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Teach Online With Confidence

Helping Educators Engage More Online Students with Less Stress through Simple Strategies

Dr. Bethanie Hansen 

Teaching Excellence Strategist

#61: Five Creative Ways to Enhance Forum Discussions

#61: Five Creative Ways to Enhance Forum Discussions

Discussion forums in online classes can sometimes get repetitive and stale. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen suggests five creative ways for online teachers to spice up discussion spaces to revitalize the discussion and get to know students better. Learn about role playing, technologies to create video responses and collaboration sites, and more.

Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Have you ever struggled to engage in the discussion of your online course? For some courses we teach, it might seem that over and over we’re discussing the same topics with the same students from the same approach.

Of course, it may be a new group of students, but it seems like we’re having that same dialogue over and over again. And sometimes there might be a feeling that it’s difficult to find new questions to ask, or new ideas to share. If this sounds familiar to you, it might be time to try some creative alternatives to the traditional discussion format. And when you take a totally new approach, it can revitalize your thinking about online discussion spaces and help you engage much more with your students too.

Today, we’ll review five alternative discussion forum ideas for your next online class. And by the end of today’s podcast, you’ll walk away with something new you can try this coming week.

Role Play Can Enhance Forum Discussions

Number one, role-play. The idea of role-play in online discussions involves creativity and imagination. To be able to engage in the dialogue, students must do a little research about an individual from the past, their context and culture, and their life’s achievements. There are forum prompts like this in music appreciation courses that I teach. So I’m going to share my own experience with you on role-plays.

In the first discussion we have that involves this role-play idea, students are asked to create five questions that a media interviewer might ask prominent musicians from the 1600s. Then students create replies as if that composer might provide them. And they format and post their discussions in some ways that are also creative.

I noticed some of my students take it further, so they even introduce the entire post in character as if they are the interviewer, complete with fictitious names for the magazine or newspaper they represent, and some additional fun details.

By doing this approach, students must weigh the facts on a historical musician and find those lesser-known details that can really pique your curiosity. They also have to think in present tense, first-person voice, as if they are speaking as that composer in their responses. It can help students start to think about people from hundreds of years ago much more humanely, and understand more than just some facts and some dates that they could write about. And it elicits their creativity, so they will spend a little more time putting it together.

In the other role-playing discussion we have, we have students who write imaginary conversations that take place between three composers, which they get to choose, from the romantic era. They bring in people like Beethoven, Berlioz, Chopin and Liszt, and they write the conversation as if these three people they selected really did meet at a party or a gathering. Sometimes students will write the conversation as if Beethoven has completely lost his hearing and keeps ignoring other people, asking loudly, repeatedly what they have said. And some of them portrayed Liszt as this dark emotional person, bringing in a mention of various elements from his life struggles.

We’ve been able to dive into the conversations about composers they select and explore musical issues, and the cultures the composers lived in as well. But more than that, some wider topics come in like musicians and mental health, relationships, and even challenges they face in life. And many of the students find that they understand these composers and the challenges and musicians as fellow humans, instead of just names and dates.

And some have even remarked that they contemplate the challenges that certain musicians have faced and overcome these, and they think about their own lives as well. So they liken perhaps the deafness of Beethoven and his composing symphonies anyway, to whatever life struggle they’re having. And a few students have even said they’ve been inspired to overcome their own challenges and keep moving forward because of these experiences, these stories.

Role plays can be powerful and useful if you want to help your students connect to their learning. To make discussions successful, clear and detailed instructions are needed. Step-by-step instructions can be important to help students know exactly what is expected and how the post should be written.

Create Video Discussion Forums Using Flipgrid

For this second idea you’re going to leave the learning management system completely. You’re going to get out of the LMS and go into a program called Flipgrid. Now, if you haven’t tried Flipgrid, it is definitely worth a shot. You leave, you use Flipgrid, and then you post it in the classroom.

This is a free video discussion forum tool. It builds your students’ perceptions of the connectedness in the online classrooms, so it takes discussions to a totally different place. You can use Flipgrid for video discussion forums. They’ll take the video and embed the video in the online course that students have created. And you can use it in a lot of different ways to connect yourself to your students and to connect students to each other.

Embedding a tool that brings voice, tone, and body language to the classroom really does build that sense of connection, and you can see who everybody is. You get a sense of the other students in the class and the instructor. And this raises the bar for everything happening in that discussion forum.

There’s a post on Edutopia about several different LMS strategies, and Flipgrid is one of those. They quote a high school English teacher named Kyleen Gray. And Kyleen said, “Flipgrid is a fantastic oral communication application that is easy to use.”

It’s a video-sharing platform, as I mentioned, and you can write the forum prompt to the discussion just as you always would. But instead of having students type the answer, you simply have them answer it in a short video. So this is a great tool that’s going to give you feedback in sort of an informal way. You can find out how students are doing in their learning, and you get to hear it in their own voice.

And of course, there’s been some research done on this, and it’s been found that Flipgrid actually boosts students’ feelings of being connected in the online classroom, which overcomes a lot of that sense of anonymity, and also that disconnection that is really common in online education. And it also helps them to bridge the gap between you and them, so they’re willing to ask you for help.

Of course, there are some additional fabulous ideas for using Flipgrid that you might also be interested in. Not only can your students just post videos of themselves talking and embed these in your forum discussions, but you can invite outside speakers. So there’s a guest mode in Flipgrid, and you can invite a guest speaker to participate in the online discussion asynchronously. Guests can watch the student videos and respond to them. This gives your expert a way to share knowledge from the field, and also allows them to share it at the convenient time for them.

If you’d like to have guest speakers in your online class, this is a really creative idea about how it can be done, and it can be done in a discussion, so that throughout the week everyone can engage with that guest and go back and forth.

We can also take this a little further. Flipgrid is great for sharing language acquisition if you’re teaching a world language, and, of course, you can share and celebrate work. If you celebrate completed projects, essays, assignments, and things like that in the discussion area using Flipgrid, you can have students talk about their projects and show them off at the same time. And then post that video so that each person can go through and sort of see a showcase of work. What a great alternative in a forum discussion.

Using Padlet to Improve Collaboration and Sharing

Today’s third creative idea for discussions is to try Padlet. There are many lists out there on the internet available for you on creative ways to use Padlet in your online classroom. I’ll just highlight a few of these today.

First of all, if you’re wondering what Padlet is, it’s kind of like a Post-it board, so you can put notes on there and everyone else in the class can do that as well. You can use Padlet in your online classroom by installing the app on your device or opening the Padlet website. You make a board and then you have posts there that everyone can add.

There’s a lot of ways to do this. First, you can use Padlet to brainstorm topics. If students are going to be writing an essay, this might be a great way to use your discussions face for the week. They can brainstorm topics together, thesis statements, projects, ideas, and other things that they might turn in for the class. You can try this and have students just collaborate with each other, and together they just might come up with even better ideas.

You can use that same space to create a live question bank. And a live question bank would be where students ask questions about the lesson, during the lesson. You could take this further and have them design three or four questions that each of them would ask if they were the one creating the final exam. This is a wonderful way to create creative questions in a big list all at once. And it won’t take very long when you have each student contribute.

Another way to use Padlet in your discussion area is to create icebreaker activities. For example, if you really like that activity, Two Truths and One Lie, students can post something about themselves and we can all go through and guess which were true and which were not, and have fun getting to know each other the first week of class.

And of course, you can use that same space to share highlights from the semester, or things that they’d like to honor about each other. It can be a celebration space for reflection at the end of the semester in your discussions. You can also use it as a question board, so your students can go there and ask and answer questions for each other.

And the last tip I have on Padlet today is to use bubble maps, thinking maps, or brainstorming maps. Padlet is a great way to organize the ideas, move them around, and create them into various ordering systems to help students think through the way they might use the information they have learned.

And all of these ideas I’ve just shared with you here about using Padlet came from an article called “30 Creative Ways to Use Padlet For Teachers And Students,” posted by Lucie Renard in 2017. There’s a link in the podcast notes here, so be sure to check it out.

Using Jamboard for Live Collaboration

The fourth creative discussion idea is actually a synchronous one. If you teach hybrid or live synchronous online courses, or if you teach face-to-face you could even use this idea. Google has a product out there called Jamboard. It’s all one word if you’re going to search it.

It’s for sketching out ideas and using a whiteboard style collaborative space. When you use Jamboard, students can write on it at the same time and they can add their own sketches or calculations. You could use Jamboard for a lot of different things.

For example, if you have some kind of visual art class and you want students to literally sketch things, you can use Jamboard. If you’re teaching mathematics, especially if you have a real-time meeting where you’re going to collaborate and do problems together, this is a fabulous way to help students get involved. And they can also put images on there and notes and take different assets from the web or pull in documents or slides or different sheets from the Google platforms. And they can all collaborate at the same time, no matter where they are.

It’s totally free, unless you want the freestanding Jamboard to be in your physical classroom, in which case there is a cost to it. But it’s a wonderful collaborative tool for synchronous use online in your discussions.

Integrating Photography into Discussions

And we’re down to our number five example. This fifth example comes right back to the traditional discussion format. So we’re not using the external technologies, but we are using one kind of media, and that would be photography. This example is shared by Kristin Kowal in 2019. Kristin says that, “This is adding images of examples in students’ posts.”

So for this example, you’re going to have students post the image along with their written response in the discussion forum. One of the best things about this strategy is that it’s somewhat personalized. It helps students be motivated to use more than one modality in their discussion post, and it helps them connect more to each other and to the ideas.

There are a lot of visual learners. It’s something like 60% to 80% of all people are visual thinkers. So when you start adding the image to this discussion post, you have something really interesting coming out. It’s personal. It motivates students. It connects them.

Erin Ratelis, an online instructor says that, “It not only feels different for the students, but it’s also a different type of activity that will stand out for them. It leverages a different technology and photos are a great visual tool to solidify class insights. It requires students to explore class topics through a very personal lens, no pun intended.”

So in the course where Erin used this strategy, she had her students go to a retail environment in their community. So they were looking for 10 ways that a consumer marketer would influence the purchasing decisions. And she asked her students to post photos, but made it optional. Most of the students chose to include picture examples, like retail displays at Target or other stores. And students even commented directly in their posts about how much they enjoyed taking the pictures and including them.

You can draw attention to all kinds of real-life examples, no matter what course you’re teaching, by asking students to show an example in a photograph. It could be the bonus point on that forum discussion.

You can also use it if you’re asking students to take a field trip. So if you ever have an assignment where your online students need to go out of the classroom and prove that they’ve done something, such as attending a concert or going to a museum, it’s best if they also have a picture of themselves at that event.

Lastly, think about privacy concerns when you have students post photos. If they’re taking photos at work and sharing them, it might be a good idea to get permission from their employer. Think about which areas you might want to use this activity in, where it might pique the most ideas. And you might consider doing it again later in the course.

So these five creative forum discussion ideas are here to give you alternatives so you’re not just posting and writing and posting and writing and students are doing the same. That kind of repetitive approach to a forum discussion gets old. And even if you’re having a very stimulating discussion, students tend to repeat the approach that they’re using. As you stretch and try these alternative methods, I think you’ll really spice up your online class and have a lot of fun doing it. I wish you all the best this week in your online teaching. This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

 
#60: Building Social Presence in the Online Classroom

#60: Building Social Presence in the Online Classroom

This content initially appeared on APUEdge.com.

Online teachers must work to build social presence in their online classes to enhance community and connections with students. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides tips and strategies about how to achieve social presence including instructor involvement, knowledge sharing, interaction intensity, and more. Learn why social presence is important, how to determine if your efforts are working, and how to think of new ways to create community within the classroom.

Listen to the Episode:

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents, who know that online teaching can be challenging but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and we’re talking today about social presence in your online teaching.

As you know, in this podcast, we have four different areas of focus. The first one is best practices when you’re teaching online. Second, we focus on students and areas where we can connect with them or help them. Third, we talk a lot about media, multimedia and technology you might integrate and why you might try it. And lastly, we focus on your life and your balance while you’re working online.

The area of social presence has everything to do with best practices. It is a best practice to have teaching, social and cognitive presence. This comes from the COI, Community of Inquiry framework, but also social presence has to do with connecting with your students. So we’re bridging two different areas today and we’re even dipping a little bit into the media category, because to give good social presence, a lot of times you need images or videos, so we’ll talk a little bit about that too. But the main elements we’re going to cover today are: What is social presence? Why does it matter? How can you create it? And how do you know if it’s working? Let’s dive in.

What is Social Presence?

Let’s begin with instructor presence as social presence. What does that even mean? Social presence has a model out there that many have researched and put together and it has five parts. And the five different areas of your social presence, when you’re teaching online, include:

  • affective association
  • community cohesion
  • instructor involvement
  • interaction intensity and
  • knowledge and experience

In essence, we can summarize social presence as the degree to which you uniquely show up in the course that you’re teaching.

Students begin to trust you when you are authentic and present, and they get to know you a little bit. Your social presence is how they get to know you. It’s the idea of who is teaching that class, and what you bring that is uniquely your traits and knowledge and experience.

Why is Social Presence so Important for Online Instructors?

Second, why does it matter? In online education students don’t have a lot to use for a connection to the institution. As an instructor, you’re the face of that organization, and they really connect through you to the larger organization itself. But beyond that, they build trust in the classroom to open up and engage in the risk-taking behaviors that are engaged in learning.

It does take risk, it takes discipline and commitment to follow through in studying something and doing the assignments and engaging in the discussion. So students are there taking a risk and they need to know who’s behind the other side of the screen. They need to know you.

