This June, I had the good fortune to sit down and talk with Steve Dunn regarding time management strategies in online courses. Steve is a veteran faculty member of UW Extended Campus’ Sustainable Management program with over six years of teaching experience. He is also partnering with the new Applied Biotechnology program. In our discussion, we covered the three phases of the course cycle: planning, development, and teaching. This blog post will discuss some of the key items that we spoke about for each phase. The main question that I asked Steve was, “If you look back at your years of experience in online education, what are some things that you would tell yourself when you first started?”
In the first part of our discussion, we talked about the shift to online education and how to approach planning for an online course. We know that the online education provides students and faculty an opportunity to view education from a different perspective. This requires a change in approach, working from the desired result and moving backwards (backwards design). In brief, backwards design is the course development process of starting with objectives, then building assessments based upon those objectives, and finishing development by locating resources that help students complete the assessments. In regard to using backwards design, Steve stated, “Beginning with the end in mind was the single hardest thing to wrap my mind around.” It is important to think ahead when planning your online course, and the backwards design process represents a shift from the traditional line of course design where development starts with a textbook and determines objectives last. If you are new to online education, it may take you some time to adjusting to backwards design, but it is a valuable process.
Along with backwards design, Steve mentioned that one of the biggest changes in the online education was working with a team on course design and development. He said that he was he was at first overwhelmed with the resources and wasn’t used to others asking questions about course design. His advice was to lean into the team approach and listen to the support. Steve said, “Recognize that you are on a team and that the team is trying to help you to make the courses so much better. Most professors are pretty busy with teaching, research, and their personal life, so the team is a big time saver.” Use your resources early and often, and don’t be afraid to reach out for advice! It can save a lot of time in development and when the course is active.
Recognize that you are on a team and that the team is trying to help you to make the courses so much better.
Moving into the development period of course design is an exciting time period. Ideas from brainstorming sessions are given more detail, and the course starts to come to life. The options and possibilities are seemingly endless. This time is a chance to consider resources and assessments. Though having a blank slate of a course in front of you is exciting, it is important to take a few different considerations into account during course development. Keeping these consideration in mind during the development phase can later save you time teaching. One thing that Steve pointed out was assignments, stating that, “As professor, we feel that urge of ‘I have to give this, give them that, and this, etc.,’ but, in online education, you have to step back and ask yourself, ‘Why am I giving this assignment?’”
As professors, we can feel that urge of “I have to give this, give them that, and this, etc.,” but, in online education, you have to step back and ask yourself, “Why am I giving this assignment?”
It is important to Steve that his students find his assignments useful and that he has realistic expectations about his assessments and students. To help keep assessments realistic, you shouldn’t overburden students with a large number of assessments. At UW Extended Campus, we know that many our of students are working adults who only have some much time to dedicate to coursework each week. We also know that it can be very time consuming to write a large number of assessments during the development phase. It is more useful to think of quality over quantity. Thinking ahead, it is important to think of what is realistic for you in terms of course facilitation as a faculty.
You will also want to consider your how much time you have available for grading and feedback. Steve had some great advice about assessment details, saying something along the line of ‘simple is better’. Using a simple approach to grading can save you time in the long run. For example, if you have an assessment that is graded along the lines of 3.3, 3.8, and 4.0, you open yourself for a lot of questions from students. Steve explained the complications of this grading scale. “You might say to yourself, ‘What is a 3.3 compared to a 3.8? Is it a C or is it B? What did I just do? Now I have to spend time penciling out what each number means.’ Students would ask the exact same questions: ‘You gave me a 3.6. Why did you give me that grade?’”
You might say to yourself, “What is a 3.3 compared to a 3.8? Is it a C or is it B? What did I just do? Now I have to spend time penciling out what each number means.” Students would ask the exact same questions: “You gave me a 3.6. Why did you give me that grade?”
