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Time Management Tips for Online Teaching

Managing time as an academic is tough. Work seeps into every crevice of life, and there’s never enough time for all the reading and writing you want to do.

If you’re a teaching academic, you’ll be juggling marking. When marking, time is quantifiable. In my discipline, marking an assignment can take between half an hour to an hour to mark. The better the assignment, the quicker to mark as a rule. If I have 100 students, I can complete marking for those students in 50 hours, at best, and at worst 100 hours.

Assuming I do nothing else for the week and work the standard 40 hour week, it will take me (at best, with no lunch-breaks) one and a half weeks if I don’t work the weekend and at night. If we factor in a few rest-breaks, lunch, phone calls and some meetings in a two week period, it becomes clear as to how marking becomes all-consuming. A simple lunch with colleagues amounts to two assignments I could mark – a phone call amounts to another. Each task you do that isn’t marking just prolongs the inevitable – those assignments have to be marked.

It makes me feel a little overwhelmed just thinking about it now, but I rarely get overwhelmed in practice. This is because I have developed simple techniques to help manage my time. The bigger the class, the more organised I need to be.

I am often asked to share my practice, and these are my top 5 tips for time management when working with large online assessment-based (not MOOC) classes.

  1. Set online contact hours and stick to them. Tell students you will respond to emails AND discussion forums during these hours routinely. Then DON’T respond to students outside those hours. I set my contact hours three times per week, with one block at night during term so distance students can call/email me and get a response immediately. If I work at night after my contact hours have finished, I save emails as drafts and send them during my next contact period. Sticking to this can be tough. In large classes, however, it’s essential. It’s often tempting to do the easy work and ‘just answer quickly’. But when you have a lot of online students, doing this will suck you into a ‘response vortex’ and students become less inclined to solve their own problems. My management tactic was to create a category in Microsoft Outlook for ‘Students’. I categorise student emails as they come in, and respond to them during my contact periods. It’s critical, if you work like this, to stick to your set hours. Treat them as though you are in class – your students should have your full and undivided attention during these periods.
  2. Don’t respond to assessment-related questions by email. There’s a good chance that other students have similar questions about assessment. Even if they don’t, any question you answer about assessment will help other students think about their assignments. Advise students that you’ll only respond to assessment questions via the forum. Leave email for personal issues. Most class forums or discussion boards these days have effective search functions. Show students how to use this to search for a topic or your name. I ask students to search for posts by me before they ask a question, just to make sure it hasn’t already been covered. Being assertive doesn’t mean you have to be rude. I may reply by email with a response the first time but I will also advise the student that I will post their question and my reply on the forum. I also make a point of responding to forum posts before emails as this encourages the ‘forum first’ approach. Students start to help one another out while they wait (not too long, but long enough) for my response. It doesn’t take long for collegiality to start to kick in.
  3. Create a Frequently Asked Questions page on your unit web site. If multiple students are asking the same question about the assignment, then there’s a flaw in your assessment design somewhere. For example, the instructions might not be clear or the task is too complex. Nonetheless, an FAQ page can help address regular questions and then help you evaluate your practice at the end of term. I ask students to check the FAQ page and search the forums before asking a question. I also let them know that I’ll be updating the FAQ page as common questions arise.
  4. Use the phone. Distance students can feel isolated, so not only is getting a phone call about an issue often quicker to solve a problem – it also helps build relationships. If I see a question on a forum that I sense is a real issue or has the potential to become more problematic (for whatever reason), I’ll respond generally on the forum but also make an individual phone call. I make these phone calls during contact hours. One phone call can save many hours of work later.
  5. Set students up for success and give good feedback the first time around. Students who don’t understand what they did wrong, and care about their learning, will challenge teachers who don’t provide clear feedback. Making limited comments, and then only grading the student a ‘Pass’ rather than a higher grade – without making reference to where they can improve – is poor practice. Giving meaningful feedback quickly and in a way that targets the individual can be time consuming, but effort put in from the outset will be paid off when students don’t return for a review of grade and when their work improves. Higher quality submissions will take less time to mark. Using exemplars, walking through examples, and identifying common errors from previous terms all takes a bit of time to set up but will save HEAPS of time in the longer run.

My largest unit these days is around 300 students, and sometimes I’m teaching a couple of other units at the same time with much smaller numbers. That means I must be across multiple unit outlines and assessment.

Students who work with me know the rules, and many say they appreciate the routine – it seems to help them manage their own time too. They also appreciate the personal contact when there is a more complex problem to solve…and the only reason I have the time to do this is because I’m not answering the same question 100 times.

I don’t work weekends as a rule unless it’s a marking block, although I do work nights during term. When I’m not in contact hours these days, I’m reviewing papers, doing some research, reading interesting articles, or working with postgraduate students.

Time much better spent.

Using video in distance education teaching materials

Once again, it’s time to review student feedback, and student still indicate a desire (not huge, but present) to have a formal lecture. It’s an interesting dilemma to consider as a course developer – students appear to want what they do not then appear to use.