They cannot risk enough to really fully engage when the instructor is completely absent or invisible. If you’re only facilitating and you never share your own thoughts or insights, and you don’t really have your persona in the classroom, it’s difficult for students to know how much they can put out there, how much they can really challenge the ideas they’re learning and how much they should devote to the course at hand.

So, social presence matters immensely. It has a significant impact on students’ engagement and it also impacts the way they respond and show up when they’re completing the work and when they’re discussing things in the classroom overall.

Building Connections

When we talk about social presence in online learning, there are some other words that come to mind, and these words have been included in a lot of literature on this subject. For example, we might consider the word connection. Connection has to do with social presence. We’re facilitating relationships with our students and helping them relate to each other and really the goal of social presence is connection for everyone.

Evoking Emotion

We also have a lot of emotion involved. We typically look at this when we see a lack of social presence and we notice something like perhaps if the instructor’s social presence is not very strong or students don’t have a very strong social presence, it’s difficult to feel happy about the class. Even a challenging class can be more enjoyable when social presence is high and there’s a sense of real community within that classroom.

Intimacy is another one. We get to know each other. I have some online instructors in my department who actually write letters of recommendation for their students because they’re intimate with their students, in the sense that they get to know who they really are. They build true relationships and they have this camaraderie and this rapport that we do call intimacy.

Generate Immediacy

Another one is immediacy. Immediacy has to do with responsiveness and how aware we are of what’s actually going on in the course. Immediacy is responsiveness when someone reaches out and asks us a question or communicates. We can see things happening in a discussion and we can also pop in there and share comments along the way, because we have a sense of immediacy.

Building Social Interaction

And lastly, of course, social interaction. There are various ways people engage online and social interaction could just be exchanges of discussion comments. It can be live, synchronous commentary where we’re talking to each other, or it could also be sending messages or sending emails. There are a lot of different ways for social interaction to happen, but the main principle is that it’s interactive. There’s a back and forth, a give and take, just like there is in any relationship.

Social presence includes all of these ideas, and when it’s absent, we know it because then some of the same things also pop up. For example, when social presence is low in online experiences, we have negative emotions often associated with that absence or that lack. Often there’s a defensiveness that prevents relationship building and an intimacy that I mentioned before.

And, of course, there’s a gap, or a lag, in responding to comments, questions, inquiries, things of that nature, so immediacy is threatened. And often it will be kind of like people are talking alone, so we’ll all post our comments, but they’re not necessarily responding well to each other. So instead of social interaction, we just have these independent commentaries happening throughout a course and especially in a discussion area.

Even businesses today care greatly about their social presence. There’s this desire to have an identity out there in the world and communicate consistently. Just like businesses do that, online faculty and online instructors need to be cognizant of social presence. We need to be very aware of what one’s social presence is in a particular course, and in an overall online educator career.

How to Achieve Social Presence

So let’s begin with how you’re going to achieve social presence. We know it’s important. It has an impact. It affects things that we do. So how do we achieve this?

The first area of the social presence model that we’re going to talk about is called affective association. So if we have affective association, there are a lot of ways that people will associate us with our name, our identity, and all the things that we’re doing in the course.

Some of those things can be achieved by connecting purposely, like as in with an introduction profile. You might have your teacher persona on the front page of the course. There might be an image of you, perhaps some comments about what you’ve been doing or what your interests are. You might also have an introductory image or video of yourself and also some kind of welcome announcement or a welcome letter that you’re going to send.

There are quite a few things you can do to help students associate your name with your presence and who you really are. This can also be added to announcements and reminders in the course and you can include video clips throughout the course, introducing each week’s content, perhaps participating in the discussion, or an enunciating some details about the content itself, whatever they are to be learning.

Building Community Cohesion in an Online Classroom

The second area of social presence that we can focus on achieving is the community cohesion part. This would be the way that you bring everyone in and help them to feel like they’re part of that community in your classroom. This might be the way you greet your students. You can use a lot of phrases like, “We are working on this.” And you can also include in your feedback, some ideas about what we as a class are working on and learning on and some things that you can refer to in discussion areas as well.

You can mention other students’ posts. You can have a summary comment where you tie together all of the things that others have written and you maybe highlight a few by name, but also tie up the ideas that we as a group mostly have discussed and put your spin on it as well; your insights about what they should walk away from at the end of the week.

Instructor Involvement

Third, we have instructor involvement. And instructor involvement in social presence is the way you know your students, the way you personalize things. How you might share the stage with them. Maybe you also have them hosting a debate or kind of facilitating the forum discussion with each other.

Also, share some reflection of your own. What are you noticing about their learning? How are they growing? What are you really surprised about and pleased with and where would you like to encourage them? What are your insights as a lifelong learner?

And give some personalization as well to the way you talk to your students. Call them by name and sign your name at the bottom of announcements and posts. This instructor involvement brings you and your identity and your name into the class and it helps students to see you throughout all of the things that are going on there.

Interaction Intensity in Social Presence

Then we have interaction intensity, in the social presence model. This is the way in which you build those relationships and what quality they are, and how safe they feel. You connect with your learners through the comments and the intensity is how frequently and how substantially you do this.

If you do anything special on your end to create some additional places where students can connect and discuss things with each other, maybe even you share resources from the field or highlights from your own expertise to help them conquer the academic material, you’re bringing in this whole sense of who you are as the instructor. That interaction intensity can add a lot to the safety of their learning experience, and also their willingness to take more risks as they’re participating.

An additional idea you might do there is have a question and answer area in the course. This is always a great idea, because question and answer areas are where they can come with their informal questions, not necessarily the ones to be discussed in the forum discussion itself.

Share Your Knowledge and Experience

Now, lastly, in the social presence model, we have the knowledge and experience that you bring in your social presence. Now we do have teaching presence and cognitive presence in your space, where you’re showing up. This kind of knowledge and experience is weaved into who you are. You share some ideas about your own experience and expertise and your life experience as a professional. You might ask some questions that help other people share their social presence in the classroom.

Think about what students already know and ask them how they can contribute that to the class we’re now studying. Ask them what they want to know, and discuss it with them and tailor some of your approach around what they really want to get out of the class.

And then in the end of the experience, have a lot of reflection, where you share your reflection and encourage them to share their insights as well. And engage fully in that conversation, as the academic community draws to a close at the end of the class.

And always be authentic in sharing your knowledge and experience. Never make up stories or make up details or use other instructors’ posts and just make them your own, if it’s talking about personalized knowledge and experience. You have something unique to offer and it’s your responsibility and privilege to bring that into the classroom and into your identity as the online instructor.

As you do these things and bring in your social presence fully to the online space, you can create this presence through the way you converse, the attitude at which you bring yourself into the classroom, and through a lot of different tools and devices.

Of course, you might choose to put images of yourself here and there throughout the classroom. You can also think about using video to create true social presence. And then definitely bring in those things you will learn about your students, so it’s a back and forth, give and take exchange.

How Do you Know if Your Efforts to Build Social Presence are Working?

Lastly, how will you know, if it’s working? How will you know if those efforts you’re making to create true social presence in your online class are working out for students as well? One of the things you can do is review your practices and self-evaluate.

On a primary level, that’s of course effective in determining whether or not you met your goals of proactively getting in there and creating a lot of social presence in your course and in your teaching.

But secondly, your students will help you to know this. You can get feedback throughout the course by noticing how they respond to you, how they engage, how much they’re willing to share, how much authenticity do you sense in the work they’re completing and the communications they have with you? Does it feel like a conversation or are students kind of talking to the wind?

Everyone deserves to have you in that class. That’s why you’re there. You can make a significant impact in your teaching and in online education, generally, as you focus on building your social presence across the board.

Keep Social Presence Professional and Authentic, but Don’t Overshare

One word of caution, as you dive in with additional strategies to increase social presence, and that is to consider the fine line between overly personal sharing and professional sharing.

There is such a thing as sharing too much when you’re building your social presence as an online instructor. Remember keep things, academic, professional, and authentic to you. You can always share personal things that have to do with the content and do seem professionally appropriate.

Review those things on occasion to make sure you’re keeping them in line with what you feel is authentic and appropriate to share with your students. As you do this, you’re going to create a beautiful culture where people are seen, and heard, and engage fully in the academic discussions that unfold.

Thank you for thinking about social presence with me today. For additional links and tips, please check out the transcript in the notes from this podcast. Best wishes in your online teaching this week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit Bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week and your online teaching journey.

#59: Tips to Skillfully Cope with Life’s Inevitable Stressors

#59: Tips to Skillfully Cope with Life’s Inevitable Stressors

This content initially appeared at APUEdge.com. 

We all have an endless “to do” list that we can’t keep up with. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all our responsibilities and tasks, but that cumulative stress is incredibly harmful to our physical and mental wellbeing. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks to APU Chaplain Kyle Sorys about his role in offering emotional and spiritual support to students and faculty. Learn ways to skillfully cope with life’s inevitable stressors like dedicating a day each week “no work” where you just enjoy life, establishing “no screen time” each day, getting more sleep, eating better, and meditating. Also reduce stress by learning how to extend self-compassion and self-kindness to yourself in conscious acknowledgement that you’re doing the best you can. All these tips can improve your overall wellbeing and help you live a fuller, less stressful, life.

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Hello, everyone. And welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. We are so excited to have you today, because we have a special guest, Chaplain Kyle Sorys. He is going to share a lot of expertise with us today. And as you know, our podcast is geared toward online educators. So you’re living and working online and you have a lot on your plate, and we hope today you’ll find something that makes working online just a little bit easier to manage.

Your life online is something we have covered quite a bit in the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. We’ve talked about sleeping more, getting some better exercise and some activity going, there. And we’ve also talked about eating healthy and managing your time. So today we’re going to meet Chaplain Kyle Sorys and I’m really excited to have him here today. So, Kyle, welcome.

Kyle Sorys: Thank you.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thanks for being here. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and your path to becoming an online chaplain at APU and AMU?

Kyle Sorys: To me it’s like two questions. It’s like, how did you get here? Where we all can resonate with, since we all work for this organization. And also, what was the path to becoming a chaplain?

And so I’ll just say the chaplaincy, the profession of chaplaincy, I stumbled into it. And I wonder how true that is for most people in their professions versus seeking it out? The truth is when I was in college, when I graduated undergrad and I was looking at master’s programs, I just wanted to take all the classes. I really wanted to be a professional student. I wish they paid me, instead of me paying the school.

But yeah, all the classes, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. I want to take that one. I want to take that one.” And it’s like, “This is training you to be a chaplain.” I’m like, “Okay.” I had no idea what a chaplain was, but I’m like, “Okay. I just want to take the classes. If these classes train me to become a chaplain, then I’ll be a chaplain.”

So yeah, graduate. And then learn what chaplaincy really is. And here’s a learning curve that first year when you’re new to something. So I cut my teeth in the hospital for a while. After that, I did church ministry, youth ministry, specifically. That’s where I met Chaplain Cynthia, who is our full-time primary chaplain at APUS.

[Read an article by Chaplain Cynthia: Embracing Change in This Era of Mass Confusion and Fear]

So it’s interesting how our paths course correct or flow. Just interesting to me. Like the whole purpose of that one year at the church, because I never saw myself working at a church, was I think just to meet Cynthia, just to connect with her.

And so after that, I still do it, too. Not as much because of the pandemic, but a hospice chaplaincy. And Cynthia asked to me to help her out and come on online university chaplaincy. There’s such things as university chaplains like on site, but I’m wondering if APUS, Cynthia, myself, and we have another one, Audrey, if we’re the only online university chaplains in the world, which boggles my mind.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wow. That is interesting to think about. And I’m wondering what might be different, just to expand that a little bit, about being a chaplain online versus in the live space? What’s the change?

Kyle Sorys: So in hospice, I call it ministry of presence. Being one-on-one with another person, having the physical energy of another person. That gets removed on the online environment. Hence why I really, when I’m working with students or with staff or faculty, mainly it’s students I work with, I really try to talk with them over the phone, at least get the voice. That way I can have a feeling or an understanding. Get that body language, but in the voice. I don’t know how to describe that. It’s like voice language, but under the language, does that make sense?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah. It sounds like tone and inflection and mood.

Kyle Sorys: Yeah, exactly. Because I learned, a lot of emails, right? A lot of emails in the online university profession. The written word, it makes it a little challenging to try to really feel what the person’s going through. Really hear what they’re trying to say. And I find myself, well, I hear this in the writing. It’s like, well, I hear it in the word, but I don’t literally hear it in my ear. So that makes it challenging.

But the freedom it gives too, that you can be anywhere in the world and we can connect this whole now Zoom revolution in a way. Everyone’s on a screen. There’s a lot more flexibility versus, “Oh. You have to meet me in my office, or I have to come meet you. And how far, and where are you?” And more localized as well. I can’t go physically visit someone in the East coast when I’m living right in the middle of the country. So pros and cons.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yes. And just before we jump into some of the things we might want to talk about today, can you give just a brief, “What is a chaplain?” for any of our listeners who are really just not familiar with that role?

Kyle Sorys: I’m still trying to figure it out myself. It’s funny. Was it last week or a couple of weeks ago? Quarterly, we do “Meet the Chaplains,” and that’s where I explain the profession of chaplaincy a little bit. And traditionally, it is clergy members, but in a secular environment, like a hospital, the military, prisons, fire departments, police departments, so secular organizations bring a traditionally religious person in, has a religious background. I think that’s evolving and changing that ritual religious ritual ministry is important, but that’s not the emphasis here on the online university. Maybe that’s one to five percent. I think I’ve prayed once or twice. I don’t know how many students I’ve worked with in the past year that really requested prayer. Most of it is emotional support. And underlying that is spiritual support.

