Got Time? A Time Management Strategy for Online Instructors

Course instructors who teach online rank flexibility as one of the biggest motivators and benefits of teaching in the virtual environment, yet ‘time’ can also be a barrier to effective teaching. Instructors may find themselves either overwhelmed by the demands of teaching online or struggle to fit it into an already full schedule.

What is the best method to manage time when there are no set course hours, when the classroom is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week? What teaching activities do online course instructors spend most of their time on?  In this post I begin by addressing  the differences in the time investment required for teaching an online versus face-to-face class. I’ll follow with a Time Management Strategy for Online Instructors based on the latest research in online instruction from credible sources including feedback from professors who teach online and in face-to-face credit classes.

Time to Teach: Classroom versus Online?
How does the time investment differ between online and face-to-face teaching?  What does the course instructor spend time doing if not lecturing as in a face-to-face class? With expanding enrollments of online education, faculty and higher education administrators are asking these questions. There is considerable literature that addresses the topic. I found several studies that support each side, yet the consensus among the research suggests that teaching online involves less of a time commitment from the course instructor than does a face-to-face class (Van de Vord & Pogue, 2012), (Lazarus, 2003). How much less was not clarified.

These findings are consistent with feedback from professors at my workplace. In a survey conducted recently with online instructors, I asked several questions about their teaching experience, including the average number of hours spent each week teaching their online course. The results were consistent with research in Teaching Courses Online: How Much Time Does It Take? Average number of hours, which did not include curriculum development time, set-up or development of course home page, was ten to twelve per week.  Further research needs to be done to identify best teaching practices, pedagogical methods and the skills associated with effective teaching online, rather than the number of hours it takes in comparison to face-to face.

What Online Instructors Spend Time On
It is worthwhile to analyze what instructors are spending their time on when teaching online. By identifying required behaviours and skills, we can begin to develop a model of skills required, and pedagogical training that is needed to support skill development. For the purpose of this post I’ve used this data to create a time management strategy tailored to online instructors.

Below are the five most mentioned teaching behaviours identified in the research and from the feedback of online instructors. The ranking begins with the teaching activity that involved the highest time commitment, and descends from there. This is not a scientific analysis, but I included the list to provide an overview of the most prevalent online teaching activities (Van de Vord & Pogue, 2012).

  • Interacting with students: moderating discussion forums, responding to student emails
  • Evaluating student work: assignments, papers, discussion forums
  • Recording grades
  • Modifying and making changes to course materials and/or course home page
  • Addressing technical issues/course administration (not including grading)

Time Management Strategy for Online Instructors
Below is the customized strategy for instructors based upon the research and feedback mentioned earlier in this post.

1. Establish blocks of time each week for instructional activities. Online instructors appear to be most successful when scheduling one, two or three-hour time blocks into their calendar.

  • Make it a habit to log on daily to respond to questions, post materials or messages.
  • Larger blocks of time may be needed for evaluating student work.
  • Moderate discussions on set schedule. Rather than being involved each day, try to strategically participate, three times [days] in a given discussion week.

2. Communicate frequently with a concise messages on the announcement section of the course home page.

  • Communicating regularly with students using the announcement board, can save time. By anticipating questions, you might reduce the number of student emails. For example should you receive two or more questions from students (emails) of the same theme, consider posting a class announcement clarifying the given topic. If more than one student has a question on a concept or assignment, chances are several others do as well.
  • Outline for students’ how and when they will expect to hear from you with regards to questions and/or turn-around times on grading

3. Involve Students in Peer Grading and Peer-mentoring in Discussion Forums.

  • Interaction with students ranks as the top activity for instructors. Though it is high-quality exchanges between student and instructor that supports meaningful learning, peer-to-peer interaction can also enhance learning.
  • Consider a small group assignment, where a large class is divided into small groups. Create an activity where group members engage in discussion, and rate each others contributions at the end of the given time period. Another option is to create team of two or three students to be discussion facilitators for a given week. Each group would have a turn at being responsible for guiding the class discussion for an assigned week. Each group member would evaluate the other.

