Book, conference offer help for online instructors

Simone Conceição (left) and co-author Rosemary Lehman

Teachers always face challenges in balancing their workload, but time management for online courses can be particularly challenging.

Because the Internet is available 24/7, students may feel instructors are always there, or instructors may feel they have to be continuously available, says Simone Conceição, associate professor in the Department of Administrative Leadership.

She and colleague and co-author Rosemary Lehman shared ideas from their book, “Managing Online Instructor Workload” at the Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning in Madison Aug. 8-10. The conference, sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Distance Education Professional Development, Division of Continuing Studies, was held at the Monona Terrace Convention Center. Lehman was a distance learning and outreach specialist for the UW-Madison Extension for over 20 years and is now a partner in eInterface.

More and more institutions now offer online programs to meet student needs for convenience and flexibility, so “it’s important to have strategies to keep their lives and workload in balance,” says Conceição.

In the book, she and Lehman surveyed and interviewed online instructors on how they keep their lives and courses in balance.

The authors found four basic strategies that helped instructors offer courses that were flexible and accommodating to students, but allowed instructors to better manage their time.

The key strategies focused on course design, support systems, teaching strategies and time allocation.

In designing the course, for example, successful instructors tried to anticipate student learning needs so they could build in information helpful to students, rather than waiting for questions to start rolling in, says Conceição. Instructors who had previously taught courses kept notes on what worked and didn’t work in an existing course to help make future courses more efficient.

Faculty members teaching online courses also told the researchers they took advantage of all the technical support they could find, both from their universities and their colleagues as well as from Web sources, conferences and even YouTube demonstrations. “Finding support is particularly important for those teaching online for the first time,” says Conceição.

“Teaching strategies designed to help administer and facilitate online courses and evaluate student work were also helpful. Good communication can be a real time-saver,” says Conceição. Posting weekly announcements, for example, to clarify course expectations and inform students about changes saved time that might have been spent responding to multiple emails.

Some of those surveyed or interviewed also advised setting up specific “virtual office hours” to work with students rather than trying to respond continuously. Often, according to the book, teachers found handling these virtual office hours at home was more efficient because there were fewer interruptions. Others simply closed their office doors when they were teaching or consulting with students online. One instructor with small children worked online while the children napped.

Allocating time to designing and teaching online course was also helpful, the researchers found. “Otherwise you will feel like you’re online 24/7,” says Conceição, who also teaches online courses.

Many of those who contributed to the research said they had blocked out a specific time for designing their courses, and then for dealing with questions from the online students.

Finding and developing resources like PowerPoint slides, YouTube videos and podcasts ahead of time, according to the book, allowed online instructors to focus on teaching the course. Many of these resources could be saved for future online courses.

While the book has many tips, no one template fits all courses or all instructors. Be ready to adapt and change based on what you learn, says Conceição. “You really have to keep testing strategies and be flexible.”