So in brief, chaplaincy is offering spiritual and emotional support. Hence the importance of that ministry of presence, of just being with someone in their struggles and just listening to their story. So another definition I could say as me as a chaplain is someone who hears stories and just appreciates hearing stories.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wonderful. It sounds like a really engaging profession and also one with a lot of variety.

Kyle Sorys: Yeah.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: On the idea of the emotional and the spiritual support, it seems that online faculty in particular are very heavily loaded nowadays. They’re doing a lot. It takes a lot of time. As you mentioned, a lot of emails. They experience that too. What would you like to share with listeners about stress management?

Kyle Sorys: First, it really is about an acceptance that stress exists. You can’t escape it. So there’s no need to resist the stress. Because stress can mean a whole lot of things to different people too. So when I contemplate, like what is stress? And for me, stress is whatever disturbs the mind, whatever disturbs the heart. It’s those winds and storms of life.

And sometimes it’s unavoidable, but most often we’re the ones creating that wind and those storms and those disturbances of the mind.

There’s an analogy that you could get hit with a dart or shot with a dart, a really sharp dart. It hurts. And what do you do with it? Well, most often what happens is we take more darts and stab ourselves, instead of just pulling that dart out and going about our life. So stress happens and what do we do? What is our reaction to the stress?

And so to manage stress, there’s skillful coping and unskillful coping. And it’s really cultivating these skillful coping mechanisms where we just pull that first dart out, instead of adding a second dart or a third dart or fourth dart and so on. And then adding more darts because we’re adding darts.

So that’s definitely where I’d say, start with stress management. Just accept and open to the fact that it is unavoidable.

And then investigating, what are we adding onto it? Is it in our benefit or is it making things worse? Because most often stress happens, we react and we don’t even realize how we’re reacting. It’s just so much habit patterns and conditioning. So really learning what’s under that and managing that, then the stress itself. Stress, you can think of it as more as a symptom of an underlying condition going on.

The stress is not personal. I have that, that sometimes we like to think it’s about us. It’s against us. That it’s a personal attack or life’s out to get us, like we did something wrong. All that we add on to it. No, stress is just stress. It’s not personal.

I think if we can really connect with that, at least for me, if I connect with that, that it’s just nature arising, nature unfolding, just stress happening. It’s not personal. There’s a letting go in that. There’s a release and that which helps the stress.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: As you’re describing this, I’m getting this idea. There’s this concept that thoughts just exist and they might float through your mind and float out of your mind. And if you have a negative thought, you could just imagine that and let it go in the same way. Your analogy to the darts makes me think of that same idea, passing through.

Kyle Sorys: Exactly. There’s two common analogies of the mind. One is the sky. Sometimes you get the nice, beautiful fluffy white clouds just slowly rolling by. Other times, there’s dark, stormy clouds filled with water, ready to burst. Sometimes there’s lightning and sometimes there’s tornadoes. But it’s just weather patterns of the mind. It all comes and goes. And exactly, do you want to get involved with the clouds? Are you even able to get involved with the clouds and the storm? Or you just watch it? Yeah, exactly, just take a step back and just watch the clouds pass by.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Beautiful. Thank you, Kyle. So what strategies might our listeners want to try to deal with their stress or manage it?

Kyle Sorys: This is a hard question to answer, honestly, because it’s so individual. Strategies that work for me may not work for another person and vice versa. But when we were talking before, when you invited me and we talked about what this podcast would entail, I remember mentioning a story that popped up called “what’s done is finished.” So for this question, I’m going to read that story. It’s really short, but I just want to share that to hopefully plant this seed. You can come to keep in mind the importance of this phrase, “what’s done is finished.” And this comes out of my probably favorite book, “Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Sounds great.

Kyle Sorys: Oh, it’s awesome. Yes. So what’s done is finished.

“The monsoon in Thailand is from July to October. During this period, the monastics stopped traveling, put aside all work projects and devote themselves to study and meditation. The period is called the Vassa, the rain’s retreat.

“In the South of Thailand some years ago, a famous abbot was building a new hall for his forest monastery. When the rains retreat came, he stopped all work and sent the builders home. This was the time for quiet in his monastery.

“A few days later, a visitor came, saw the half-constructed building and asked the abbot when his hall would be finished? Without hesitation, the old monk said, ‘The hall is finished.’

“‘What do you mean the hall is finished?’ the visitor replied, taken aback. ‘It hasn’t got a roof. There are no doors or windows. There are pieces of wood and cement bags all over the place. Are you going to leave it like this? Are you mad? What do you mean, the hall is finished?’

The old abbot smiled and gently replied, ‘What’s done is finished.’ And then he went away to meditate.” That is the only way to have a retreat or take a break. Otherwise, our work is never finished.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: What a way to frame that idea.

Kyle Sorys: Yeah. That to-do list. We all have a to-do list. It’s just part of our adult life and it never ends. I know I get stuck on what’s left. Oh, it just keeps accumulating and I can’t keep up. Versus just set it down and looking at it. Nope. I checked that box off. I checked that box off and having it, it’s good enough. What’s done is finished. And there is a letting go in that.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Kyle, thank you for sharing that story and the great example of how to re-conceptualize or view it differently when we’re feeling like the tasks just never stop. They never go away. And in our online teaching world, it does often feel that way, because we might have classes overlapping. There might be an endless pile of forum discussions to reply to, or essays to grade and more to do. So very nice concept to think about just being finished. I like that.

Kyle Sorys: There’s another philosophy I personally stick to, and I understand I don’t have family. I don’t have children. So it’s really easy for me to implement this into my life. But one day a week, I truly commit to no work-related tasks. Even thoughts about work. I’m like, “Nope. Setting those aside. Today’s not the day.” One day a week to live life as I feel it’s meant to be lived, whatever nourishes me spiritually, emotionally. Because come to this understanding that I guess it’s a bigger view. Again when I was in college, it was in Boulder and we called it the Boulder bubble.

Around Boulder, there’s just these majestic mountains and all this natural, just uncivilized greatness and wonderfulness. But you get so bogged down in the Boulder bubble, the assignments due, the busy-ness of traffic, this where to go, those daily tasks of life that we forget the big picture that these mountains exist. And then the big picture of space and time. When we really contemplate our lifespan in the grand scheme of things, a space in time. We’re a blip, or a blip of a blip. And life is precious.

Our time is precious. And in hospice work, I joke, but I’m serious when I say this, that I have heard nobody, not one person on their death bed ever say, “I wish I worked more.” So what’s really important in life? So at least commit one day to embracing that, what life is really about for you.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wonderful guidance. Thank you for that piece as well, Kyle. Now I hear you are a bit of a connoisseur of meditation.

Kyle Sorys: Yes.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Maybe have some strategies you could suggest for a beginner. How might we try meditation?

Kyle Sorys: You start where you are. That’s first. You just start where you are. It’s funny. Because the instruction to meditate is really simple. But in actual practice, it can be quite challenging. And that’s why we call it practice. But if anyone is interested in meditation I might say, “If you’re really serious, call me, contact me, email me, and I’d love to talk one-on-one more about it.” That way it can be more of a personal and individualized approach, because not everyone is at the same starting point.

No one has the same causes and conditions happening in their life. So that helps. But basically, really you just commit to a practice, and you start very small, and the practice is stopping and resting. You just sit and be. And breathe.

The image that was given is it’s like sitting on a park bench. What do you do? You just sit. You just be, when you sit on a park bench, and you just take in the sensory experience, be it the birds singing or the people around, or if there’s children playing or the firmness of the bench seat. The warmth of the sun, you’re just in that moment. Whatever’s happening, arising, you’re just being with it. Again, another joke, but serious, we’re called human beings, but we’re conditioned as human doings. So really it’s tapping in what does that mean to be a human being? To just be, to learn to set things down? That’s meditation, the essence.

What really helps is when you do sit, you’ll see that the mind just carries these bags of past and future. And if you’ve ever carried heavy luggage, maybe that’s a thing of the past, because everything’s on wheels now. But if you carry these heavy bags, how wonderful it feels to let them go and set them down, right?

So that’s what we’re doing is just not giving into the lure of the nostalgia of the past, or reminiscing about the past. Or planning and worrying and creating an anxiety about the future, which is uncertain. Whatever you think is going to happen, probably rarely ever happens that way.

So, that’s the practice, just at least five minutes a day. Start small. Going to stop. This five minutes in the morning and this five minutes in the afternoon or this five minutes in the evening, this is my time to just stop. Put a force field around me that keeps everything out. Just for these five minutes, I’m taking a mini-vacation and relax to the max.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Oh, I liked the sound of that. In fact, as you were describing it, I was starting to think about the birds chirping and just getting really present in the now, and not worried about the next hour or the next day or when those assignments are coming due and all the grading we’re going to be facing, needing to manage that time. But just thinking about the moment you’re in and letting go of anxiety. Really appreciate you sharing that suggestion and a little bit of a process with us as well. Thank you, Kyle.

Kyle Sorys: You’re welcome.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: What else, if anything, might you suggest or share with us that could really help online educators with their stress management or maybe anything else that has to do with their overall wellbeing? What do you think?

Kyle Sorys: You mentioned it in the beginning. You I guess talked about it in the past. That the body and the mind are not separate. So to take care of the mind, as in meditation, you also need to take care of the body. Meditation is rest, but rest is also physical rest. So we are a very sleep-deprived society.

And I had one student. She was going mad. She was really stressing out and that was the one question like, “How’s your sleep?” That’s all I asked and she said, “I don’t sleep. I kind of this and this.” And I checked in with her and she just asked like, “Did you get sleep last night?” And she goes, “Oh.” Like her mind was just reset and how everything just smoothed out for her, just because she got one good night of sleep. I think we forget that. Maybe we forget that because that to-do list, right? Like, “Oh. I got to wake up. I got to do this.”

Move the body. Working with elderly people, that’s their advice. I ask them like, “What’s your nugget of wisdom?” And some of them will say, “Make sure you move that body every day.” Be it stretching, walking. Because just reflect what’s the percentage of your daily time committed to sitting or lying down? It’s too much for me. I’ll admit that’s way too much. And to be conscious of standing more, just even standing and walking, moving, and stretching and being mindful when I’m bending over. And I guess this body communicates that to me. It’s like, “Take care of me. If you don’t, I’m going to make you.”

And then, yeah, the nutrition also. I guess you’ve talked about that in the past. What fuel are you putting in the body? That affects the mind as well. Other well-being tips… Like committing to not having work, but having periods in the day where, “This time, no screens allowed,” because we are definitely becoming a civilization of screens and can get really caught in the screens. And I just know it tires my eyes. It tires my mind just looking at the light. I don’t know. It does funny things to me. Maybe that’s just me, but I have a sense others might experience that as well. But be aware to take time out from the screen. I actually had a friend, that’s a slogan. He goes, “Put yourself in timeout at least once a day.”

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: And someone said to me, “Be your own parent.” It sounds a lot like that.

Kyle Sorys: It’s hard. Right?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Exactly.

Kyle Sorys: As adults, we struggle the most feeding ourselves and putting ourselves to bed.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: It’s true.

Kyle Sorys: Yeah. I think of, with stress, another way to think of stress, I like this. That the mind is like a garden. And so everything in life that we consider good or bad, it really is neither. It just is. But it can all be used as fertilizer for the mind. And so when we step in the crap of life, our reaction is to get away from it, to scrape it off the shoe, to be repulsed and disgusted by it. It’s so nasty. But we could just leave it on our shoe and take it home and then scrape it off in our garden and it’ll grow some beautiful flowers.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That is a great, great visualization there.

Kyle Sorys: And the importance of self-kindness and self-compassion. “You are doing the best you can. You have to remember that.” Pretty much everybody is doing the best they can. And if you’re not, if you ask yourself, “Am I doing the best I can?” You say, “No,” then you know like, “Oh, okay. I need to be striving a little bit.”

Most often, you’re going to say, and “Yes, of course I am.” And just, well, have some kindness there. Have some gentleness there. Another slogan or motto that I use often is, “You make peace. You be kind and you be gentle. To yourself, to others, to this moment. Just make peace, be kind and be gentle.”

And I think that can go a long way in helping with the stress and wellbeing. Cultivating lightheartedness, having a sense of humor, the importance of humor and playfulness. This adult mind forgets that skill and its so vital to childhood development. But I do believe it’s still that aspect of play and humor is vital to our adult development as well. And to just cope with the inevitable stressors of life.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wonderful. Kyle, thank you for all that you’ve shared today. I can tell that you draw on your expertise from your various background experiences you shared with us earlier. And also, even though this is just online, you and I are looking at each other on video while we’re recording this. And I really feel like I have a sense for your presence. I don’t think that virtual totally prevents that from coming through. It’s just nice to be here with you, and thanks again for all you’ve shared with our listeners today.

Kyle Sorys: Likewise, Bethanie. Thank you very much.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yes. So as we wrap it up, this is the Online Teaching Lounge podcast and we’ve been here with Chaplain Kyle Sorys and talking about your wellbeing as an online educator. We wish you all the best this coming week in being the best version of you in your online teaching.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

Guest Podcast: A Mindset for Working From Home

Guest Podcast: A Mindset for Working From Home

This content originally appeared at DrBCoach.Com. 

As an online educator, you’re likely working from home. This post and podcast episode are reposted from my coaching site, DrBCoach.Com. I hope you will enjoy this addition to our collection of strategies about teaching online. 

A mindset for working from home means that you can experience confidence, fulfillment, and joy while working from home. And you can experience life balance and quality relationships while working from home.

