Healthy Online Teaching

Teaching online has its own skill set that isn’t immediately appreciated by those who haven’t experienced it, or are experiencing it for the first time. Serdyukov (n.d.) lays out many of the differences in online education, from characteristics of successful students to differences in teacher-student interactions. Online teachers must possess a very specific skill set with regard to content, technology prowess, and social skills. Students should possess the same level of tech and social skills, as well as strong problem-solving and organizational strategies. (Good news: as behavior analysts, we know all of that can be taught – it isn’t a lost cause).

My experiences with online teaching and learning go back to 1998, when I took my first online class. There was no guidance back then for students or teachers. I read my articles on my Compu-Serv dial-up connection then wrote a reaction paper. The professor responded with all-caps comments. Grades were distributed online without a second thought to FERPA. Since then, I have taught many online courses. Here are what I see as the differences between online and face-to-face:

  • You can’t just record your lectures and call yourself an online teacher. Online teaching requires deliberate planning of activities and interactions, or they just don’t happen.
  • The asynchronous nature of online teaching makes you more of a producer of educational content than a classroom teacher. Think recording artist versus live performer.
  • Boundaries are very different. You are expected to be available when your colleagues are resting and renewing (late nights, weekends). There is a lot of apologizing to your friends for staying home. The speed at which you respond to inquiries is also expected to be shorter. We’re used to an instant access culture.
  • Related to that same idea, feedback for assignments is expected within 24-48 hours of submission.
  • That said, the rest of the IHE is business as usual. Faculty meetings are held M-F. People are in their offices during typical academic hours. Depending upon your schedule, support staff might be working hours opposite of yours and your students. The expectation is that your job is the same as, or even easier than, a brick-and-mortar teacher.
  • Go to a conference? You are still on the same clock – can’t use an out of office email for a few days.
  • Thrive on the immediate social reinforcement of your students? This will be less in an online environment unless you plan for interactions.

The draw of the online siren is that you can work anywhere (true), hours are flexible (true), and the impression that the workload is less (so not true). Teaching online can be a great experience, it just won’t be the same experience you have as a brick-and-mortar teacher. The contingencies are just different. Grading is different – for example, watching presentation videos is very different than watching in-class presentations. Some of these tasks take more time, and some less.

Think about the last webinar you attended where your video and microphone were off. How many times did you check your phone? Leave to do something quickly because no one would be the wiser? Maybe (c’mon, admit it) filed your nails or dusted the house? My life changed completely when I figured out that I could watch student videos at 1.5-2x speed and still make out every word.

Given the misunderstood nature of online teaching and learning, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I’m not seeing a whole lot about wellbeing for online teachers. Some of the issues are similar to others who don’t work in an office, and we have discussed them before. That said, I think there are some things that are very different about online teaching. Specifically, online teaching and working from home is only one part of your job. The scholarship and service requirements still remain, and they remain more “brick” than “click” in most cases.

So, I guess we need to make up our own rules for balance and health. Here are the ones that I suggest (references and ideas welcome):

  • Set your own boundaries. It is ok to take an hour to go to the gym, or not answer email after a certain time. Try it. “Sorry, while I would love to attend your 7:30 am meeting, I have another obligation scheduled at that time.”
  • Explain to your friends and family that your schedule is going to be different when you teach online classes. For the most part, you’ll be working second shift for a while. Actually, it is probably more of a split shift, where you get urgent things done in the AM and work on other things later in the evening.
  • Putting the burden of learning on the student is a win-win. We know that active learning strategies are more likely to produce better outcomes. Allow them to interact with the materials, and each other. One behavior analytic way (that doesn’t involve discussion boards) is interteaching. I find that students grumble at the concept, do it a few times, then ask for more.
  • Find ways to interact with your co-workers, either through email, working (or not) lunches, and text messaging.

To be fair, I’m a work in progress with this topic. I’m sure that my practices and attitudes will evolve with experience and research. Comment below if you have some tips for online teaching you would like to share!

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