It can be difficult to justify minute differences like these—for example, sometimes a discrete scale will save you time in the long run—but it’s worth considering what could be the most effective grading scale for your assessments. During development, you should keep considerations like how many assessments you should use and how they are graded in mind to save yourself time when you are later facilitating your course.
Teaching load is understandably a common concern for online faculty members. With the 24/7 nature of emails and discussion posts, it is easy for faculty to always feel that they are always on the clock. Steve addressed feeling this pressure and his strategies for working with it. He recommends setting expectations early with your students. This can include guidelines regarding faculty response time for feedback or answering emails. Having these guidelines in place both helps you set boundaries to protect your personal time as well as gives students an expectation for communication, which can save you time and headaches as faculty. Another tactic that Steve has found helpful is setting a course routine. He said that, “In online education, it is best to make a course routine, and you will want to try to make a habit of checking your courses on a regular basis.”
In online education, it is best to make a course routine, and you will want to try to make a habit of checking your courses on a regular basis
Setting specific days or times to check coursework is a great way to keep on top of your workload. You can also leverage Canvas for course management. For example, Steve has found great value in setting up notifications in Canvas because “When Canvas sends me a notification that says someone has commented, it lets me know that I need to check out the post.” While it’s not always feasible to do so, Steve recommends viewing the course every day. As a veteran faculty member, he understands that an immediate response is not always possible, but students appreciate a response in a timely manner. Just like it’s helpful for students, setting up a routine is one way to help you manage student expectations and stay on top of your workload.
The good news for faculty is that Canvas has features that help with time management. If you attended the 2019 Symposium presentation on Connections and Reflections, you learned about Canvas features such as course level reports, announcements, rubrics, automatic feedback, and the DocViewer. I talked with Steve about one of these features (and everybody’s favorite): rubrics! Well, maybe rubrics aren’t everybody’s favorite; Steve even told me how he fought the use of rubrics for years until he eventually thought, “Why fight it?” After he stopped fighting against them, he has found that they greatly sped-up his grading time. Steve said of rubrics: “Rubrics will save you all kinds of time. It gives you a quick and easy way to grade. Students really appreciate the rubrics as well because they know that you are using guidelines other than your own opinion.”
Rubrics will save you all kinds of time. It gives you a quick and easy way to grade.
This is because of a couple different factors. On one hand, the use of a rubric saves you time that you would have to explain or defend your grades to students. In online education, you can’t sit down with the class and explain your thoughts in person, but rubrics are a great way to do this in an online environment. Students are also aware of the grading expectations going into submission, so it leaves less room for confusion or needed explanation. On the other hand, rubrics help speed up the grading time for yourself as faculty. You can simply click through the rubric to assign points for a specific category, and Canvas will calculate the score. The rubric tool in Canvas also integrates with Speedgrader to provide a quick and efficient way for faculty to grade many assignments. Plus, you still have room to leave specific feedback with general or annotation comments.
Another tool in Canvas that Steve finds helpful for workload management is the mute assignment feature. This allows you to grade an assignment without immediately sending out a notification of the grades to students. You can then un-mute the assignment to release all graded responses at once. This feature has saved Steve time by reducing questions from students who were concerned when grades were distributed at various times.
Steve did have one word of warning about a common time saving technique: the use of groups projects. Group projects are a great way to build student-to-student interaction in your course and reduce the amount of submissions that you have to grade as faculty member. Steve has found that this is true, but also that groups have increased the amount of time he has spent managing in a course instead of teaching. Unfortunately, some students don’t know how to work well in a group, which can lead to a lot of monitoring from faculty. Steve mentioned that one of the most important aspects to focus on is the formation of groups. If you have well-balanced groups, it can save you time throughout the course. If you are interested in using groups, feel free to check out our previous blog post on demystifying group projects.
In conclusion we look back on our initial question: “What does Steve know now that he would tell himself when he first started in online education?” His answer? Plan ahead, understand why you’re asking your students to do certain activities, and clearly communicate expectations to your students. All of these practices will lead to less time managing and more time teaching!