Does this sound like a dream? It’s not. It is entirely possible. Enjoy this episode of the “Mindset for Life” podcast for a little encouragement and tips to develop a mindset for working from home.

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What is challenging when you’re working from home?

When working from home, it is easy to allow the work to spread out throughout the day. This means there are poor boundaries around time spent and tasks to be done. It might also mean that we put ourselves last. When doing this, we lose confidence. We become stressed and overwhelmed. And pretty soon, things seem uncontrollable.

Beyond the stress and overwhelm, working from home can seem less fulfilling, in many ways. For example, we are not down at the office (or at the school, for you educators), seeing the physical reminder that we are professionals doing a “real” job. We don’t have casual opportunities to run into people in the hallway, exchange ideas, and feel uplifted from a random five-minute conversation.

A Mindset for Working from Home Can Help

With a mindset for working from home, you can gain confidence over time. Confidence comes from noticing what went well every day, or at least every week. As you notice what went well, and you write this down, over time you build evidence of what you’re accomplishing and completing. Even a little time spent on a project that was less focused than you would like is a win, when you’re working from home in unusual circumstances. You might not notice your confidence growing at first, but as you develop the habit of noticing and reflecting on what went well over time you will grow in confidence that eventually becomes powerful.

This kind of mindset can also help you find fulfillment in your work. Fulfillment comes from not only noticing what went well, but looking for why it went well. Much of the time, you had a direct impact on what went well during your day. As you notice your own role in the positive “wins,” this brings fulfillment. You might also notice others’ impact on what went well, which can lead to feelings of gratitude. Your own role and others’ impacts on positive aspects of your day come together to create meaning and fulfillment.

And what about joy? Joy comes from allowing yourself the space to experience the full range of your emotions, including the positive ones. You might find joy in anticipating a positive result, and then achieving it. Perhaps joy might come from noticing something like a puppy dancing around his toy. Joy can come from letting go of pressure and judgement, and accepting what is happening in the present. And of course, joy comes from connecting with other people.

These ideas, and more, can help you enjoy working from home with confidence, fulfillment, and joy. For more on these ideas, and to take them further in your own life, consider working with a professional coach

#58: Helping Online Students, an Interview with Dr. Doris Blanton

#58: Helping Online Students, an Interview with Dr. Doris Blanton

This content was first posted on APUEdge.Com

Helping students succeed in the online classroom requires a student-centric approach from attentive and skilled faculty. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks to APU faculty director Dr. Doris Blanton about training faculty to help students access and use virtual tools for research. She also provides teaching tips like the importance of providing timely feedback and focusing on both areas of improvement as well as noting what students have done well in their research and writing.

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. With me today, we have a guest, Dr. Doris Blanton. You’re in for a real treat. Doris has a lot to share with us, and I’m so pleased that she was able to join us today.

You know on the Online Teaching Lounge podcast, we focus on students, on best practices, on engaging media, and your life and your work online. You’re going to get a lot of those areas today, as we focus on Doris’s expertise and what she can help us with in our online teaching and our online work with students.

Very excited to have you, Doris. Thanks for being with us. Doris, can you tell us a little bit about yourself so we can get to know you and how you came into your online role?

Dr. Doris Blanton: Hi. Thanks, Dr. Hansen. Thank you very much for having me join your podcast to talk a little bit about student and faculty success, more so, helping faculty aid in our student retention. A little bit about myself. Unknown to many of my peers, I was a high school dropout. I quickly discovered as adults were bowing their head in a sort of disappointment, because at the time when I was a high school dropout, that was back in the 70s, and what you did was you got married. So it was unlikely for a teen mom to return to high school after I dropped out.

But after overhearing a lot of these adults that were pretty important in my life, and what I’d overheard them saying as they bowed their head was, “Oh, another statistic.” I was never a bad student, but I couldn’t just quit high school. I had to manage this new season in my life. So I quit school, but I actually went back to night school about six months after having my son. And I actually finished high school six months before my original graduating class. So I knew that it was just a season of change.

What I did after I finished my high school diploma was I enrolled at the local JC. I had to do something with my time. And it wasn’t long after starting junior college that my then husband and I realized, as two young adults, we weren’t even young adults then. We really didn’t have the skills to equip us for being parents, let alone being partners. And so, that ended quickly, but I learned that school was my only legitimate thing that was mine. And it was something that I got to work for and learning wasn’t hard for me. I liked it.

But after this unexpected journey that took me from my teens through my twenties, I finished my bachelor’s by the time I was 30. Of course, working two and three jobs, which is like a lot of our students now, I ended up pursuing my Master’s by the time I was in my middle 30s. And I pursued my doctorate by my late 40s. School has always been a staple, that constant for me. And I did enjoy learning, so it was something that I’ve maintained as a lifelong learner.

I landed my job in academia by total accident. Prior to working in academia, I had worked for a large grain cooperative in the Dakotas, but I returned to California as my folks needed some help. And I transitioned from agriculture into a new industry in banking, which was really interesting.

My background prior to banking had been almost 20 years in various service or hospitality industries. I did have a really fun stint in radio, which is how I landed the job at The Elevator, which allowed me to learn how to buy and sell commodities.

While at The Elevator, I also created a scholarship program for the cooperative members there, and a communications plan, which I was able to diversify for the 13 different communities that The Elevator operated in.

Landing a job at the bank when I returned to California, it was fine, but really a slow pace from having a phone on each ear when I was buying and selling commodities to a banking job where it was Monday 9-5, so to speak, and it was a little slower. But I discovered at that bank, they had tuition assistance. So I immediately, after I finished my probationary period, that’s when I enrolled in my master’s program. And I finished that master’s in about 15 months because like I said, learning was fun. I enjoyed it. And it was something that worked really well for my schedule.

While I was going to school and still working at the bank, I was actually asked by the college if I would apply for an academic role as an academic counselor. And I thought, “What the heck?” So I landed the job. And that’s when I discovered that I had a little bit more academia in me than I realized. I loved it.

I stayed at that gig for 15 years and it ran its course. I took a break due to some life changing events, and I went to care for my then 99 year old grandmother, which was probably the best two and a half years of my life. I was decompressing from 15 years of heavy-duty work and higher education. And another life changing event transitioned me to where I am now, where my primary role now is teaching.

But I have just over 100 faculty that report directly to me, for whom I coach. I mentor them with a consistent goal, a constant goal, of helping other peers like myself develop stronger classroom excellent strategies.

So classroom excellence for me comprises of just a few faculty standards and they fall into either social, teaching, or cognitive presence in the classroom. And what that means in a social presence is how faculty flex that social muscle. How do they develop their student-centric behaviors of getting to know their students early on, meeting them in the first few days of the online class, and then maintaining that welcoming environment, that tone throughout their term in the semester, that teaching presence?

Well, that’s what we do as faculty. How are we teaching students or providing those nuggets of learning? It’s not necessarily content driven, but it’s definitely a way for faculty to teach students by way of how faculty contribute to student learning in the faculty’s feedback.

That cognitive presence is where faculty are asking students those probing questions, often times bringing their content expertise from the industry back to the classroom where faculty are nudging the students to just take that extra step, add to their layer of learning.

I love working with faculty, especially who are newer to online teaching, just to help them get their little online sea legs going. But working with those seasoned faculty who need assistance, primarily in an online environment where more seasoned faculty might need help adapting to new online skills, I’ve discovered that one of the key things for those faculty that are more seasoned is to remind them you’re not just a content expert, but remember when that class was new to you?

Bringing that back to that entry level every class is something that I enjoy. It allows faculty to kind of slow things down because we can often expect a little too much from students at a lower level when we are definitely content experts. We need to make sure that we’re bringing it back down every term, to the beginning. And every class needs to be fresh and new for the students, even though it’s not fresh and new for the faculty. So that’s kind of where I’ve landed here.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Wow, that’s quite a journey, Doris. Thank you for sharing all of that. So Doris, it occurs to me that when you introduced yourself and kind of share this background of all the diverse paths that brought you to where you are right now, that you have this recurring theme throughout this time in your life, from your youth all the way to now of helping people and of education.

You mentioned you were an advisor, and I know you’re a life coach also. And I’m curious. When you talk about helping faculty remember, “Oh, this isn’t the first thing” or refreshing understandings, what do you think about this part of you that is so helpful to other people? How do you orient yourself to thinking that way?

Dr. Doris Blanton: That’s a great question, Bethanie. I think discovering early on, and I think I really discovered it when I was in my Master’s program was I’m a servant leader. And accepting that and embracing it and not fighting it has allowed me to develop skills in other areas, not only in the classroom. But when dealing with faculty, if I can serve them, I can also lead them. And it’s a nice harmony for me.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah. Thanks so much again for sharing all that. Now, what might you share with our listeners today about working with online students?

Dr. Doris Blanton: Great question, Bethanie. Honestly, working with online students really isn’t different than working with students that are attending brick and mortar institutions. And what I mean is, students no longer have textbooks, even at the brick and mortars. And that was a huge shift for me in the first three years of higher education, because I had had textbooks throughout my undergraduate and graduate. And then we went to no textbooks. So that was kind of a transition for me, but something I embraced.

So what I discovered for working with students online or face-to-face was teaching students how to use virtual tools, their virtual books, the virtual libraries. Teaching students how to do their research the same as for both face-to-face classrooms, as well as our virtual classroom. I was the student that walked across the quad to the library and pulled out all the books. That’s not necessary anymore. Assisting how to use tools that are available to everyone is invaluable.

Teaching faculty how to use those tools is equally important. Unfortunately, there’s always going to be a handful of students who spend just as much time looking for ways to circumvent finding credible resources, helping faculty discover where those students are finding these ill-advised or plagiarized sources is a way for faculty to develop their researching skills. But to also help students discover you’re not using credible research when you’re gleaning a little here or gleaning a little there, helping faculty develop their skills on how to research helps them to coach students on how to research.

Because I think a good majority of our students come in thinking that well, “I found it online, it must be good.” Teaching how to research is very, very important and helping faculty develop those skills first allows them to further help our students online.

Another thing that I share with faculty when I work with them is that a good majority of our students already feel that imposter syndrome when they walk into the classroom. “I’m not worthy of being in school. I’m not academically ready for school. I’m not even mentally up for the challenge.”

And all of that is pretty bogus. We know those things are untrue. We’ve all felt those things. Reminding faculty that they too probably had those imposter syndromes, and to aid faculty in allowing those conversations to happen. And I do it upfront. I do it early on in the classroom so that students can let that guard down and let it be known maybe I am where I’m supposed to be even though it feels off is a way to help disarm students and allow them. That’s when the learning can begin. Over the past year, especially in COVID, a good majority of institutions have transitioned to an online environment.

The beauty of APUS is, of course, we’ve always been online, so our faculty were really able to help embrace a new student population that were impacted and forced into an online environment without making the choice, as our students make that choice upfront. And over the past year, I’ve actually read an awful lot of student feedback, especially students that were formerly in traditional environments, who shared that they felt really liberated in their learning. No longer forced to be in a class at a certain time.

It kind of reaffirmed that the student, number one, made the right choice going online. But they discovered for the first time, those students that were traditionalist before, school fit into their life at a more convenient time. It affirmed their online choice.

I think that our students are pretty acclimated to the online groove after about weeks two or three, but when they’re not, faculty are provided with the freedom and the autonomy to meet with those students. Our faculty are stewards of the classroom and they are the ones that can ensure that students are in the right place, at the right time.

Faculty have the freedom and are encouraged to meet with them one-on-one, have Zoom meetings, let the students call you. They need that reassurance that where they are is at the right place at the right time. And that’s some of the keys that the faculty can help unlock for the student.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Doris, I really appreciate all that you have shared so far, especially this idea about imposter syndrome. And when you were talking about this for our students, it occurred to me that even faculty have imposter syndrome at times, depending on what the context is and what we’re talking about.

And I’ve also coached some folks who are in the business world, who also experienced that. I think that’s a very frequent thing to have the experience personally with. And we may not realize others feel the same way at times. So I appreciate you bringing that out.

Now, as you mentioned, students have needs, and they’re not all the same. So I’m wondering what are some of your strategies for meeting their individual needs?

Dr. Doris Blanton: Wow, Bethanie, that is a great question. I like it. Well, some of the strategies for meeting our various online students can be some of the things that I do. I host a new-student orientation. I bring together newer students sharing with them who their programmatic experts are; who can they contact about content? I bring in librarians and they get a library tour. A lot of students are completely unfamiliar with it. They might know where the library is, but how to use it? The beauty of our librarians is they’re available for students almost 24/7 to help them get acclimated with library tours, I like to call them.

There are various ways for faculty to assist students through their writing, their citing, perhaps sharing with students who’ve been enrolled a little bit longer, some of the extracurricular or honor society, student clubs, student activities. Those are things that further aid in student retention, their persistence in the classroom.

But most of all, I think what I really bring to students is that they have academic advocates and their greatest academic advocate is themselves. And so I think that further allows students to feel empowered, but it also allows students to feel confident in saying, “Wait a minute, I have a question. Wait a minute, I need some help.” We possess the knowledge of where the resources are pointing them to it is without a doubt what we can do as faculty in the classroom. It’s help them find the resources that they need.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Oh, that’s super helpful. If our listeners notice that a student is ignoring the help, especially something really standard like grading feedback. And maybe our listeners get frustrated about that as the teacher or the faculty member. What kind of suggestions would you give them to help them stay focused while they’re trying to re-communicate and somehow get that through?

Dr. Doris Blanton: Bethanie, this has to be one of the greatest frustrations faculty across disciplines and institutions share. How do I get students to read the thorough detailed feedback I spent so much time providing for them? I remind faculty all the time. We can certainly lead a horse to water. We can even push their head into the water, whether they drink is entirely up to them. It’s sad, but true. One strategy that I encourage faculty to do is to ensure that their feedback is timely.

