learning experiences rages on.

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