We have moved away from formal one/two hour lectures for a range of reasons. These include:

  • research continues to indicate long class-based lectures are less effective ways to teach concepts, and they are very ‘teacher-centric’;
  • on-campus students don’t turn up, so you can be teaching for an hour to a couple of students if class numbers aren’t huge;
  • recording of long lectures for distance students takes up bandwidth and includes lead-in issues with technology;
  • recording of long lectures creates a ‘dip in and out’ mentality for on-campus students who don’t come to class but then don’t fully engage as a distance student and don’t read associated resources (effectively only getting part of ‘the story’); and
  • general technology issues, such as sound and vision quality associated with recording a class-based lecture.

Our university has developed a wonderful analytic system that allows us to view the popularity of resources. In my recent class (Term 2, 2014) of 188 media writing students, 73 of whom studied online, the statistics speak for themselves.

During term I held six online lecture sessions (one per fortnight) whereby students could log in online. Each lecture focused on core concepts covered during the course of the fortnight, with attention to what we were looking for in assessment. Numbers included:

  • Session 1 (Week 2) – seven attended, 75 viewed
  • Session 2 (Week 4) – five attended, 46 viewed
  • Session 3 (Week 6) – six attended, 50 viewed
  • Session 4 (Week 8) – four attended, 18 viewed
  • Session 5 (Week 10) – two attended, 11 viewed
  • Session 6 (Week 12) – one attended, 10 viewed

In addition to these video lectures, there were nine video-based sessions throughout the course. Two of these were associated with orientation, and four with assessment. Three were related to course content, response to one of of which was assessed. Details are below:

Section Video Clicks Comment
Intro About Kate 57 Intro to the Course Coordinator
Into How to search the forum 10
Assessment Overview of Assessment 1 – Criteria 267 Guidance to Assessment 1
Overview of Assessment 2 – Criteria 159 Guidance to Assessment 2
Overview of Assessment 3 – Criteria 139 Guidance to Assessment 3
Assessment Resources An example of how to use Storify 19
Week 4 Why you need a plan 158 Overview of plan. [Students required to summarise for assessment]
Video – Miliband Loop 51
Video Lecture – Miliband Loop 42 CC summary of the Miliband Loop video

Course content is supplemented with the use of PDF files, weblinks, and storify collations.

As expected, there is a clear alignment of access to supplementary materials with assessment. In contrast, PDF files that provided core context throughout term were accessed consistently. For example, Week 1 Study Guide Lesson (448 clicks), Week 2 Study Guide Lesson (338 clicks), down to Week 12 Study Guide Lesson (71 clicks – the lowest).

It was therefore interesting to read Ljubojevic et. al’s research into using supplementary video material in teaching (2014). Their research examined the use of supplementary videos within lectures and involved testing acquired knowledge and quality of experience with supplementary videos. Some key points of their research included:

  • Continual presence of lecture content (ie. long lecture with no video inserts) resulted in the least number of correct answers;
  • Inserting video resulted in a higher number of correct answers regardless of the position or context of supplementary videos; and
  • Memory and better understanding in the learning process may be increased by inserting video clips throughout the learning journey;
  • The biggest influence on efficiency of learning is a method based on inserting videos in the middle of the lecture presentation;
  • The attention of participants was maintained at the highest level during the session with the use of educational supplementary videos, especially if they were inserted in the
    middle of the presentation.
  • Better efficiency is achieved if educational content congruent with the lecture was displayed;
  • Entertainment videos aren’t as efficient, but can be used to engage and motivate student learning.

There are no surprises here.

What’s important to consider, however, is how to convert these to distance education-based practice.

Inserting videos while already ‘online’ for a video lecture is a challenge for both instructors and in Australia, marred by poor-bandwidth as a general concern. Finding critical points to insert video, and then articulate their relevance in learning to students as part of course design is the key.

It can be very time consuming and demanding to prepare and deliver online lectures to a small group of students, especially when you accept that they don’t pre-prepare for class, and generally are attending as passive recipients of ‘how-to’ information. My course design drives student action through assessment, so I’ve actually learned to accept a more passive approach to lecture attendance rather than fight it. My days of spending hours preparing for an interactive and interesting lecture and then having to re-think when only a couple of students turn up are long gone. My video lectures focus on practical problems with walk-throughs of how to do/think/approach something.

My reflection based on this past term is to reduce the number of video lectures, and think about how to create shorter concept-based videos for students. I will perhaps hold two to three longer lectures that pull together ideas or simply allow students to generate questions and topics based around assessment.


Ljubojevic, M., Vaskovic, V., Stankovic, S., & Vaskovic, J. (2014). Using Supplementary Video in Multimedia Instruction as a Teaching Tool to Increase Efficiency of Learning and Quality of Experience. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 15(3).

Online Education and the ‘Cost’ Imperative

I am always interested in the relationship between online education and substandard quality. It was good to read, therefore, a comment piece by Jason Lodge in today’s Conversation. In the article, titled ‘Higher Ed changes will lead to higher fees, more online delivery’, he writes:

To design and effectively deliver high-quality online degree programs, knowledge of the content, the technology, and teaching itself is necessary. It isn’t effective to just bolt new technologies and innovations onto existing pedagogical approaches. Using new tools often requires a complete redesign of learning activities, assessment and the broader curriculum. As new ways of communicating online become available, it is necessary to constantly revisit how to make the most of them.

