Time, tasks, and synchronous learning

You’re teaching a 50-minute class. You arrive in the classroom 8 minutes before class begins, get set up at the front of the room, and greet students as they arrive. The clock strikes the hour, and you begin. Maybe you have an announcement or two. Or maybe you just start with “Today we’ll be learning about …” and dive right in to a lecture or activity. You move smoothly through the day’s lesson plan. You ask questions and students answer them. As the class ending time nears, students give you non-verbal cues about the time. They close notebooks or laptops and put items in their backpacks. Everything runs smoothly.

In a synchronous class, you can do the same things with your students, but time and interactions will work a little differently. To have the smoothest experience possible, it helps to anticipate how time and interactions are different in the synchronous classroom. Here are some thoughts about what to expect and some tips to help manage the experience.

Preparing students. It’s not enough to give your students a time and a link for a synchronous session. Students need to be prepared for what to expect. Things to consider include:

  • Will students be sitting and quietly viewing? Or will they be interacting?
  • What technology do students need to participate? Will a camera and/or microphone be needed?
  • Will you expect students to have webcams on?

Let students know these details in advance. If they will be speaking, they need to be in a quiet location. If they will be on webcam, they should be mindful of what they are wearing (you know these things become tips for a reason), the lighting, and what is in the background. Tell them how to prepare.

Before class begins. Leave yourself enough time to get everything set up for your students. In some tools, like zoom, it’s possible to have students sit in a virtual waiting room until you are able to open up your virtual classroom. You might plan on logging in 15 minutes before class time, so you can get your computer set up, check your camera and microphone, set up slides or screen sharing, and gather all items that you might need into your workspace. If you’ll be doing screen sharing, open all of the necessary screens in the background so you’ll have a smooth transition. Close programs and screens that you won’t be using and turn off any alerts that might interrupt the class. Set up your screen the way you want it (e.g., adjust chat and participant windows so you can see them, if you want).

Once you’re all set up, you can let students join you in the virtual classroom. If you tell students you’ll be online 10 minutes early so you can interact with them and help them get set up, some will join you at that time. Consider it the online equivalent to being available for a few minutes during class, with one key difference: No privacy. That means it’s not a good time to discuss a student’s personal problems or progress in class. It is, however, a great time to ask how your students are doing and get informal feedback on how the class is going.

When class begins. You may plan to start right on time, but expect students to show up during the first minute or two of class. People generally underestimate the amount of time it will take them to get logged in and set up.

Take a moment at the start to make sure everyone is comfortable using the conferencing tool and can hear you and see your slides or whatever other materials you might be sharing.

If you will be recording the session (and you should, because students may want to review it and some students may not be able to attend in real time), let everyone know that you are recording, and then start the recorder.

It’s also a good idea to begin the class session (EVERY class session) with a reminder of the rules of engagement in the online class. These are some good ones to follow:

  • Leave your microphone on mute unless you are speaking.
  • Do not unmute your microphone until you are called on.
  • If you want to be called on, indicate that by (typing in the chat / raising your virtual hand).
  • Feel free to type questions and comments in the chat, but make sure they are on topic and remember that it is a public chat.
  • If tech problems arise and you cannot hear or see me, type in the chat.
  • Questions typed in chat may not be answered immediately, but there will be time to review and answer them.

I have a slide with these rules on them, and regularly ask students if there are other rules they would like to add. I also modify the rules as needed based on the class and the activity.

Expect that the “getting started” part of class may take anywhere from two to five minutes.

During class. If you’re lecturing online, it will feel strange at first because you won’t have the same feedback you get in the classroom. You won’t be able to easily scan the room and see who is paying attention and who looks confused. You won’t be easily able to tell who has a question or a contribution. It may feel like you are staring at the screen talking to yourself.

Sitting still and watching someone talk online is nowhere near as interesting as watching someone lecture in a classroom. You should expect that attention will wane after 10 minutes (if not earlier) unless you’ve been able to engage student attention in some other way. To help students maintain focus or attention, consider some of the following options:

  • Plan to invite students to participate at regular intervals. This may not be the time to get fancy and learn how to use polling tools. Just pause and ask a question or invite student contributions. If you’re using slides, display the question on a slide. Invite students to post their response in the chat, or to speak. To indicate that they want to speak, invite students to raise their virtual hands or, if that’s too much to deal with technologically speaking (and it may be), ask them to type something like “raising hand” in the chat, so you can call on them.
  • Encourage students to ask questions and make comments along the way. Tell them that every so often you will pause to review the chat and catch up with any questions. The change of pace will help break things up enough so students can refocus when you dive back in too content. You can read the chat conversation and respond to it. Invite student to interact with you more while you do that. It might start an interesting class conversation.
  • Offer a 7th inning stretch. Take a short break and invite everyone to get up, get a glass of water, and return in X minutes.

