Handle it once
- Email – if a message requires a reply or an action, do it right then. Put emails that need to be kept, but not acted on, in a specific folder before closing them. If the email is pure junk or not needed, delete it, don't keep it… just in case.
- Discussions – make note of important contributions while reading discussion postings. Keep a gradesheet hard copy handy or have a spreadsheet open to make notes while reading.
- Assignments – make notes or grade assignments as they arrive. Add to the filename so that it is immediately clear which items have been graded. For example WongMPowerPoint.ppt would become WongMPowerPointGRADED.ppt *
- Focused Thinking – This chart by Learning Fundamentals is helpful for all online instructors in the age of distraction.
Respond to student questions efficiently
- If a student asks a great question via email, and you think other students may also ask the same question, reply personally to the student by email, and ask the student to copy/paste his/her question and the instructor’s reply into the course Q&A forum for other students to read.
- If more than one student emails with the same question, then there is a need to respond to the whole group. Period! There is likely widespread area of confusion for the majority in the course. This can be handled by posting a news announcement in the course site, an all-class email, or a Q&A posting on the discussion board. Adding an attention-getting image to a news announcement helps insure that students see it.
- If the question is procedural, such as how to do something in the course management system, create a quick Jing video with an audio explanation to show students how to proceed. Accompany this with a transcript for those who have accessibility or technical issues with the video.
- If a student asks a question which has already been answered in a news announcement or in the Q&A forum on the discussion board, direct the student to that spot to read the answer. Answering it again by email encourages the student to email when he/she should be checking the course news for answers as step one in problem solving.
- If more than one student has a question, there may be an issue with unclear directions or explanations in the course materials. Consider revising the assignment to resolve the problem for next term.
- Analyze the instructor welcome email and the first few news announcements to make sure the preliminary info provides good support for students and minimizes "how to begin" questions as the course starts.
"Billable hours" in E-Learning
- Make time count, if it is something that the student won't notice, don't do it. For example, don't spend more time leaving comments than they spent doing the assignment. If it is something the students can do for EACH OTHER, or for themselves, have them do it. For example, establish a Q & A forum as the first topic area on the discussion board. Require students to post questions in this area of the discussion board BEFORE sending an email to the instructor and encourage students to assist each other. This forum will need to be monitored to provide assistance as needed, though in many cases students will help resolve each others' issues without instructor assistance.
- Use e-tools for student self-reflection or self-grading, i.e., e-forms, e-journals etc.
- Use keyboard shortcuts to save time (and it will help prevent physical issues such as wrist problems caused by overusing the mouse). Use the Help menu in the word processor and search for keyboard shortcuts. These will become second nature in no time. Ctrl+C for Copy, Ctrl+V for Paste, Ctrl+Z to Undo the last action, Alt+A to Save As a file (such as when renaming it after grading, see above), Shift+Tab to move backwards in a form, are just a few commonly used keyboard shortcuts.
- Use desktop shortcuts too. For example, if a major assignment is due and the folder has to be opened frequently, make a shortcut on the desktop to save time navigating to the file. On a PC right click on an empty area of the desktop, choose New/Shortcut from the menu. Navigate to the folder and save. This shortcut can be deleted when the need for it has passed.
- As the course begins, inform students about projected turnaround times, virtual office hours, and vacation schedule. The attached sample policy should be included in your course Syllabus, for example. Let students know how soon they will receive a response if they email a question. Also describe the expected turnaround time when grading assignments. Let students know that teaching online is not a 24/7 job. *
- Have an organized workspace to avoid hunting for things all the time. Avoid sharing this workspace with co-workers or family members. If others use the space then things will not remain organized.
- Create a cheatsheet in a prominent place in the course site with phone numbers and email addresses of the library support staff and university technical help desk. Direct students to those resources if they are having difficulty.
- All documents for a class should be in one folder on the computer; each section should have its own folder; each week/assignment its own folder. Here is an example of such a folder tree. All the Week Two assignments for the course section that began 11/9/10 are in the folder for the university, in this case, Assessment.
- Use tools like Del.icio.us, Diigo, and Scoop.it to keep course resource links organized.
- Use a calendar to keep track of assignment due dates, course start dates etc. Most online instructors are scheduled well in advance, and course start/end dates are easy to forget when the contractual communication about teaching the course occurred months ago.
- Create an online course calendar with due dates and deadlines. Post it in a central location in the course management system where it’s easy for students to check each day. Do not post any dates within the content/modules. This will reduce course maintenance time each semester, as there will be only one place to update due dates. This reduces the chance of having information in two places that does not match.