While I could argue that the headline suggests that online delivery is a bad thing, I won’t go there in this post. The two points I want to make are that online delivery is not necessarily cheaper, and that I agree with Lodge that technology is only one aspect of high quality online delivery. The critical point here is the redesign of learning activities and assessment.

In my experience, technology for the sake of technology is problematic in online delivery. Just because we know that people are starting to grasp the world in ‘fragments’ doesn’t mean that delivering a course in fragments – click here, click there, watch this, comment in this forum, go here to complete this activity – is a satisfactory experience. I recently studied a distance education course and was frustrated by the requirement to be online all the time – all content was web-page only, and all assessment was by wiki/forum post/online interaction. It seemed to be ‘for the sake of being interesting and different’ rather than ‘this will help you meet your learning outcomes’. As an educator in media and journalism, I require students to complete assessment via blogging/Twitter/Storify/SoundCloud/YourListen, so they have to engage with technology. I’ve experimented over the years with different approaches to content delivery – all information on a live web page, information on a word document, information via CD/DVD, information via PDF. As noted in an earlier post, I experimented with Prezi to deliver a staged assessment task, I’ve used video lectures to deliver content, and even contacted students individually to talk through issues.

Ultimately, however, students seem to be happy with the basics. Distance students are by nature motivated and busy. They’ve enrolled in this mode for a reason, generally, and in my experience they want things to be simple. I have reverted to PDF files which are easily downloadable/readable on mobile devices; I’ve stopped doing routine weekly lectures because students might say they want them but our analytics suggest that very few actually watch them and they are extremely time-consuming to develop and deliver (rather, I focus on specific points of issue that require explanation); and I’ve opted for putting the majority of my effort into great assessment design. This, however, is also time consuming. Designing assessment that is scaffolded, allows opportunity for feedback (in some cases on more that one occasion), authentic, and engaging employs significant resources by a team of staff.

A recent example was a news writing course, whereby we redesigned the course so 80% of assessment was writing based, and students needed to write a news story every fortnight based on real events (court/council/local issue). In class, you can ask students to write a story after attending court, for example, and mark it on the day, working through it with students. In this case, I employed an industry mentor who was responsible for advising/supporting/marking half the class so we could turn around assignments within a week. It was the only course I’ve taught by distance which had a 100% completion and pass rate. A great result, but asking for marking assistance for a course with only 15 students in it would be questioned at higher levels.

It’s an example, though, of how those who are great distance educators live in the ‘problem-based teaching’ world. It’s not a case of just delivering mass education via technology to students ‘out there’. It’s a case of developing a learning environment and support structures that so students achieve good outcomes. All my news writing students were writing professional, publishable work by the end of term. It wasn’t cheap, it wasn’t easy, but it was effective and I can be confident that in moving to the next level of their program they’ll be employable before they graduate.

I consider distance education students to be a ‘class’. I set aside contact hours (which would be the same as being in class with students) whereby I am online/available by phone to talk to students. The number of contact hours increases based on the number of students I have, so it’s generally 20 students per two hour contact blocks. This forthcoming term I’ll be responsible for 60 – 80 students across two courses, so that will be three to four contact blocks.

Whether I’m a good educator is not for me to judge – it’s for my students and peers to do this. The point I need to make that those of us passionate about distance education put time and effort into the process. Distance/online education shouldn’t be equated with poor quality. I don’t think the MOOC rush has done us any favours because it’s promoted the idea that education can be ‘massified’ and devalued the assessment process (in my view), but it would be nice to see some empirical data to support the fact that learning can be as valuable/engaging when managed from afar. I’m on a mission to find some.



Theory and Distance Education: A New Discussion (Review)

Simonson, M., Schlosser, C., & Hanson, D. (1999). Theory and Distance Education: A New Discussion. The American Journal of Distance Education. 13(1), 60-75.

This article provides an older perspective on distance education, and is specifically situated in the American experience. It specifically proposes the theory that the distance education should be equivalent to that of the local educational experience. The authors review literature on the development of distance education and arguments about the lack of theoretical support for this development. The article pays particular attention to theories of distance education (theories of independence and autonomy, theories of industrialization of teaching, and theories of interaction and communication) as raised in Keegan’s 1986 book, Growth and structure of distance education, and summarises these from American and European perspectives. The authors argue that instructional designers should aim for equivalent learning experiences for all students, this equivalency being based on value for the student, even if the way it is delivered or how that experience looks is different. They ultimately argue that aiming for equivalency in learner experience would unify learning and teaching as acts.

I loved this article and felt that it was ‘speaking to me’ in a way. It provided theoretical underpinning to a point of view I already hold, in a number of areas. I suspect technology makes it easier to apply equivalency theory in practice today than it was when this paper was written.