Nothing is worse than getting feedback from a faculty the day that I’m submitting my next assignment. That is neither timely, nor helpful. So being timely in their feedback is critical. The sooner I can get feedback to a student, the sooner they will be successful in their next written assessment, whatever that might be.

Another strategy that I recommend to faculty is if they’ve taught the class a few times and they can see where students tend to experience that muddy point, create a little mini-lecturette prior to the assignment being due so that you can walk students through that muddy point, to help them get to it before they submit the assignment. So that what they submit to you is more in aligned with the quality work that you’re expecting.

Another tip that I provide faculty is I encourage faculty to pick one or two items. If they’re turning into an editor, that’s definitely not anything that a student wants to read. Their paper, in some instances may look like the faculty bled all over it.

So I encourage faculty pick one or two things that you can focus on. And then in their paper, one of my pet peeves is contractions, so I might point out a few contractions and maybe I’ll point out a few syntax or grammar areas. But then I go look for the content.

And I think we can definitely summarize what the student has missed in their paper and what their shortcomings are. But if we’re not highlighting what they’ve done well, why would they read their feedback? If all I did was something wrong, they didn’t even notice what I did right. It’s important for us to tell students not only where you have opportunities to make improvements, but look at all the things you did right.

And there’s a nice, delicate balance. And I think it’s important that faculty embrace not only where they can help students make corrections, but there’s no reason to edit an entire paper. Pick a few things. Students are pretty consistent with their errors. I don’t need to point them all out.

Focus on the ones that are important so that they can make those improvements and then focus on something different the next time. But ensuring that you are identifying both the good and the opportunity is invaluable for students to be affirmed. “Yes, I’m doing some things right. And okay, I don’t mind making those improvements where I have opportunities in areas where I missed the mark.”

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Doris, that sounds like great encouragement to help faculty and instructors who are teaching online to really strategize preventative ways of reaching students. So by giving that positive, as well as the critical feedback, you’re giving them a complete relationship with you and a reason to keep looking back for your comments and your communication. That’s just beautiful. Thanks for sharing that.

And thanks for all that you’ve shared with us about working online and working with online students. Is there anything more you’d like to leave us with today to help us in our online teaching?

Dr. Doris Blanton: Thanks, Bethanie. Maybe a couple of things. I thought about this for some time. And I think one thing that’s important to leave our listeners with, is that in every class we teach, especially those classes that we’ve taught repeatedly, we know the content inside and out. We know the assignments. We know the rhythm of the course. I remind faculty that students don’t. Students don’t know the class. To be student-centric, we need to keep in mind that when students enter our classroom, they do not possess the knowledge of the course.

Every time we teach, we have to be mindful of our learner. For example, I’ve had some of the most brilliant faculty who teach at the doctorate or master’s level. They’re phenomenal. But those are the same faculty who I might ask to teach one or two classes at the undergrad level. Unwittingly, they expect those undergrad students who are just diving into like-content as the masters or doctorate level,  they don’t have that level of experience, and faculty sometimes are unwittingly expecting undergrad students to possess those same skills and knowledge and ability that they come to expect from their master level students.

So ensuring that when faculty start every class, it needs to be rinsed and then repeated. So bring it back to the beginning every term. Being student-centric is a behavior we work on. It’s leaning in. It’s working with students and being mindful that not all students need that additional nudge. It can almost be like the Pareto principle where 20% of your class needs 80% of your time.

Preparing every class by the way of reviewing the materials as if it was fresh and new will further ensure that your classes are playing on a level field. It comes down to being mindful of your learner and their learning level.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Doris, thank you again for being here with us. You’re very student-centric and I am certain that your faculty and your students really benefit from your approach. And I could tell also that you care about them and that you have a lot of warmth in what you do and how you communicate. I just appreciate you sharing with us today. It’s been a pleasure to meet with you.

Dr. Doris Blanton: Thank you, Dr. Hansen. The pleasures been mine. Have a great day.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: You too. So thank you for all of our listeners also for being here. Joining me for this interview with Dr. Doris Blanton, who is a faculty director at American Public University. We hope you’ve enjoyed all that she shared today and wish you all the best in your online teaching this week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the online teaching lounge podcast to share comments and requests for future episodes. Please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#56:  Work-Life Balance (Part 3 of 3): Setting Time Management Priorities

#56: Work-Life Balance (Part 3 of 3): Setting Time Management Priorities

This content originally appeared on APUEdge.Com. 

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. I’m Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’m very happy to be with you here today. This is the last of our three work-life balance episodes in our mini-series. Episode number 54 was about engaging with students first, as your first priority. In episode number 55, we talked about creating assets that will help your students be self-directed to help you with work-life balance even more. The more your students are able to be self-directed in the learning activities you give them, the more you can focus on your teaching and stop worrying about putting out fires and spending a lot of time answering questions.

Today, in episode number 56, we will talk about setting priorities and your online teaching time management. This will bring you a better quality of work-life balance as an online educator.

There’s no question that we have a lot to do when we’re working and teaching online, and this can stretch into a lot of different areas in our lives. We spend a lot of time and effort trying to meet our students’ needs in the best ways possible.

So in today’s episode, I hope that you will find some tips and strategies that will enhance your time management for a better sense of your work-life balance as you meet your students’ needs and do it in the most efficient ways possible.

Anytime we try to make a change like this, especially in our time management or the strategies we use, it’s going to take a little bit of a stretch outside your comfort zone to try something new. It might be something challenging to try or something that just takes a small adjustment. In the end, your efforts and the time invested will be well worth the effort as you work toward your goal of increasing work-life balance as an online educator.

In the first two episodes of this mini-series, we talked a little bit about andragogy. Andragogy is a theory of adult learning. It’s going to help you prioritize the task that you choose in your online teaching. The term andragogy first originated in Germany in the 1800s when Alexander Kapp wrote about lifelong learning. And just like we might work with all kinds of lifelong learners in our online teaching, as educators, we too are lifelong learners throughout this process of education.

Time management practices can be learned and all of us can improve our time management while we’re working and teaching online. And of course, the more we do that, the more we practice the principles of andragogy in our own learning, ourselves. All of this happens at the same time, while we’re focusing on what matters most in our online teaching.

In those first two episodes of our mini-series, we also talked about the community of inquiry framework. The community of inquiry framework is a model. It gives us the ideas of teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence. Anytime you can focus on these three areas in your online teaching, this will lighten your load by making your work more clear in what you’re trying to do and why you’re doing it. Of course, all of this hinges on what you’re doing to meet your students’ needs.

Are you able to build the kind of relationships that you really want to have with your students? Are you able to see them as human beings on the other end of that computer screen and meet them where they are and guide them in this journey? Maybe you even view yourself as a co-learner who is learning alongside your students.

Even though you might already be a master of the subject matter you’re teaching your students, there is a lot we gain and learn while we’re teaching others. You might even have a new insight this coming week.

Along those lines, I’d like to share a quote from “Eat That Frog!” by Brian Tracy. And here’s his advice:
“Your ability to select your most important task at any given moment, and then to start on that task and get it done both quickly and well will have more of an impact on your success than any other quality or skill you can develop.”

Basically, when you prioritize your work activities, and then you use great time management strategies to keep these efficient, you can use all of the essential skills, balance your workload, and accomplish all that you’re trying to do as an online educator.

So let’s dive in to the priority of time management strategies. Maybe you’re wondering what does all this have to do with work-life balance? For some of you listening out there, the connection might be obvious. For others of us, maybe it’s a little bit of a stretch and not as clear.

I want to reassure you that when you’re able to manage your time efficiently and effectively, this directly impacts your work-life balance and allows you to have the power to accomplish all that you’ve set out to do.

And when you set boundaries around your work and life, especially separating what you’re trying to do in your online educator role, this will increase your quality of life. It will help you keep things balanced the way you’d like to. Time management will especially help you in your work along your main goal of connecting with your students. But wait, there’s more. Not only will setting limits around your work life give you the boundaries for good work-life balance, but you’re also going to be able to find the time to enjoy more of the other parts of your academic career. You can find the time to present at a conference. You can write curriculum. You can begin to do a lot of things you find important that are not otherwise urgent, and schedule those

in so they fit into your work time. And all of this can give you this space for a more rewarding personal life. So here we go. Let’s review your time management style.

A great way to get started is to reflect on your priorities and make an action plan. And this is how you can transform your time management. What are you already doing right now? What is working for you in managing your teaching online? What kind of strategies are you already using that are getting you great results? And where would you like to make some changes?

What kinds of strategies are not working for you? Are there any areas of your teaching where some limit-setting strategies might be useful or some boundaries to reduce interruptions to your work?

Strategies to Limit Interruptions and Distractions

Let’s talk about strategies to reduce interruptions. When you’re working from home, interruptions from other people you’re living with can be pretty common. This would be a barrier to effective time and task management for any online instructor. Sometimes we have interruptions, distractions, large student counts, multiple courses running at the same time. If we identify the barriers that are affecting you most specifically, and then we target the solution for your situation, this will help you limit and prevent those interruptions or those other challenges to help you set the boundaries on your teaching time.

There are a few specific strategies to reduce interruptions I’ve personally employed over the years, but also, I’ve had some other faculty share with me that they’ve used with a lot of success, and there is some research supporting all of these practices as well.

Interruptions might seem important or urgent when they occur. Someone runs into the room and wants to talk to us right now while we’re in the middle of grading some essays. It makes it very difficult for us to focus and manage the time that we spend teaching online when other people are at home or in the room with us.

These distractions might include online things. Maybe social media messages pop up or email messages pop up. A lot of virtual things can threaten our attention span and take our attention off the task we’re working on.

Some interruptions are physically present, like people in the room, or time-demanding intrusions like a visitor stopping by or the phone ringing, maybe friends and family members want to check in on us. Most of the interruptions come from the lack of the physical or relationship boundaries that come with working remotely in the home.

Interruptions might be more than multitasking. Now, if you’re multitasking, this has been referred to as task switching because there apparently is no such thing as real multitasking. Instead of thinking about two different activities at once, we’re really switching gears between two activities rapidly, and this makes it really hard to refocus quickly every time we shift our attention to one of those tasks.

Some of the effective ways to limit interruptions could be to set up a physical workspace you can teach in, establishing some working hours and strictly sticking to those, and communicating your plan to family members and friends.

Set up a Designated Physical Workspace

The first one, setting up a physical workspace, means to control interruptions by setting aside an actual space in the home where you’re working. It’s going to be a space where you expect to work uninterrupted. Even if you have a small space, side of the kitchen table, corner of the living room, it can be a designated location where you always do the work. You should be able to turn off the phone’s ringer, or set your cell phone in a different room and let voicemail answer it in order to limit the interruptions that might happen from that.

And while working in your space that you have selected, help others to know you can’t really be disturbed. This is going to give you a lot of boundaries and clarity about when you’re working and when you’re not.

In my own online teaching, I used to carry my laptop everywhere with me and log in whenever I had a spare moment to lead the class. I would also check my messages on my phone. I wanted to be really available, approachable at all times, super responsive. If you want to do this and it works for you, I applaud your flexibility doing it. It started to overwhelm my time and my attention, and pretty soon I wasn’t able to really be fully present anywhere else.

The research supports this idea that people with different traits or styles might actually successfully manage the blend between work and family life, but most of us don’t manage it very well. Over time, I decided that I would separate those things. So I have a space that I work online and a space where I live, and those two are not the same space. I don’t want to feel like I’m always working without any mental space or personal resources left for my family and my other commitments, and I don’t want that for you either. I want to advocate for you to have the space to have a rewarding life outside of your online work and feel like you can recharge and rest and be ready to go for the next week once you’re done.

If you work intermittently all day, every day, pretty soon your quality of work and your physical and mental exhaustion are at odds with each other. So the quality of work goes down and your physical and mental exhaustion increase.

In essence, when you set up a physically distinct workplace in your home or wherever you’re doing your online teaching, you’ll be able to focus more fully and conduct your teaching activities using this physical boundary as a signal to your brain so that while you’re in that space, you’re fully present and working and focused on your online teaching, and then you can turn that off when you walk away.

Establish Clear Working Hours

The second tip to reduce interruptions is to establish clear working hours. Interruptions can really be managed by establishing working hours when you expect to complete your online teaching. If you set boundaries on your work time, then you can have personal time and family time, and space to do all these other things that are important to you, including self-care.

This is going to fight the temptation to be online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s also going to give you non-working time so that you can relax and focus on other priorities without feeling guilty.

Just like setting up a physical space is going to tell other people when you’re at work at the computer, if you give specific working hours for your online teaching, this will give you some boundaries around your time and help it be clear to other people in your life as well. It’s also going to make it obvious to you that you do have time available for other activities outside of the work time.

Communicate Your Plans with Family and Friends

And then lastly in the strategies to reduce interruptions space, communicate your plan. Communicating your workspace and work hour plans to your family members and friends helps them support you when you’re teaching online. If you stick to these plans and you tell other people what your hours are and what you’re doing, the people in your life get a sense of your boundaries, and you’ll be able to approach the work with more focus and more energy. That alone is going to improve your work-life balance and give you time to anticipate doing something else outside of working online. Any definition you can give your online teaching is going to help you feel empowered to do it when you’re in the working time and to feel relief and space away from that work when you’re not working. That physical space and set time–definitely communicate those clearly to the people in your life, and ask for their support and ask for their help. It’s going to give you the resolve to adhere to your plan and strengthen what’s really going well in your life.