When you invite student to participate, it will take time for them to formulate a response and the type it into the chat. This radio silence can be a little anxiety-inducing if you’re not used to it, and it can be tempting to just keep moving forward. One strategy that can help is to tell students that you will give them a set amount of time (90 seconds?) to formulate or answer questions and submit to the chat. Having a defined purpose for and period of silence makes that silence more comfortable. Sit back and time the break. Have a drink of water and turn your webcam off for a moment if you would like. Return after the appointed time and start responding to what your students have posted.

If you invite students to speak, it will take a moment for them to unmute themselves. That’s normal. Try to get into the habit of saying providing the reminder to unmute, and making everyone comfortable with the silence. “I see Mike’s hand raised. Please unmute yourself and share with us, Mike. Speak whenever you are ready.”

Beware of lag time. Sometimes the audio and visual channels of conferencing tools do not move at the same speed. If you change slides on your computer or share a new document, it may take a moment before everyone else’s screen catches up. Be patient.

At the end of class. If you finish your planned agenda early, that’s fine. Open the session up to Q&A or discussion, and if no one has anything to say, bring the session to a close.

If the allotted time is almost over and you haven’t finished everything you had planned, that’s okay. You can make the decision to go on and finish, inviting people log off if they need to leave, or to wrap up wherever you are.  The latter is probably preferable, because students who have to leave will feel some anxiety about that. If you keep going, remind everyone that you are recording and be sure to share the recording after it is done.

When you wrap up, stop recording. You may wish to stay online for a few minutes (with the recording turned off) for any students who want to interact informally.

Evaluating the session. After the session, take a few moments to reflect. What worked well for you? What could you improve? Did you feel in control of time? If you had too much planned, remember to scale back the next time.

Invite students to offer you feedback, too. What worked for them? What could you do differently the next time?

Finally, don’t forget to share the recording with your class.

Don’t forget or penalize the students who couldn’t join or fully participate in the session. We’re moving online under emergency circumstances. Just because students had been able to show up in a physical classroom at a set time doesn’t mean that they will be able to do the same in a virtual space under their current conditions. Some may not have Internet access at home, or sufficient devices to participate actively (or at all). Under the current circumstances, it’s not reasonable to ask them to go out and find a wifi hotspot or a public library with available computers. In other cases, students may be able to watch but not fully participate. They may have small children at home, or be in a noisy environment that they cannot control. Invite them to participate in whatever ways they can, but also to not feel pressured or upset about what they cannot do. Be sure to have an alternate plan for these students and reassure them that they will not fall behind or be penalized.


Time, tasks, and asynchronous learning

When is class? And what am I supposed to do? These are questions that students who are new to asynchronous learning tend to wonder. Without guidance from their instructor, students tend to treat asynchronous experiences as “anytime, anywhere” learning, in which anytime maybe be earlier, later, or less frequently than you had anticipated. Thus, it’s important to set and share your expectations about asynchronous learning with your students.

Setting weekly boundaries

In an asynchronous course, most instructors use a week as the unit of time that defines instructional activities. Ideally you pick a day when the instructional week starts, and a day when it ends. It’s common to use Sun-Sat or Mon-Sun, although I have seen some people try abbreviated weeks with designated days off.

It helps to be precise with time. I might tell my students that the instructional week runs from Monday at 12 am EDT through Sunday at 11:59 pm EDT. Yes, I even specify the time zone because online students may not share the time zone where the institution is located. Also, if you don’t specify it from the start, someone is sure to ask.

Note that there is no perfect choice here. No matter what you choose as the end of the week or deadline/due date for an activity or assignment, someone is bound to complain about it, or at least express a desire for a different time. It goes something like this:

Person 1: Assignments are due by Sunday at 11:59? But my Internet at home isn’t great. I need to have until Monday morning to turn it in, so I can use the Internet at work.

Person 2: It’s due on Monday at noon? That’s no fair! I work on Mondays. How can you expect me to be finishing my assignment while I’m at work? It should be due Monday evening.

Pick a day and time. Be clear about it. Stick to it.

Time and activities

When I teach on campus, I have three contact hours per week. During those three hours, I might do five or six brief, hands-on learning activities with my students.