4.  Establish an efficient system for grading.

  • Grading, evaluating student assignments appears to take up much of the instructors time. Providing quality and constructive feedback is a critical component to online learning since this is one of the only ways students receive personal feedback from the instructor. This allows the student to learn and construct new knowledge.
  • Consider using a screen cast program for giving feedback on assignments, or record an audio clip of verbal feedback that you can email to students. This may be a time-saver.
  • Ensure your time is spent grading efficiently and that you are using all of the grading tools available through your LMS. Is there a more efficient way to grade the papers, while still giving quality feedback. In our system we discovered many professors were taking several unnecessary steps when grading.

5. Managing your time when teaching online. An excellent five-minute clip from COFA’s Learning to Teach Online series, by College of Fine Arts (COFA), The University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney, Australia.

Online instructors require a distinct set of pedagogical and time management skills based upon the uniqueness of the online learning environment. Activities that instructors implement when teaching online varies greatly from that of the face-to-face instructor.  A time management strategy that considers the factors and nuances of teaching online should include, a time blocking strategy, communicating frequently with students collectively in anticipation of potential questions, involving students in peer reviews and discussions, and creating an efficient grading strategy. If you have a time management strategy that works for you and would like to share it with us, please comment.

Instructor Presence in the Online Classroom

Teacher
Teacher Presence: A given in the face-to-face classroom (flickr - CC)

Establishing instructor presence in the online classroom is one of the many challenges for the teacher in the online environment. Is it possible to establish a sense of ‘being there’, a climate for learning and student engagement  while not being physically ‘there’? In my last post we saw an excellent video introducing the concept –  let’s dig in a bit further.

From a student’s perspective
First, let me describe how I would define instructor presence from a student’s perspective. I’ve taken several online courses, and currently I’m enrolled in two. I’ve felt when a prof is there and part of the class, and when the prof is MIA [missing in action] or in absentia. Let me use an analogy of a ghost town to help describe it – a ghost town has the facade of a ‘normal’ town, but is empty – eerie and … lonely. This is what it can feel like when logging onto a course home page, without an instructor being involved, it seems empty  :(.

The online classroom without instructor presence - similar to a Ghost Town (istock image)

This sense of non-instructor involvement can be somewhat unnerving for the student, and potentially overwhelming all at the same time.  I do realize that most  professors may be completely unaware of how their students feel. Hence my effort to explain it – though professor presence is a rather elusive concept.

The Instructor’s Role
The instructor’s role is critical to learning, whether in the face-to-face classroom or online. Studies on distance learning supports the assumption that instructor-to-student, and student-to-student (social presence) interaction is a critical component of learning, and an important factor in learner satisfaction, which leads to learning effectiveness. According to research by Blignaut and Trollip, “Being silent [the instructor] in an online classroom is equivalent to being invisible” and “presence requires action”.

How to Create Online Presence
Though not a tremendous amount of research in this area, there are some solid resources to draw from. As mentioned in previous posts, the book from Jossey Bass, Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Learning  is a good place to start. Below are several other suggestions from available literature:

  • Online instructors’ participation in the online course discussion threads is essential.
  • As stated by one instructor, “When you teach in the classroom, you talk; when you teach online, you participate in threaded discussions. If an instructor is not participating in the threaded discussions, the course becomes a correspondence event rather than an online learning experience.”
  • Use announcement forums or professor news board [within your lms] to communicate with students collectively throughout each week – this helps maintain the focus on learning objectives.
  • Use email, Skype, video messages and/or  feedback on student submitted assignments for instructor-student communication.
  • Instructor presence in the online classroom requires careful planning and foresight, at the earliest stages of course development.
  • Further to the above comment, creating instructor or teaching presence, involves creating a carefully designed course (see diagram below) involving opportunities for interaction and feedback. Threaded discussions are a backbone to interaction.
Published on EdTechTalk (http://edtechtalk.com)