Over the course of a teaching day, most faculty members find themselves on Facebook, Twitter, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, iTunes, Blackboard (or its competitors), blogs, and e-mail. We manage a steady stream of online demands. Yet one of the most frequent complaints from students is that their instructors have "no online presence."
When I took part in Blackboard's Exemplary Course program, I heard many examples of faculty members struggling to manage their online time. As one participant wrote: "Online students think that I am part of the computer sometimes. They type in a question, and they expect the machine to type back an answer right away. But maybe I'm in the midst of my commute, or teaching my three-hour class. When they don't get a reply for a few hours, they sometimes begin to panic, and send me repeat messages: 'Professor, I haven't gotten a reply yet!'"
Students would be surprised by how often we faculty members are online—just not in the way that they expect. For example, another participant in the course-design program described the hours she spent writing and formatting questions for the discussion board of her online literature course. For a face-to-face class, she wrote: "I would have had notes, sat in class, asked a few questions based on notes, and gone from there." But online, she added, "I can't just lead a fun discussion—there's so much planning involved."
Yet without appropriate boundaries in our online communication with students, we are faced with misunderstandings, missed deadlines, and ever-growing "to do" lists.
For my own online courses, I have devised some strategies to stem the torrent of digital interruptions and demands. Some of these 10 tips may not be applicable to your situation, but I hope they provide some inspiration. You can share what works for you in the comments section below.
Set a schedule for your online time, tell the students about it, and stick to it. Students seem much happier knowing that I answer e-mails on Monday and Wednesdays and do all the online grading on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The every-other-day rhythm helps us plan appropriately and sets expectations that we can feel good about.
Some institutions require faculty members to respond to students' queries within a certain time frame. If that's the case, and you unexpectedly find yourself unable to meet the deadline, let the students know how long it will take you to gather the information they are requesting. Do your best to meet that commitment.
Remind students to routinely include their class and section number in all correspondence. It may sound simple, but it saves a lot of time. I generally have hundreds of students a semester, so it's just not possible for me to remember in which course or section each of them belongs. When they ask about grades, assignments, or quiz deadlines, I can respond that much more quickly if I don't have to spend time rummaging through several course rosters.
Create a permanent announcement on your home page that alerts students to your institution's help desk. It can be a job in itself to keep pace with the changes in software versions, security patches, Internet browser compatibility, and such. For issues that can be construed as "hardware" or "technical," I ask that students contact the technical staff on the university's help desk. Institutions often pay lots of money for a help desk; don't waste your time by trying to do its job.
Set up a discussion-board area so students can help one another. There is a great deal of talk about students teaching students—that is, collaboration. A discussion board is a great way to get that to happen within your course. It can often be quicker for one student to ask another for information than to turn to you or your college. I find that students are happy to help classmates untangle a URL or remind them of a feature that they find useful on their mobile devices. Fostering that kind of supportive interaction online has an added benefit: It builds the community of learners.
Use the embedded online tools. Whether the learning-management system you use is Blackboard's or some other company's, it very likely has useful tools. Find out what they are and how to use them. They could include a discussion board, a blog, or a wiki. Find out if you can have a permanent link for posting your syllabus and if you can upload content from a publisher or Web resource.
Among the tools I find most useful are the ones that help me with assessment. Quick self-check quizzes can be easily graded by the system and give students immediate feedback. You can set up the system so that, when they get a question wrong, it will point them to a place in the text, a lecture, or a Web resource for clarification. Granted, you have to provide all those answers, which requires a hefty investment of your time. But it will save you time in the end.
Create an FAQ for your online course. Some of the same questions get asked from semester to semester, whether it is about the technology I am using in my course or the right place to find a glossary or Web resource. Compile the questions and answers and create a Frequently Asked Questions tab for your online course. Having a single place where you can send students with common questions is a major time saver.
Consider having virtual office hours. Sure, one of the benefits of online teaching is the freedom of not being stuck in an office at regular intervals, waiting for students to show up. But sometimes it can be a help to you and your students to have virtual office hours every so often. Consider having a few hours a semester during which you will be available online, and let your students know as soon as possible, so they can arrange to be a part of it.
I find that if I hold my virtual office hours during student-friendly times—late at night, a weekend morning—I will have more students participating. Not only do they like the idea of having instant access, but they know that you are there for them.
Use and reuse rubrics, guidelines, and previous models of success. If you find that the same issues keep coming up (Can I turn in my work early? Late? How long does this paper have to be? Is this going to be on the test?), then consider creating clear rubrics for your class.
Did a student in a previous semester create a particularly successful project? Think about posting it online (with the author's permission), so your students can model their work similarly. Create guidelines as you set up the assignment. Take the time to think through what you expect students to achieve. Post the rubrics in a clear and logical place. Not only will this help students produce better work, but it could also reduce the amount of time you spend online evaluating their work.
Avoid giving out personal contact information. This is important, unless you really want your students to be calling you at all hours. Several colleges require that communication between faculty members and students occur through official channels (office phone numbers and/or institutional e-mail) to avoid potential issues. Check with your institution to see if there is such a requirement. If not, consider setting one anyway.
Don't forget: They are your students, not your friends. When a friend sends me a message through e-mail or on Facebook, I can choose whether to respond. I can decide if I want to be serious, casual, humorous, or something else. When I respond to my students, however, I remember that they are not my friends. Be respectful, create some kind of response within a reasonable time frame (often that means within 24 hours), and make sure you are clear about your next communication.
In an online communication, I cannot rely on visual, verbal, or body cues that would fill in necessary gaps about the message I am conveying. I need considering the message and the implications of my response. I need to make sure that I express myself with as little ambiguity as possible. And save those messages in an online file in case you need to access them later.
In a Web-based course, mutual respect between you and your students comes in part from good management of your online time. By thinking through some of the challenges and employing a few creative strategies to limit the incessant need to be online for each of your students, you will find that the time you do spend with them is a more enjoyable and enriching experience.