The last five years have seen vast changes in the use of the Internet in higher education and a tremendous increase of faculty involvement in online teaching. Young points out that online teaching redefines faculty members’ schedules. While many instructors consider flexibility a significant advantage of online teaching, others may find that their workload increases due to the heavy time investment in course planning and find themselves becoming “24 hour professors” in order to be responsive to student inquiries while teaching. If online education is to continue to grow, faculty will have to develop effective time management strategies.
Instructors need to develop new time management skills when transitioning to online teaching. While it is recognized that instructors need to develop new time management skills when transitioning to online teaching, there is little discussion in the literature regarding what strategies instructors can take to manage the time demands for teaching online courses. Based on the interviews of a dozen experienced online instructors from a successful online graduate program and analyses of their online courses, this article presents six strategies for time management in online courses.
Time Management Strategies
Because an online course is quite different from a Face To Face class, a new online instructor needs to learn some specific strategies in order to manage the class well. Below are six proven strategies for time management in teaching an online course.
1. Write concisely and clearly
Because writing is a major, and sometime the only, channel of communication in an online class, the importance of clear and concise writing of the course materials cannot be over-emphasized. If one student finds a sentence unclear, the instructor will need to spend valuable additional time responding to clarify. Five or ten minutes of additional time for polishing a message or task instructions before distributing or publishing may save hours in clarifying later.
Writing for digital media is different from writing for print media. The text on screen is usually harder to read than on paper because of lower resolution and because the text appears and disappears in a moment as there can only be one page on screen at a time. Below is some of the advice from this book that relates most directly to online course material planning and creation.
- Shorten the text
- Cut any paper-based text by 50%
- Make each paragraph short
- Move vital but tangential or supplemental material to the sidebar
- Beware of cutting so far that you make the text ambiguous
- Make text scannable
- Create a meaningful title
- Insert meaningful headlines and subheads
- Highlight key words, phrases, and links
- Turn any series into a bulleted or numbered list
2. Organize information in an easy-to-follow order
In order to minimize student confusion and sense of being lost, course materials should be presented in a way that all students can follow while generally meeting the instructor intent. As noted below, this can be achieved in several ways:
- Chunk materials into weekly modules
You can also mark the start and end dates for each module. If the course materials mandate larger units, it is still important to mark the units with numbers and date them.
- Write a “Read Me First” document for each module
In this document, the instructor should provide guidelines on how to use the other materials in the module. Often there are multiple folders or documents in each module. A document titled “Read Me First” is hard to miss and will significantly reduce confusion among online students and class guests.
- Label optional readings
Instructors can overload students by providing too much information online. Making nonessential information optional can focus student attention on the more pertinent information and avoid overwhelming some students while giving other students opportunities to explore beyond course requirements.
3. Be explicit and emphatic about the time requirement in the syllabus
Instructors usually spell out their rules regarding assignment due dates and participation in their syllabi. In an online course, because the instructor cannot read the syllabus to the class, it is even more important to direct students’ attention to course guidelines and policies.
- Be extremely clear about the assignment due dates and times. Because students may be located in different time zones, the instructor must be clear about the time zone of each deadline. In addition, because distance students often have full-time jobs, you need to keep that in mind while deciding the assignment submission time. In the event of any necessary course scheduling change, be sure to make it as early as possible and allow students some flexibility in meeting the new requirement.
- Be clear about the turnaround time for responding and stick to it. Researchers recognize that turn-around in distance education is important because when receiving feedback or guidance on assignments late, students may sometimes feel “a lack of support which could sap their confidence”. Thus, one should establish students’ expectations of instructor feedback patterns from the beginning.
4. Manage asynchronous discussions
Asynchronous discussions, which can increase the interactivity of the online learning environment when well used, are highly popular in Web-based courses. However, the time distributions for live classroom discussions and asynchronous discussions are vastly different. Below are some tips related to how to effectively manage asynchronous discussions:
- Instead of the sequential presentation of cases for discussion in the traditional classroom, an online instructor might present multiple discussion topics at the same time over a longer period of time. Keeping each topic open for discussion for a week allows students to find a time during the week that is most convenient for them to participate.
- Be explicit about the participation rules. Students need to know how often they are expected to participate in online discussions. It is also quite common that certain students are always the first ones to post their answers to the discussion questions, which can be unfair to the other students. In such a case, the instructor can assign a rotating list of students to spearhead a discussion.
- Post answers to frequently asked questions in a public area. When teaching online, the same question may come up repeatedly. Instructors may use the announcement area to post answers to individual student’s questions so as to benefit the whole class while saving their own time.
- Set a rule regarding your own participation. The instructor should make it clear to the class at the beginning of the discussion activity whether he or she will actively participate in discussion. If there will be instructor participation, then it should also be made clear to the students of what nature, how often, and at what time the instructor’s participation can be expected. This way, the instructor can refrain from checking and posting too often, which can be a burden to both the instructor and the students.
5. Take advantage of the technical tools available
Often tools are available in the CMS to help instructors increase work efficiency.
- The toolkit includes various customized discussion forums, such as Q&A Forum, Round Robin Forum, and Court Forum, each of which provides a unique feature that a regular discussion forum does not offer.
- Another tool in the E-Learning Toolkit is the Hand-in System, which allows the batch processing function of a large number of files. When the class size is large (e.g., over 30 students), downloading and uploading student assignments can be tedious and time consuming. The system is designed to match up the original file and the graded file automatically for students to pick up.
- As many instructors have done, making your instructional needs known to your program head, peers, and technical support staff can often help to identify or develop new tools that can save time and increase work efficiency.
6. Utilize other resources
- Share course ideas and materials with departmental colleagues. Although it takes additional time and effort for instructors teaching online courses to meet physically, instructors may find that the time they spend sharing ideas in faculty brown bags is well-spent in the long run. In programs where the faculty members are residential, such meetings can be extremely beneficial in helping faculty share strategies and create a sense of community.
- Make use of the resources available on the Internet. Some monumental content sharing initiatives have been undertaken in North America to establish free online learning resources. By utilizing these resources, instructors can reduce the time needed for developing similar materials themselves.
How to manage time in teaching online courses can be an enormous challenge for online instructors. In this article, we offer many strategies that have proven effective in the courses taught by a group of experienced online instructors at Indiana University. By utilizing these strategies, both instructors and students can enjoy the convenience of online teaching and learning without getting lost, feeling overwhelmed, or sacrificing the instructional quality and overall learning outcomes.