Image: National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress
I’ve been teaching both online and hybrid courses for years at my community college, but last semester marked the first time I taught my entire five-course schedule online. Again and again, as the semester progressed, my thoughts returned to the issue of time. No, teaching entirely online did not give me more time to myself. Nor did it offer what I could uncomplicatedly call “a more flexible schedule.” But it did profoundly alter my sense of what timing means in the virtual classroom.
With so many vibrant technological tools and apps available now, the danger for the online instructor is that you start to assume content is king. You build a wide array of exciting jazz-hands content only to realize — in the strong light of the unfolding present — that you’ve left half your class behind. It is easy for your course material to slide out-of-sync with where your students are at any given moment, like watching a film where the video and audio don’t match.
Some say that’s the nature of online teaching. It’s “asynchronous” by definition, with different students learning the material at different times and in different places. But that conceptualization is ultimately false. There is no such thing, I’ve come to conclude, as asynchronous teaching. All good teaching has to be synchronous — timely, in step, and in tune.
Online teaching should be “just-in-time” teaching. I’m not just referring to the “just-in-time” model in which instructors design Web assignments and then adjust their teaching for the day’s class based on the results (although there is much to be admired in that approach). What I mean is even more simple than that: Instructors need to be every bit as mindful of timeliness and urgency in an online course as they are in a face-to-face classroom, and maybe even more so. In a traditional classroom, you wouldn’t normally answer a student’s question with, “I’ll get back to you on that in a few days,” or worse, with a sort of blank, unreadable stare (“Did the professor hear me? Do I even exist?”). But that is the impression created when you fail to respond to emails in a timely manner or leave essays sitting unattended in an online folder.
Does that mean online instructors need to be on call 24-7? No. It is perfectly acceptable to maintain business hours, or to set your own quirky hours, so long as you communicate those time limits to your students. But on the other hand, think of how meaningful it is to you — how cared for you feel — when you pose a question and get a near-immediate reply. Think of how much momentum is lost in a face-to-face class if a discussion is interrupted by, say, a fire drill. There’s something powerful about “now,” which is why I try to deliver “now” to my online students as much as I can. If that means responding at 6 a.m., or 10 p.m., so be it.
Update course content frequently. It helps to create and maintain a feeling of intimacy that is so difficult to establish — and so easily lost — in an online course. While you may have some static contact preloaded from semester to semester, I believe most content should emerge out of the evolving needs of the particular population of students in the course.
In a writing course, for instance, I could logically guess at which point students will need to learn about thesis statements (or unlearn that bit of hogwash about squeezing a thesis down into just one sentence). But rather than plugging that lesson into the syllabus under Week No. 3, it sends a far more powerful message for me to wait until my students raise the issue themselves and then respond. First it conveys to students that I’m listening and that I trust them enough to let their needs drive my lessons. Second it shows them that something actually happens in response to discussion or an assignment.
Does that mean I never raise certain points of content unless the students do? Of course not, but I am likely to preface my addition by saying something like: “So far Sam has raised the issue of X, and Mei responded with her very nice outline of Y, but one topic that nobody has mentioned yet is Z.”
An online course, like any course, needs to be a conversation, first and foremost, with teacherly support blooming out of the context provided by the students themselves.
Standardize your course schedule. With students checking in at various points, it is up to the teacher to create some moments of unified class time. In online courses, students are generally free to take advantage of looser scheduling, completing assignments on Monday and Wednesday one week, and on Tuesday and Thursday another week. But I strongly recommend that you not take the same liberties in structuring your due dates or grading. I have seen online courses in which due dates were rotated on three-day, four-day, and five-day cycles, to the confusion of all.
Instead, I standardize my due dates — discussion posts are due on Tuesdays and Thursdays, all other projects on Fridays by noon, for example. I also stick to specific grading times, because students want, and deserve, to know when they will receive feedback. So with rare exceptions, I give out grades on all major assignments within three days. I am as explicit as possible about when exactly I’ll be doing my grading: “I expect to be grading these assignments on Sunday afternoon, so look for my responses then.” If I have to vary my schedule, I announce the change: “I’m a little behind, but will be completing this round of grading on Monday between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.” Such small courtesies matter an extraordinary amount to online students.
Remember to both look forward and gesture back. Because different course materials are often sequestered in different folders or on different screens, it is important for online instructors to consciously build bridges between past, present, and future information. To that end:
- I frequently provide quick-and-dirty summaries of past topics, both for reinforcement and review: “Discussion so far looks great! We have been talking about such things as why literature is more like biology than you would think, about the Rhetorical Triangle, and about the differences between literary, pragmatic, and pleasure reading.”
- Then I might connect that content to new material: “Both the broad question of how you ‘dissect’ a literary text and the interactions of the Rhetorical Triangle lead directly into our reading for Thursday, where we will consider different modes of literary criticism.”
- Finally, I might suggest ways to integrate old and new content: “Does it make sense to attempt to map the different schools of literary criticism against the Rhetorical Triangle? That’s an experiment I’ll urge you to try in our next discussion.”
Plenty of research has demonstrated that the quality of a faculty member’s presence in an online class makes an enormous difference. But less well examined is how much that depends on the instructor being timely, responsive, and present. Far from being untethered, the online teaching environment requires a careful consideration of temporal uses and abuses, in the hopes that an auspicious time is had by all.