Establish Limit-Setting Strategies

Now, we’ve talked about reducing interruptions by setting up your workspace and your work hours and telling people about these plans, and then sticking to them. The next area is to have limit-setting strategies. Distractions are just part of the game here when we’re working online and teaching online. These could be emails, social media messages, pop-up news ads, anything that interrupts the focus of your teaching tasks or whatever you’ve scheduled into your workday.

Improve Focus by Not Multitasking or Task Switching

Multitasking is tempting, but as I’ve mentioned, multitasking isn’t really multitasking. It’s actually task switching, and it makes it harder to refocus every time you change the subject in your brain. Although you might want to multitask, focusing is going to give you the space to get things done faster and be more fully present while you’re doing it.

When your focus gets interrupted, it takes time to reorient and refocus, and this can actually lead to mistakes, lost time, lower energy. There’s a lot of research around that, and I believe it. I’ve experienced that in my own life, and I think increased focus comes from not shifting between the subject.

Plan Work Sessions and Breaks

I have three tips for you in the limit-setting strategies areas. First, plan your work sessions and breaks. When you plan your work sessions and your breaks, this is going to reassure you that even though you have to focus intensely for a little while, a break is coming. You can get up, walk around, have a snack, do something else for your break, and then get back to your online teaching. This increases your efficiency and it reduces distractions when you are working, and the break gives your brain space to process what you were doing so you can be ready for the next work session.

There’s an awesome strategy called the Pomodoro Technique. And it was developed by Francesco Cirillo. This was an engineering group that used it to create serious focus and a lot of breaks in between so they could be more productive than they had previously been.

The idea is that you give yourself 25 minutes of focused work and five-minute breaks in between. There are all these online timers called Pomodoro Timers, or you can go down to the store and buy a tomato-shaped timer and set it for 25 minutes and it’ll tick down and ring at the end. I have one of those, and I also have the online version, and then there’s a Google Chrome browser add-in that’s a Pomodoro timer that you can put there.

Regardless of the way you use this, after four sets of 25-minute sessions with five minute breaks, then you get to take a longer break of 30 minutes to do something else. Maybe you’re going to have lunch, take a walk, or otherwise focus on something besides the work.

When you do this and stop the task at the end of each planned working period, then you start to trust yourself. That might sound a little strange, but when we tell ourselves we’re going to stop working and we don’t do that, we start to not believe ourselves, and it makes it hard to focus. So giving yourself the space to believe your own plans will increase your energy and your focus and help you feel a sense of accomplishment when you’re working.

Use Timers to Manage Work More Effectively

The other idea is to use timers. Now, I know I mentioned a timer with the Pomodoro Technique, but timers generally are very helpful in reminding us to take a break and setting real boundaries on our time. It also gives us permission to ignore distractions, not shift our attention to other things begging for our attention, and stay right on top of our teaching.

You might use a timer to manage your work or calculate how long it’s going to take to complete different tasks. I’ve done this myself when grading essays. I’ll take a timer, like a stopwatch, and just set it to run until I’m done grading that first essay, and then I’ll look at that time and try to beat it by just a little bit when I grade the next essay.

Sometimes I just like to read slowly and think about it and I take way too long. But I could still give the same focused attention to that student’s work without taking as long. So a timer can bring out your inner competitor and help you to manage your work even more effectively.

Use Limiting Programs or Apps

And then the last idea here is to use limiting programs or apps. There’s one called Focus Assist. I forget whether it’s on the computer or the phone, but there are a lot of others as well, one called Keep Me Out. It’s a distraction limiting website. It lets you bookmark different web pages and provide warnings for visiting a site too frequently. And its goal is to reduce addictive site-checking. So hopefully that’ll help you manage your interruptions. And there’s another one called Stay Focused, and it can actually block websites and interruptions and notify you when it’s time to take a break, and then it’ll open up the next program or the next folder for whatever task you planned. That sounds like it’s going to help you manage your schedule and your task list as well.

In summary, we’ve got a lot of distraction strategies and interruption strategies, and I’m just going to recap these for you now. The distractions could be managed by planning your work sessions and predetermined breaks. You could try the Pomodoro timer method. You could also use the online Pomodoro timer at tomato-timer.com. There’s a bomb countdown timer.

You could use limiting programs or apps like Keep Me Out or Stay Focused, and you can manage your interruptions by designating a physical workspace, establishing work hours for your online teaching and strictly sticking to those, avoiding answering the phone during your work sessions, and communicate your plan and stick to it.

The more you do these things, the more you will have amazing time management strategies. And I think you’ll find over time, you can adjust to get the work done in a way that fits you best. So trying the strategies is a good start, and adjusting and adapting to what works best for you would be a great way to keep going.

And then lastly, reflecting on your plan and thinking about whether it’s working for you. As you reflect on it and keep track of it over time, you’re going to be able to determine whether you’ve improved your strategies, made things better for your students and for yourself, and managed your work-life balance a little bit better.

Well, I hope that this mini-series of work-life balance priorities, engaging with students first, producing assets to guide them, and today’s episode of using time management strategies, I hope these have been helpful for you. Thank you for joining me and I wish you all the best in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#52: Effective Feedback in Your Online Teaching

#52: Effective Feedback in Your Online Teaching

This content originally appeared on APUEdge.com.

Feedback is an important part of online learning. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides tips and strategies about how to provide effective feedback to students. Learn how to garner feedback based on students’ work, tips on giving effective feedback to help students, and why feedback is a critical part of the learning process for both students as well as teachers.

Listen to the Episode:

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

It is hard to believe it’s been an entire year since we started this podcast, and thank you for being on this journey with me. It’s exciting to finish with episode 52 today, and we’re looking forward to the coming year with plenty of guests, new topics, and a lot of help and support for you as an online educator. I hope you’ll keep with us for the journey, and again, thank you for joining us today and over the past year.

What is Feedback?

Today, we’re going to talk about effective feedback in your online teaching. What is feedback? Well, feedback is the process of taking the invitation to respond. Student’s assignments are a response to what we’re teaching. This gives us some feedback about what they can do with what they learned, and whether they learned anything from us. And our comments to them throughout the discussions can challenge them, prompt them, and help them think in new ways.

Grading online assignments is not just about marking a score, giving a letter grade to your students. It’s one thing for you as the educator to recognize what is A level work and what is not, and how to rate or rank your students on the work they’ve given you.

But it’s something else altogether to tell your students what they did well, where they needed to do something differently, and how they can improve. This effective feedback helps them successfully meet their course objectives, as well as knowing if you have taught them accordingly.

Feedback Can Help Students Improve and Reduce Complaints

With this second type of grading, your feedback is something that helps students improve. It helps them stay motivated and your feedback can even help students perform better on their next assignment. So, why should you care about the quality of grading feedback that you provide?

First, there is the practical reason that when students receive a score or a grade with no feedback to help them, they don’t understand the basis for that grade, they complain. Student complaints can raise your anxiety and stress levels and student complaints take more time to address. They also impact your job satisfaction as an educator, and they are preventable much of the time.

You can prevent student complaints most of the time by communicating well with your students about their work. After all, no one likes to be given some kind of score or rating without the idea of how to fix it or improve, especially if they took the time and really put their best effort into that project or that assignment.

Second, the quality of your grading represents part of your teaching. As an educator, you’re more than just a person who tells other people about the subject matter you teach. Although, sometimes we have this idea that a teacher stands in front of the room and lectures about a subject matter and eager students are sitting there taking notes, drinking it all in. There’s much more to effective teaching than just this idea of lecturing in a one-way direction.

Teaching and learning work together, it’s a two-way street. Whatever your teaching methods are, students provide you with an essay, an assignment, or other items and they help you know what they’re learning, and your feedback is part of that exchange. It’s where you keep teaching and it keeps the conversation going back and forth.

And third, feedback in your grading provides you and your students the ability to adjust on this learning journey together. Your students learn about where they are related to the objectives they need to achieve in your class. And you, as the instructor, learn what you need to do to alter your approach so that your teaching is much more effective.

And as you provide feedback, you can see some feedback to you about your teaching approach and your students’ work. This is really one of the most important parts of revealing your students’ work, and one that we often overlook when we’re teaching online.

Ways to Get Feedback from Your Students’ Assignments

When you’re evaluating students’ online assignments, how can you get this feedback about your teaching? Well, you can review students’ work to identify the ideas you taught and see where they appear. For example, are your students able to comfortably use any of the special vocabulary that goes with your subject? And, do they communicate about the ideas with some clarity? Second, in the work they have submitted, do most of your students seem to be learning what you’re teaching?

Based on your teaching methods and your subject matter, you can look for even more evidence of learning in your students’ work, and you can directly connect their work with the course objectives to determine where they stand in relation to where they should be by the end of the class.

Robin Jackson, who wrote, “Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching,” said, “It’s one thing to collect feedback about your students’ progress, but if you simply collect the feedback and never use it to adjust your instruction, then you’re collecting it in vain. The data you receive will give you feedback about the effectiveness of your own instruction.”

It’s important to remember that feedback is information about how we’re doing in our efforts to reach a goal. If we’re teaching other people, we’re putting effort into the goal of educating them. I’ll give you an example of this whole idea in action. When I was a freshman in high school, my chemistry teacher, Bruce Fowler, returned the results of our assignments at the end of a learning unit.

He spoke to us pretty candidly and told us we all failed that assignment. And he realized that he wasn’t really teaching it well, it wasn’t possible for every single person to fail if he had taught it effectively. So, he scrapped his plans for the coming week and he retaught all of that material in a totally different way, and then he reassessed us.

He expressed a lot of care for us as human beings, and he focused on his own continuous improvement in teaching throughout the year. It was pretty obvious, this was a man who focused on feedback for both of us. He gave us the feedback to help us know where we were as learners in our own performance, and he used our performance to give himself feedback about his teaching. Now, this chemistry class was many years ago and obviously not an online class, but we can use the same principle in our online teaching, even if the course is standardized and designed by someone else.

Adapting Your Teaching Based on Feedback

I’ll give you some examples of how this might be done. As a faculty director, observing the teaching of many online educators, I’ve noticed that some instructors adapt after evaluating students’ work by creating videos to address the entire class. And in this whole class feedback, a few of the instructors I’ve seen have mentioned some of the bigger errors students have made in their assignments. Then they give their students additional explanations, guidance, and teaching on those areas to help them adjust so they can move forward for the next unit or topic.

I’ve also noticed some other faculty members have done the same thing in a course announcement, and still, others have added resources and documents with tips, additional information, and reteaching. Whatever the format, you can give your students guidance and feedback to help them understand what they all seem to miss or what a great majority of them seem to miss. And this is a great way to use your students’ work as feedback in your own teaching, and then respond in ways that help your students keep moving forward.

Ways to Give Effective Feedback

What kind of feedback do students need in your grading and your comments? A well-known education writer, Grant Wiggins, shared seven keys to effective feedback. And these keys are:

  1. That it is goal referenced
  2. It’s tangible and transparent
  3. Actionable
  4. It is user-friendly
  5. Timely
  6. Ongoing
  7. Consistent

For online teaching specifically, I’m going to focus on four of these areas today, which are even more important and I’ll share some special ideas with you.

Goal-Referenced Feedback

First, let’s talk about goal-referenced feedback. Goal referenced feedback means that it’s tied to the course objectives. We have some kind of clear goal to be achieved in what students are learning, and when they complete the assignment, it’s tied to this goal. Then the feedback comments we give them about their work while we’re grading it, should also relate to the goal.

For example, if students are supposed to write an argument paper, our feedback might remind them that the argument paper needs to cover how well they take a position and effectively support it with evidence and commentary. And then we’re going to give feedback about the degree to which they did this and how they could do it even more effectively.

Actionable Feedback

Actionable feedback means that it’s concrete, specific, and useful. Wiggins said that effective feedback is concrete, specific, and useful. It provides actionable information, thus “Good job,” and “You did that wrong,” and “B+.” These are not really feedback at all.

We can easily imagine that the learners are asking themselves in response to these comments, “What specifically could I do more or less of next time, based on this information? I have no idea.” They don’t know what was good or wrong about what they did. This includes feedback about what they specifically did right and what they did well. This feedback is objective, rather than your opinion or your judgment of them.

User-Friendly Feedback

User-friendly means that feedback can be easily understood by the person who’s receiving it. It’s not highly technical or confusing and it is focused. Wiggins tells us an example that’s really good at illustrating this: “Describing a baseball swing to a six-year-old in terms of torque and other physics concepts, will not likely yield a better hitter. Too much feedback is also counterproductive. Better to help the performer concentrate on only one or two key elements of the performance, than to create this huge buzz of information coming at them from all sides and at too high of a level.”

Timely Feedback

Lastly, timely feedback. Timely feedback means fast feedback. The sooner our students get the feedback from us about their work, the more they can adjust and improve. If there’s another assignment coming up and students are busy preparing for that, they can’t really do this effectively without getting feedback from the previous assignment. And even more difficult, if several weeks pass before their feedback is received. By that time, they have moved on.

Giving helpful feedback can really take time on your part and it might be a large part of what you do when teaching online, but it’s also still part of teaching, not just support for the grade. So, to keep teaching in a way that helps your students the most, giving timely feedback is essential.

Make Sure Students Receive Feedback

Now, how can you help your students see this feedback and actually stay connected in this cycle of teaching and learning? After getting some feedback about your teaching, through your review of students’ assignments, and then giving them feedback about what they demonstrated in those assignments, the process completely fails if students cannot see the feedback you gave them. And online, it’s entirely possible students will miss your feedback completely.

