Time is always running out for online instructors,
and online instructors are always running out of time. If teaching online
is time consuming, this is because the absence of face-to-face contact
with students requires instructors to respond to all inquiries in writing.
It is for this reason that the very design of an online course needs
to take into account a clear time frame for responding to students within
the different areas of the course. These different areas include, but
are not limited to, 1) e-mail, 2) asynchronous conferencing (private
and public) and 3) assignments and exams. Each area requires a different
response time frame. In this month's Pointer and Clicker, we give our
recommendations for setting up a response time frame for each of these
three areas of online courses.
E-mail is a form of asynchronous conferencing. However,
students and instructors use it differently from the way they use other
asynchronous conferencing software, such as bulletin boards or a threaded
discussion. Students and instructors instinctively know that an e-mail
is the fastest way to contact someone, because it is not necessary for
that person to be logged on to the course Web site to view the message.
Therefore, e-mail can be used to deal with more urgent problems such
as technical difficulties or personal emergencies. Students can also
send questions regarding specific aspects of the course, such as a grade
received on an assignment or quiz.
Whatever the topic of the e-mail inquiry may be, an
instructor should understand that an e-mail indicates that the student
is trying to get in touch with him/her as soon as possible. A response
given within 24 hours is ideal in this case.
However, on some occasions an instructor may need time
to think about the student's inquiry. In this case, it is best for the
instructor to send the student an e-mail acknowledging the question and
letting the student know when to expect a response. Let us suppose that
an instructor receives an e-mail from a student who is posing a highly
theoretical question. All teachers have experienced these "stump" questions,
and in a classroom situation it is perfectly appropriate to say, "that's
a good question, but I'll have to think about how to answer it and get
back to you at the next class session." An appropriate e-mail response
could be something like this: "thanks for your very good question.
I'm going to take some time to think about it. I'll get back to you by
...an instructor should
let students know that their e-mails have been received and that
he/she will respond to them as soon as possible.
In another scenario, an instructor may simply be too busy with on-campus
duties to respond adequately to students' messages on a particular day. In
this case, an instructor should let students know that their messages have
been received and that he/she will respond to them as soon as possible. This
could be done by either composing short, friendly messages, or setting up
the e-mail account to respond automatically.
Unlike e-mail, asynchronous conferencing usually involves
three or more people and is often organized around specific topics. Some
of the more popular conferencing software include, but are not limited
to, WebBoard (O'Reilly) or the bulletin boards that come with WebCT or
Blackboard's CourseInfo. In most cases, instructors divide the
asynchronous conferencing area of the course into several smaller, directed
discussion topics. For example, an instructor could create four different
subconferences. Within each subconference, students are expected to stay
within the discussion thread.
Here is an example from an MVCR course of a threaded discussion using WebBoard.
Although the instructor
should not post responses to every message, he/she should log onto
the conference at least five days per week and at least once a day.
Since students are expected to post messages to the
different conferences, an asynchronous conferencing board is ideally
a busy and dynamic area of the course. Therefore, it is neither practical,
nor pedagogically sound, for an instructor to respond to all of the postings.
This is not practical because it would take valuable time and energy
away from other areas of the course. This is not pedagogically sound
because conference boards are areas where students have the opportunity
to talk to each other and, in some cases, take charge of discussions.
Although the instructor should not post responses to
every message, he/she should log onto the conference at least five days
per week and at least once a day. He/she can respond to selected individual
messages or post a message that synthesizes several messages.
The time frame within which the instructor gives feedback
and grades for assignments or exams is different from e-mail and asynchronous
conferencing. Moreover, for this area of an online course, the appropriate
response time may vary among instructors. However, it is not a good idea
to wait more than one week after the due date to grade an assignment.
The most important step to take is to let students know when they can expect
a grade on an assignment or quiz. The turnaround time for grading assignments
could be built into the course design as a general policy. For example, an
instructor could state on the syllabus that grades for all assignments and
exams will be available one week after the due date or the exam date.
The most important step
to take is to let students know when they can expect a grade on an
assignment or quiz.
There are several advantages to this type of policy. On the one hand, the consistency
of the response time for all submissions avoids confusion and sets up clear expectations.
On the other hand, when an instructor waits until the due date to grade all assignments,
rather than grading them as they come in, he/she is likely to be more consistent
with grading criteria. If an instructor wishes to set up a different system,
for example a two-day turnaround time for assignments and a four-day turnaround
time for quizzes and exams, this can also be spelled out in the course policies.
In addition, the instructor can remind students of when
they should expect a grade on an assignment or an exam by putting this information
in the submission message. One such submission message might be: "Thank
you for submitting the homework assignment for October 3. You can expect
your grade to be available by noon on October 5."
Always set clear and realistic policies for response time
in online courses, and communicate these policies to the students. Moreover,
integrate this notion of response time into the course design.