- Find a quiet place with no distractions. Sounds simple, but this is a key to staying focused on the task at hand.
- Learn how to flag and prioritize emails.*
- Don't answer email while grading. Handle email at specific times each day and don't be tempted to check it at other times. Whatever it is, it can wait, and it is just a distraction from other 'less interesting' tasks.
- Take breaks. Productivity will increase if short breaks are taken regularly
Establish email and file naming protocols and train students
- Emails from students should be required to have a signature line with the student's full name. The instructor will not know, and probably doesn't want to know who email@example.com is. Besides it is more professional to include a full signature.*
- Emails should have a proper subject line to distinguish the email from SPAM and to make prioritization easier when determining who to help first when swamped. Proper subject lines also allow the use of rules in an email program to sort incoming mail into folders before opening the individual email.*
- Establish file naming protocols such as last name first initial. This means that the student assignment files in the folder will be in the same order as the gradebook. *
Use a quiz or scavenger hunt to explain class policies
- Students will more likely follow course policies that they have read. A pre-course agreement or syllabus quiz are ways to make sure that students read important policies.
- State course policies very clearly. Having to deal with students who are looking for loopholes is time-consuming. Establish clear policies, along with some certainty that students have read the policies before the course begins, and save time answering emails from the Loophole Generation.
- Quiz questions should include questions which always arise early in the course such as when are assignments due or what the requirements are for discussion participation and how will discussion postings be graded.
Organize the discussion forums
- Avoid checking for postings to the discussions or submissions to the Dropbox several times a day. This is not necessary. Set a schedule such as checking for new discussion postings only once a day. Check the course home page for new posts or submissions at a glance.
- Establish a subject line protocol for discussion postings. Create a subject that conveys the main point of the comment. (No more than ten words). This requires the author to summarize and helps with learning. It provides the other students with an advance organizer which helps in organizing and prioritizing response postings.
- If the class size is sixteen or more students, consider creating groups of eight students where students can discuss, debate, and interact. This will create less reading for everyone. Some instructors limit students to responding to three other students’ original postings per forum topic. This may vary based on the class size. Structure the discussion to a routine such as “post your original no later than Wednesday, and then make your responses no later than Sunday night.”
- Reorder the discussion forums so that the current week/module’s forums are at the top of the page. This saves the time it would take to scroll down and locate the correct forum.
Use the right tools
- Use comment features in word processing programs to leave notes throughout complex/lengthy papers.
- As already stated, use Del.icio.us and other bookmark sites to keep track of bookmarks no matter what computer is being used. When working on a laptop and a desktop, this eliminates transferring bookmark files.
- Use a flash drive or other portable storage to backup the hard drive, remember to back up the flash drive as well.*
- Split the computer screen to see the assignment and a spreadsheet/gradebook at the same time.
- If graduate assistants or interns are available to help with the mundane tasks of online teaching, use them!
Work smarter, not harder, at grading
- Keep comments and news announcements from previous semesters. Organize announcements/news that are posted each semester, welcome letter, commentary on a topic, etc. in Word documents or make it a permanent part of the course within course content, and set release dates at the beginning of each semester.
- Use rubrics to make grading easier and to clarify expectations for the student.
- Establish peer feedback activities using rubrics or checklists to provide an opportunity for students to revise and improve assignments before final submission to the Dropbox.
- Customize feedback comments for each student/course section; students hate (as well they should) canned comments. However there is no reason to type out everything again if some comments remain the same from student to student or section to section. Adapt or reuse them next semester. *
- Spread out the grading. Schedule self-graded or shorter assignments after a long, complex assignment to allow time and energy for grading the longer assignment properly. Carefully set due dates so that a two day turnaround time for grading assignments is possible.
- Link the Dropbox folders to the gradebook to facilitate faster grading and feedback.
- If appropriate, wait until shortly after the due date of an assignment and download an entire folder at one time.
- Each person has a daily cycle when he or she is most alert; schedule that time for online work. Determine the best time of day to check and respond to email. Flag and prioritize emails.
- What is an overload for some instructors is not for others. Before accepting teaching assignments, look at the other assignments already accepted for that time slot and consider whether the workload is too heavy. Factor in family obligations and planned vacations when considering personal work capacity.
- Record notes each week in a teaching journal identifying thoughts about revisions for the next semester. Some fixes like broken links can be done on the fly during the current run, but others, like the rewriting of a section, need to wait until the students are no longer present. At the end of the semester, reflect on the notes and adjust as needed.
* Items marked with an asterisk are copied or adapted from How to be a Great Online Teacher (2004) by Kay Lehmann. Available from Amazon.