To help you make your feedback have an impact, we’ll close today’s podcast with some practical tips about making sure your students can find it and how they can keep moving forward because they’ve received this feedback.

Tell Students to Expect Feedback on their Work

First, before the assignment starts, before it’s even launched, give your students help to prepare to complete this assignment successfully. This help might include guidance about what to expect, what to include in their work, and then how to submit the assignment.

I suggest also stating exactly how this assignment relates to the course objectives and how it relates to the real world so students can have more context and more buy-in. You might provide this guidance in a course announcement or in an email to the class. Either way, you want to ensure that everyone receives it.

Announce When Feedback is Available and How to Find it

Second, when you’ve evaluated students’ assignments, send out an announcement to let them know your feedback is available to them. You can include screenshots of where they will find this feedback in your online classroom and what it looks like. If your feedback is outside the platform, like maybe it’s in Turnitin GradeMark viewer, you might even need to include a short video showing them what to click on to get to the viewer. And when they get there, what to click on to make the feedback visible.

Be Receptive to Requests for Feedback

Never assume that students know where to find this feedback. And throughout this whole process, third, always be open to students who reach out, asking for more feedback. As Errol Craig Sull wrote in his faculty focus article on the subject, even if the student’s primary reason for asking is to receive a good final grade in the course, this gives you an opportunity to teach a bit more. So, be sure to respond to the student in a timely manner by email, audio message, or phone.

Sull reminds us that when students ask for clarification or more feedback, it’s not about you or whether your feedback is good enough. It’s about the students being interested in improving their work. If we keep this in mind, we’re going to be able to have the space to respond enthusiastically and not take it personally.

So, there you have it. What is good feedback? What should it include and how do you take this to improve yourself and your teaching, as well as how do you ensure your students find all of this feedback so they can use it and keep learning.

I hope that as you move forward in your online teaching this week, you’ll think about feedback in all of these ways and use one of these strategies to improve your practice. Thank you, again, for being with me for the past 52 episodes, this first year of the Online Teaching Lounge. Come back again for the coming year when we’ll have guests and new topics that will help you continue working and teaching online and achieving balance in your work and life. Best wishes in the coming week and the exciting year ahead.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#51: Helping Students Succeed in Your Online Class

#51: Helping Students Succeed in Your Online Class

This content originally appeared at APUEdge.Com

Online students often need extra help and support from teachers. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen outlines several scenarios when students need extra assistance including disability accommodations, unfamiliarity with online classrooms, and unexpected life events. Learn tips and strategies to communicate with students, extend flexibility, and provide support to help them succeed in the virtual classroom.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

A lot of students need extra help or assistance in your online class. Now, if you’re new to teaching online, this is a whole area that might also be new to you. If you’re a veteran online teacher and you’ve been doing this awhile, perhaps you’ve run into a lot of different scenarios where students need your help. Maybe you just want to brush up on some new strategies. Whatever it is, I’ve got some strategies for you today, some ideas that are going to help you with helping your students. So let’s jump in.

Challenges of Providing Help to Students Learning Online

Online students often need extra help or assistance. Now, when you have your face-to-face classes, you can speak to them often, send them emails as a backup plan. And when you have that face-to-face interaction removed and you start just working online, there are some problems that creep in that you don’t anticipate.

Adult learners, these are a high percentage of online students nowadays and they may be away from school for a long time, maybe many years. They may struggle to navigate the online classroom, struggle to maintain confidence in their academic abilities, or struggle to balance the time commitment of going to school while working, being parents, and doing all those other things that they’ve been doing for quite some time.

Some people still yet will have other special needs related to disabling conditions they might have, and they might need a disability services accommodation in their interaction with you.

As in live courses, students who are new in the subject matter you’re teaching might specifically struggle to comprehend the subject matter itself. Maybe particular concepts are just new and unfamiliar to them. They might need additional tools to understand and apply academic terminology, or maybe just to make their way through the content itself.

Online students might need general help learning how to communicate with each other and with their instructor authentically, because distance and separation of the online setting create a sense of anonymity, some isolation, and there’s no real clear way to communicate in the classroom. That is to say, netiquette does not come naturally to us when we’re taking an online class.

Especially in the world of text messaging, it’s easy to write in less formal language. Online students might need help navigating the classroom itself, or they might have unexpected life events come in, like an accident, an illness, a natural disaster, divorce, or some other surprise.

Sometimes those circumstances are anticipated and students can plan ahead. For example, if they’re in the military and they’re going to be taking a break for a special assignment for a week or two, they might know that in advance. And in those cases, they can plan ahead and work with you.

But what about those unexpected events where the student has to be absent for a short time and they don’t know this is going to happen? In every case, there are a lot of situations. It’s helpful to know that it’s possible for these things to happen. Interruptions do occur when students are taking an online class. And when you have a plan for accommodating individual needs, you can respond in a timely manner without having to consider every single case as a standalone situation.

So I’ve just gone through a whole lot of things that can happen to students when they’re taking an online class, or challenges they might face just bringing their own situation as it is. Let’s go ahead and start with the adult learner.

Adult Learners Face Challenges with Online Learning

There are a variety of difficult situations for students of course, online, but more particularly for the adult learner. For example, these students might have technology challenges finding their way around the online class. Maybe they’ll have a little bit of difficulty operating certain parts of the learning management system.

Some students, even though they’re technologically savvy in their personal lives or in their work, they struggle to learn a new system in which the course might be hosted. There’s a lot of ways to reach your students where they’re at when they’re adult learners. Maybe they’re new to the online experience, or they’re coming back to college after many years.

You could think of guidance assets, like giving them a PDF handout that illustrates steps of an activity. For example, if you’re going to have the students go to the online library, to conduct a bit of research to write an essay, you might create a PDF with step one, step two, three, four, and so forth, and screenshots of the different places they might go online.

Another idea is to actually make a screencast. There are a lot of different ways to do this. There’s Kaltura, there’s Camtasia, a paid platform. There’s also Screencastify on the screencastify.com website. And perhaps there is a built-in screencast recorder in the computer that you’re using. Whatever the method, a screen walkthrough recording is a great way to help your struggling students who don’t know exactly where they should be looking, and it could be a preventative measure that you’ve simply share with everyone.

The more you give help like this, the more students feel like you’re right there with them. You care about their success, and you really want to help them find the things they need to succeed. You could have a walkthrough of navigating the classroom. You could have a walkthrough with a screen cast showing the library, of course, clicking through those things.

Whatever you do, you want to check way the video will be accessed by students. Is it publicly accessible? Does it need to be locked down in the LMS itself? Is it private? If you’re going to upload it to YouTube, I recommend using the unlisted setting so that the video isn’t  searchable by everyone in the world, but you can give the address to your students and they will be able to find it more easily. You could also save the video to a Google Drive so they could play it from there. Or if you have a Vimeo subscription, you could also set it to private there and share the link.

Helping Students with Time Management

Let’s talk about time and task management. A lot of online students face challenges planning their work and managing their time, and then doing all of the learning tasks in a timely manner. Sometimes it’s hard to control this because students have so many other commitments. I mean, think about it. When you go to a live class, you sit there and you see the instructor, you see the classroom, and your subconscious brain has this whole recognition system for, “Yep, I’m in school.” You’re seeing that this is a situation where you’re going to be returning, you’re going to be in the classroom thinking about your academic stuff, and you’re going to do the work.

When you’re teaching online and when you’re learning online, these boundaries are so much more ambiguous. You might be the learning in your class or teaching your class in the kitchen, in the living room, or sitting on your bed in your bedroom, doing that work with the door shut so no one interrupts you.

The place that you do your online teaching or learning is not necessarily specific to academics, like it would be if you were in a live class. So when you’re there, you need some things that are going to help you focus. Your students need those things too.

One of the things you can do to help your students is to create a one-page document that just has these block sections stating what is going to be due each week. This would be like a summary of the calendar that might be more expanded in your syllabus or in your course outline area.

You could list these things such as week one, having introductory forum posts due by Thursday, and then put the date. The forum replies are due by Sunday, and then put the date. Then if there’s a quiz or an essay or anything else, list that in the week that it’s due, and put the day of the week and the due date. And then you could give students little check boxes next to each one of those things. Then in the next block, you would list week two items. This is really just a summary so that your students can see, at a glance, what is due that is graded. And they can make sure that they have covered every one of those items.

Students who suffer from time and task management challenges might reach out to you to ask for extra time to get their work done, or they might just stop participating in the course, or they could even withdraw. When you are preventative about that by sending them things like this at-a-glance planner I mentioned, or reminders in advance of due dates, or other tips to help them stay on track, you’re helping retain students in your course. You’re helping them succeed in their goals of taking and completing that class, and you’re helping them stay on top of the little things that are coming along.

Helping Students with Disabilities

What about working with students who have disabilities or disabling conditions? Students with special needs who have disabilities or disabling conditions will likely reach out to you directly to share some kind of accommodation plan if they have developed one with the university or college accommodations office. This is something that would be somewhat official and on some kind of a form or letterhead.

A disabling condition could include some kind of a mental or physical disorder or learning disability. It might be something like post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. A student might have a hearing impairment or a visual impairment. And depending on the course, these things could significantly impact their engagement in the class.

Although students don’t always inform their instructors of specific disabilities, if they have already arranged for a disability services plan, students with some kind of disabling condition may contact you and ask for these accommodations. Occasionally you might have a student who has not reported their condition, but who is asking for some kind of accommodation, and you might want to suggest they reach out to the disability office at your school to ensure that they have a plan moving forward for other classes as well.

Sometimes students will want just a little extra time to get something done, because perhaps they can stay on track most of the time, but just need a little flexibility, which is sometimes just a setting in the assignment due date that you can make for specific students. And it is pretty easy to arrange.

If you have a student who needs extra time and you need to plan this for the whole course, you could  go through and set the special access in your learning management system for that particular student to indicate the extra time. If you set this up as soon as you know the student needs this kind of accommodation, it’ll be a lot easier because it’ll be automated and already set up in your system throughout the course.

More common accommodations you might find requested by students who have disabling conditions are:

  • to get class notes or additional time on tests and assignments;
  • potentially a quiet setting in which to complete quizzes and exams;
  • a one-on-one office hour to check in with their instructor.

The general purpose of disability accommodations is not really to water down the course or to change it dramatically, but to level the playing field so the student can still be successful regardless of their personal circumstance. The accommodation is typically designed for specific students and intended to make their learning outcomes achievable and attainable for them. Be thinking about how you might make those things fit in more easily for you so that you can meet students’ needs the best ways possible without making it overly time consuming to make the adjustments on your end.

Helping Students with Communication or Writing Challenges

Another type of student help you might need is for students with poor communication or writing skills. Now, depending on your institution, you might come across students who have not taken a first year English class. Maybe they still need to take freshmen-level composition, or maybe they took it 20 years ago and they’re coming back to college, and they were able to somehow transfer their credit and they’re not going to take the writing class.

Many schools that offer online courses, don’t have a minimum entrance requirement for certain classes. So if you’re teaching a class that doesn’t have an entrance requirement or a writing requirement as a prerequisite, you may find that students come in and really do not know how to write an essay in paragraph style or where they should look for citing their sources properly.

Online students often need assistance and support with writing and communication, or generally need help learning how to communicate with others authentically in the online environment. The distance and the general separation online naturally create some kind of isolation. And for some students, this complicates their ability to write in discussions effectively as well.

There may be services and supports available at your institution in which you can involve your students. For example, at the institution where I teach, there is a tutoring service in the online library, and there are also lots of different writing services available in an asynchronous format. So students can look there and they can learn all about how to write a thesis, how to formulate their essay, how to cite sources, even if they have not taken their first writing class.

It’s worth your time to take a look around your university or college and find out where the resources are, what kind of tutoring exists, and what you can really send your students over to find. The more you use these services, the easier it’s going to be to help your students when they struggle with writing and communication.

Likewise, you might consider certain kinds of grading feedback comments that direct them to the same services. I saw another faculty member in their grading who also attached a handout of certain skills that students needed. For example, if students had a weak thesis or didn’t appear to have a thesis in the introductory paragraph for whatever class, this faculty member had a one-page guide on how to create a solid thesis and support it throughout an essay. So when returning the grading feedback, this faculty member would also attach this document for additional help.

If you find common errors happening with your students, it’s worth your time as well to create these kinds of assets that you can attach to grading feedback and return to your students. The more you help them, the better they’re going to be in their writing and communication skills over time.

Helping Students with Unexpected Life Events

Let’s talk about students with unexpected interruptions and life events. Students might need some flexibility or support due to unexpected life events like accidents, major illnesses, natural disasters, divorce, work or military scheduling changes and other surprises.

In some cases, students will reach out right away, as soon as they have a problem and they’ll probably work with you to try to resolve it and submit whatever missing work they have. In other cases, the students simply disappear and they stop participating in the course at all until some future time, at which point they either reach out to you or you have reached out to them. And somehow you reconnect.

If you can have a little bit of structure and flexibility at the same time, you’ll give yourself the space to accommodate students with these kinds of unexpected needs. Now, if you have a student who is just telling you they have a little problem and they need another day or two on their assignment, in the online world, it’s much better to give them one full week because the student may not be able to check their email or their messages tomorrow. So if you give them just one day, it might be a day or two before they get your answer. And by then, the time has already passed. So to make it work best for your online students, I do recommend setting that extended timeline a full week at a time, whenever you need to.

There are unusual cases where a student repeatedly disappears from a class, stops participating, and despite your flexibility or helpfulness, they really do fail the course. This does sometimes happen. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen. And you just need to know that sometimes in online learning, a student does feel that they can’t move forward and they do fail to reach out to you or respond to your messages. It’s typically not fully your fault. Sometimes it’s beyond your control. Circumstances happen in the student’s life and they will follow up at some other time.

