Tip Sheet: Rethinking Contact Hours in Online/Hybrid Learning

By Sue Lorenson & Eddie Maloney:

In 1905, Andrew Carnegie wrote a $10M check to fund a pension system for college professors. Two legacies of that philanthropic act are familiar to academics: TIAA-CREF and the college credit hour (“Carnegie unit”) system. 

Most Georgetown classes (and nearly all undergraduate classes) are classroom-based, and have been scheduled to ensure that they have “contact” (classroom) hours appropriate to their credit loads. Consequently, most faculty—until recently—haven’t had to give much thought to how and when they meet with their students; it’s been done for them by the Office of the University Registrar.

As faculty adapt their classes to online and hybrid modes of instruction, many have asked what that means for contact hours:

Do asynchronous activities count toward contact hours?

How many contact hours should my 1-credit online class have?

If I meet with my students in small groups, can that count toward contact hours?

Some reassurance

It’s not all about synchronous contact hours. The DOE definition of the credit hour allows for “the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time,” including work which “reasonably approximates” classroom work and “other academic activities.” In other words, all work (both in-class work + out-of-class work) “counts” toward the total learning hours** of a class, including but not limited to:

  • Participating in class and viewing lectures (synchronously or asynchronously)
  • Reviewing other class materials (videos, podcasts, readings)
  • Assessments of all kinds (in-class or take-home, graded or not)
  • Posting/replying to discussion boards
  • Individual or small group discussions (peer-to-peer or professor-to-student)
  • Paper/project work (planning meetings, small group meetings, mentor meetings, research, writing, presentation)

It’s not about seat time, but learning time. The Carnegie unit, though still the industry standard, has been criticized for its focus on “seat time” vs. student learning outcomes. If you’re teaching a course you’ve taught before, you no doubt have clear learning goals and time-tested assessments for determining whether those goals have been met. Perhaps contact hours provided a useful guidepost for determining reasonable learning goals the first time around. If you’re teaching a course for the first time and need help creating some guardrails, there are some tools for calculating “time on task” (learning hours) available here and here.)

You have a lot of flexibility in how you deliver your courses. Adapting your classes to a new modality has likely been a challenge. Do not let contact hour math constrain your creativity; instead, focus on how the goals of your class (including student engagement) can be best achieved in an online or hybrid environment. As noted above, it’s important to consider how all activities are part of the total learning time in a given week. Think about distributing your time in ways that make sense for your learning goals and student engagement goals, not in ways that line up with traditional in-person and out-of-class time.

Your students need that flexibility as well. The fall will be challenging for our students. They will be adapting to a new learning environment and struggling to focus in the face of challenging health and safety considerations. Regular contact and meeting times will be crucial to our students’ sense of community and well-being, but thinking flexibly about how you achieve your learning goals through meaningful engagements will help position them to be successful.


** The total learning hours of the class includes both contact hours and out-of-class hours. Out-of-class hours are generally expected to be about twice the contact hours.