Ashley Hall is an Assistant Professor in the Rusche College of Business at Stephen F. Austin State University.
Your cellphone vibrates on the table and your email continues to ding on your nearby open laptop. Is it standard working hours, after hours, the weekend? Sometimes the lines seem to blur when teaching online. Since online education is available to students anytime/anywhere, the result can be a 24/7 on-call feeling that is hard for instructors to navigate.
If you’re not careful, the line between home and work can become nonexistent—leading to issues with work-life balance and even burnout. As you incorporate instructor presence into your course, students will see you as a person with a life outside of work, not just a robot on the other side of the computer waiting to answer emails and grade work.
Three Tips to Beat that On-call Feeling
1. Set Clear Guidelines
Outline your availability and response time in your course syllabus and learning management system. By clearly articulating your class procedures from the beginning of the semester, students will know what to expect. In addition to a response time guideline such as “emails are returned within 24 hours,” consider adding a clarifying statement such as “during the work week” if that applies to the procedures you have established for yourself.
Another thing to consider including in your guidelines is a cutoff time for getting a reply before an assignment is due. For example, you may include a statement like, “Emails received after 9 p.m. on the day the assignment is due will likely not receive a response before the deadline.” This can encourage students to look ahead and ask questions earlier than a few hours before the deadline.
A key element related to setting clear guidelines is to actually follow them! Be consistent in following your established guidelines in order to help your students and your sanity.
2. Implement an Effective Course Structure
The structure of the course can help reduce the number of questions received. Consider using a consistent structure from week to week so that students know what to expect. Likewise, link information or assignments in a consistent manner to reduce confusion over how to access or submit assignments. Think through potential pain points in the course and try to proactively address questions or concerns.
By having assignments due on the same day of the week, the number of last-minute panicked emails can be reduced. Similarly, consider when students are likely to be working on the assignment and when you are available. If you decide not to check emails on the weekends but have assignments due on Sunday night, a student would have to ask any questions by Friday, two days before the deadline. Instead, you could consider modifying the course structure with an alternative assignment due date that is closer to a time when you are available.
3. Utilize One or More Communication Channels Such as Course Announcements
Teaching online can lead to more emails since students cannot hear other students asking questions and receiving a response like they would in a classroom. When students expect rapid responses to questions, this can contribute to the on-call feeling for the instructor.
One way to help with this is to utilize course announcements. These announcements can be video- or text-based, allowing you to communicate with the entire class at once versus relying solely on individual communication. If a student asks a question that you think others may have as well, consider posting the question and answer in a course announcement. This may keep you from having to answer the same question multiple times.
Announcements can also be used to provide updates to temper the desire for immediate feedback. For example, is an assignment taking you longer to grade than you expected? Let students know via a course announcement. Will you be unavailable to reply at a time when you have typically been available? A course announcement can help students know what to expect ahead of time.
By setting (and following!) clear guidelines, implementing a consistent, effective course structure and utilizing one or more communication channels like course announcements, students will better understand what to expect in your course. In turn, these strategies will help you beat the 24/7 on-call feeling when teaching online.
Office hours are another way to structure your time as an instructor, while giving students the virtual assistance they need. Get Shawn Orr’s top five tips for getting students to attend your office hours online.
Looking for simple tweaks you can make to improve your online instruction? Check out our webinar, “Life Hacks” to Enhance Your Online Course Today.