Outreach Strategies to Help Students

When you use your outreach effort and your communication with students who appear to be missing or less engaged in your course, this might actually prompt your student to re-engage, especially if the student was simply discouraged and they started to think they were too far behind to complete the class at all. The more you reach out to a student, the more they are likely to re-engage and eventually finish the course. Your outreach could be an email. It could be a message in the classroom. It could be a phone call. When you reach out to your students, hope can be restored for them and you might even be able to remove some roadblocks to their success.

If you have a pretty harsh late policy, you might consider waiving it in cases like this where the student really has given up, they’ve lost hope. They think they cannot get enough credit to pass and you’re trying to work with them to get back on track.

Most academic institutions actually request that their instructors do reach out to some kind of academic advisor or student services or academic support or some other early-warning team to follow up with the student and help him or her in their future direction. So be sure to contact those departments as you’re doing these outreach efforts.

When you contact your students early the first week of the class, before things are really underway, this is a really effective way to help get a connection right from the start before any problems arise. Now, by the second week, you might notice that a few have stopped participating. And that’s also a good time to reach out and ensure that students know they can contact you, they can move forward, and you can help them navigate between decisions they might be making about dropping or withdrawing or persevering.

There are a lot of messages you can send students in cases like this. One would be a sample outreach message that I’ll share right now. My message might say something like this:

“Welcome to the class. I’m so glad you’re here and I hope that you enjoy our new course. We recently wrote a new textbook and redesigned the learning activities to help you have a better experience in the class. I might occasionally send you a note here in the messages area to share information with you or to communicate about the course. Please reply to this message to let me know you received it so I can be confident this is a good way to communicate with you.”

And then I’ll check back to see if the students have replied. I might send it a second time to their email if they don’t respond soon in the messages area. So I want to make sure from the very beginning of the class, that I have a really great way to contact them that’s reliable and that they got my messages.

Nothing’s worse than you and the student reaching out to each other over and over, but missing each other because one of you is using one platform and one’s using the other. For example, one of you is sending it to email and the other one’s using messages and you’re not checking those places. So be thinking about how to get a response before anything comes up.

Then in week two, if you see somebody missing, you might send something like this message:

“I noticed that you didn’t post or reply to peers in the week two discussion. Please go back to the forum and participate. It’s very important to post every week in our discussion forums to keep making progress in the class. I’m worried that you might be falling behind. If something has come up, I’d love to help you out. Please reply to let me know if I can be of help. I want you to succeed.”

The more you contact your students, again, as I’ve mentioned, the more you have a good chance of connecting with them and reengaging them in the class.

So we have a lot of different tips today that I’ve shared with you on helping adult learners, helping students manage time and task, and trying to follow up with students who have unusual experiences that take them away from the classroom and might interfere with their success.

Focus on Being Proactive, Flexible and Supportive

In summary, as you’re teaching a variety of online students, it’s normal to have to work with your students who have special needs, experience interruptions in their progress, or somehow go missing from your class. This can be discouraging for you if you haven’t experienced this. And at first you might wonder what’s wrong, but the most important thing is to reach out to these students. Focus on being proactive, flexible, and supportive so you can communicate and also follow up as much as possible.

When students have challenges, you might also have other departments that can support you with a whole team effort to refocus the situation and help the student deal with whatever problems they’re having as well. There are so many steps you can take before losing a student in your online class, as well as before the class even begins to already reach out to your students and connect with them. Take the time to look ahead and think about potential problems. It’s well worth the effort, and it will help you have a more successful experience with your students as well.

Thanks for joining me for this discussion of how to connect with your students so that they can be more successful in ways that will also work with you and the way you’re teaching online. Hang in there. It’s a challenge to reach out to struggling students, but you can do it. And the more you do, the more you can help. Best wishes in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week and your online teaching journey.

#46: Four Key Strategies to Improve Time Management in Online Teaching

#46: Four Key Strategies to Improve Time Management in Online Teaching

This content initially appeared on APUEDGE.Com

Time management must be a top priority for online teachers. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares four tips to help online educators be productive and effective in the virtual classroom. Learn strategies to assess and track how you’re currently spending your time, ways to prioritize your time so the most important tasks get done, how to minimize disruptions, and how to plan out your future time to ensure you’re fulfilling your current teaching responsibilities while also spending time on your long-term career goals.

 

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Thanks for joining me today in the Online Teaching Lounge. We’re going to talk about four key strategies that will help you in time management for your online teaching. It’s, of course, pretty well-known that we’re expected to do more with less in today’s world and in business and, of course, in teaching and learning.

It’s very easy to feel that distractions are just coming from every direction when you’re working online, in particular. We might have emails coming at us, new ways of working in the classroom, perhaps we have a different learning management system or LMS in our school or institution. We might also be trying new strategies or using new pieces of subject matter, something that we’re unfamiliar with.

Whether it’s finding a new way of engaging with our students or just trying to survive all those daily distractions that normally happen in the online world, or even maybe it’s just living and working at home at the same time, whatever those things are that are coming at you, time management is a top priority.

Tip 1: Assess Where Your Time Goes Now

So where can we start? The first tip is just like anything in life, we need to know where we are right now. If you were to plan a financial strategy, you would first want to know: where does your money go? What are you spending it on? What is your current budget?

So the first step is to know where your time actually goes. Most of us think we know how we spend the time, and we think we’re accounting for all of that time grading, teaching, and being in the classroom.

Chances are there’s a lot more we’re doing when we’re in our work mode than just teaching our courses. Some statistics say that online workers spend up to 40% of their time managing email. That could be two and a half to three hours a day just checking emails, reading emails, and responding.

You might have interruptions throughout your work day. There’s this idea that people cannot really multitask, but if you change tasks in the middle of what you’re doing, you’re actually doing something called task switching. If you’re task switching, you’re spending a great deal of time just trying to get back on task and you spend time refocusing. Most people would call that time waste or time sink. It just disappears.

As you start looking at where your time actually goes, how do you keep track of this? One way to keep track of where your time is going and how you actually spend it is to use something called a time tracker. This could be as easy as an Excel spreadsheet or just a document you write down by hand. You can write down every 15 or 20 minutes or even every half hour what you did during that time.

After the first day of doing this, you’ll be able to look back over the day and see how much of your time was spent actually working, teaching, and doing those things that you think you’re doing online or on the computer, and how many minutes were actually spent doing something else.

You can do it, as I mentioned, electronically or on paper, but whatever you do, you’re going to want to be excruciatingly honest about where that time is going, and then you can start to sort it. You can put it in categories like:

  • Meetings or email reading
  • Different kinds of grading or accountability strategies you have in your classroom with your students
  • Time spent responding to instant messaging, if there is such a thing in your classroom
  • If you post in online discussions or teach live lectures, you could also write down all the time spent there
  • Time spent looking at data, analyzing how to improve student success
  • Time spent connecting with your colleagues, your managers, your team, building relationships. Time spent talking to students individually
  • Time spent posting and discussions and managing the announcements within a course
  • Even time spent writing a course. Some of you are definitely developers and spend a lot of time there too.

Outside of those immediate professional tasks, you might also have time spent interrupting to go downstairs or down the hall and take care of a little bit of your home duties. Some people punctuate their online work with breaks, and rightly so. This helps to re-energize you. Take a short walk down the hall and you can start fresh.

But some of that can really grow into a lot of time spent doing the laundry, doing the dishes, taking the dog for a walk, and writing down exactly how much time is really spent doing those things will help you be more accountable.

As you look over this tracker, look for trends. What are you seeing in the way your time is being spent? Where are you giving the most time? Where is the time just disappearing on either interrupted tasks or household chores or things that really are not part of the work day? And what is the impact? What are your results in the way you’re managing your time?

If it’s really true that 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts, where is the effort really coming from? What kind of focus are we giving that 80% of the results we’re getting? In essence, we’re looking at how things are right now to determine what you want to do more of and what you’d like to do less of.

Once you identify how you’re really spending your time, you have the power to change it. You can be more productive by moving things around, scheduling your work around when you have the most energy and also trying various types of productivity strategies.

Tip 2: How to Prioritize Your Time  

The second key strategy to managing your time more effectively when you’re working online is to prioritize things. Many things seem urgent and important. It can be at times very difficult to know the difference when everything seems due all at once or when there’s a short timeline. When everything seems important, stop and take stock, considering what really is important.

What things are most important to you short-term, long-term and overall throughout your career? What is the most important thing to your students? What matters most to your institution, your university or school where you’re teaching? What are you doing that lines up with your mission or your values as a human being, as an educator, and what really is your biggest priority in the long run and in the big picture?

There are a lot of tools out there you can look at to help you prioritize things, and also to help you develop a strategy for this. There’s a Stephen Covey tool, that’s the urgent and important matrix, pretty well known. It’s basically got four squares on it and these quadrants are places where you’re going to list things that are urgent and important, urgent but not important, important but not urgent and not urgent and not important. Once you sort things into these kinds of categories, you can determine what needs to happen first, second, and third throughout the day.

You might also consider various mapping tools and other prioritization strategies. A lot of these tools help you think about what really matters to you long-term, versus what you think you might need to just do today. And then you can have a strategy about the way you approach your time management teaching online and the way you manage your priorities throughout your academic career or your educational career. Some things will fall off your list altogether once you do these tasks.

Tip 3: Executing Tasks in a Focused Manner without Disruption

The third key strategy to managing your time when you’re working and teaching online is to simply get things done and limit your interruptions. We call this, in the business world, executing. Executing means we’re not in planning mode anymore. We’re not thinking about it. We’re not prepping for the class. We’re doing the things. This means we’re getting things done productively.

Execution itself is a state of being focused, checking things off the list, doing them quickly in a focused manner. This might mean that you might do your grading all at once or in a set period of time during which you allow no interruptions to come in, and you simply focus on grading students’ assignments.

You want to think about what time of day you’re at your best. When you really have challenging things to complete, for example, if you need to do we do some curriculum design and that’s not really your strongest suit, start with an energetic activity, something you’re really great at. Then, put a period of curriculum design in there, and then get back to something else more energetic.

Find ways to put the things that really need to get done in between periods of time that are really energizing for you so you can stay focused throughout the day and do the deeper work that you also need to do in your professional field.

The more you’re interrupted, the less you’re going to get done. You’re not going to be able to execute things. Those interruptions will cause you a lot of stress and lengthen your work day. There was some research that noted that there was about 25 minutes lost with major interruptions, just to get refocused again.

You might not be able to totally get rid of your interruptions, but you can definitely reduce them and find some strategies that help you manage interruptions in ways that are more effective. You might note what kinds of interruptions frequently occur. Write them down. Just like you did a budget for the way you spend your time, you can actually keep a checklist of interruption types, or you can just keep a record of what kinds of interruptions happened and when they occurred throughout the day.

If you start looking for patterns and trends, you might be able to anticipate where you actually just need to take breaks and spend time with your family, or spend time on those other things that tend to keep interrupting you.

You can also create some focused time that’s supercharged. Close your door, turn off your phone or leave it in the other room, close all of your apps and different types of things that would send you notifications, and work most intensely during one or two hours.

Also, give yourself time to relax outside of those more focused times. When your subconscious brain knows it’s going to get a chance to not have to be hyper-focused, chances are you’re going to allow yourself to be more focused when you need to be.

And, of course, set up some special times when you’re going to look through the emails and answer the phone calls and reach out to the people that might otherwise have reached out to you in a way that was interrupting.

Think about what focus really looks like for you. What kind of time do you already have in your day to get work done and what kind of time do you have to just do the planning or follow up things? What kinds of interruptions do you normally have in your work day and what approaches might you use to reduce those interruptions?

Tip 4: Track Your Time in the Future for Long-Term Changes

Lastly, the fourth key, the strategy is to track your time in the future. Rather than just tracking it, to see where you’re at and creating a budget for the future, now we’re looking at time to get data about how to keep improving.

As you track your time, you’re going to be able to see what your career is really made of. What your job as an online instructor is most centered on. Does it really reflect what you think it is? And where do you want to start making long-term changes? You might plan really well, but when you need to get a lot done and execute tasks, you also need to be able to count on the time that you have set aside so that it is valuable and spent the best it can possibly be spent.

Track the time you spend talking to students, following up with students and actually interacting with your students. If you used to teach live courses and now you’re just teaching online in an asynchronous manner, notice how much time you spend one-on-one and in large-group interactions with your students compared to how you did that in the face-to-face setting. Chances are you’re going to find it actually takes more time online than it did in the face-to-face.

You might also want to keep track of the way you spend time around your most important goals. For example, if you also do research and you want to spend time writing research papers, presenting at conferences, and doing that sort of thing in the academic world, you’ll  want to track all the time you spend on that every day to see that you do spend some time.

Also, consider how much of your time across a given week is actually spent on meetings. Meetings with your department, your team, your manager, your students, any kind of meetings at all. And start looking at how these align with your values and with where you think you want things to go. What kinds of tasks and activities are part of your work day that you actually want to track? What results are you aiming for that you need to see in your own work?

When you have scheduled your time to review these things, and you’ve found some patterns that work for you, you’ll be able to maximize these four key time management strategies, and you will be on top of your online work, getting things done.

In closing, consider which one of these four key strategies is a priority for you right now. If you find online resources or manual resources, like making lists, writing things down that really work for you, stop by the website and share a comment. Tell us what’s working. We love to see what works and we love to share it with other online educators to help us all be the best we possibly can be. Thanks for being here with me today to talk about these four key strategies. I wish you all the best in your online teaching this week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.