When I teach asynchronously online, my goal is to have students engaged for a similar amount of time, but not a similar number of activities. It gets complicated to run multiple concurrent activities with students who are participating at distributed times, and it also doesn’t work to try to spread the activities out (e.g., have a Monday activity, a Tuesday activity, and so on).

I recommend streamlining activities as much as possible, so students perceive only one or two interactive tasks for the week. For example, I might ask students to participate on a discussion forum. Within the forum, I may post multiple discussion prompts and give the students a choice of where to respond or ask them to respond to each one. In the end, they may effectively be working through the same learning objectives and content that we would have done across four in-class activities, but because it is all tied together in a single forum and listed as one type of activity, students are less likely to feel overwhelmed.

Set weekly interaction expectations

Knowing when and how to interact on campus is pretty simple for students. They show up to class at the appointed time and follow the directions provided by their instructor. Knowing when and how to interact online is not as easy for students, but the success of your asynchronous activities will be dependent on what students do.

You need to tell students things like how many times per week you expect them to log in to the class, and how many posts you want them to make in a discussion. Getting even more granular, it helps to tell students how many discussion forum posts you expect them to write, what or who they should be responding to in their posts, and what the deadlines are for posting. As nice as it is to think that students will naturally want to discuss, and that they will read and respond to each other’s posts in the forum, this probably won’t happen without clear instructor direction. Remember, this is a new way of learning for these students and they will look to their instructor to set the expectations.

If you want all students to respond to your prompt, tell them. Similarly, if you want students to respond to each other’s messages, tell them. Help them pace those responses and try to stimulate something approximating discussion by giving some deadlines. For example, you might say:

By Thursday at 11:59 pm, post your initial response to the discussion question.*

By Sunday at 11:59 pm, read what has been posted and reply to at least two classmates.

If you want to push a little more interaction, you could break it up with more incremental deadlines:

By Wednesday at 11:59 pm, post your initial response to the discussion question.

By Friday at 11:59 pm, read what has been posted and reply to at least two classmates.

By Sunday at 11;59 pm, return to the discussion and reply to at least two more classmates. If anyone has responded to your earlier posts, reply to them.

These are really basic guidelines, and there are certainly more sophisticated ones that you can set up, but if this is your first time doing it, start simple. The end result may not be fully fluid or resemble what you typically think of as discussion, but that’s okay. The mere act of composing one’s initial thoughts in a written message and then reacting to what others have posted is valuable practice and will help your students learn.

Students will display a range of participation behaviors related to time. Some will strive to post early in the week, and may want to get everything done well before the weekend. Others will be deadline huggers, posting right as the clock strikes midnight, or even a few minutes later.

*In many discussion tools, there’s an option to require students to post before they can see everyone else’s posts. You may wish to turn that on if you are concerned about students trying to copy others rather than formulate their own initial posts.

Help students manage their time and weekly tasks

I recommend using checklists for each week you are online. On the checklist you can put the tasks in an appropriate order, and specify and link to each item students are expected to do. This helps students see the week at a glance and feel confident that they are not missing anything. It also helps them manage their time when they can see how many things they need to do.

Here is an example of how I set up weekly module checklists in Canvas. I preface each category of items with the expected activity type (e.g., READ or DISCUSS) and use the same order and format each week to make things as easy as possible for my students.


Sample of a Module Checklist


Preparing to go online

The following guidelines are offered as assistance to instructors moving class online temporarily for emergency circumstances. Many of the same principles would apply under regular conditions, but I’ve modified them somewhat in recognition that this is a swift move to online instruction, and with so little time to plan it is best to focus on survival and not strive for perfection.

STEP ONE: Choose your mode(s)

Decide how you want to approach teaching your class. Specifically, decide whether you plan to teach synchronously or asynchronously, or to use a blend of the two approaches. The former is appropriate for activities that require real-time interaction, while the latter can support deeper reflection. Either is suitable for information dissemination (e.g., lectures) or discussion, but the overall flow and sense of time will differ.

Under the current circumstances, I recommend having some synchronous interactions available to your students. Students who are used to attending classes on campus will probably appreciate a nod to their regular routine, with synchronous classes held at the same day and time. It will be comforting for them to know you’re still there on Tuesdays at 10:30. Many of them intentionally signed up for face-to-face classes because they wanted to hear their instructor speak, and to be able to ask questions in real time. Some probably wanted accountability in their learning process, such as a specific time and place where they needed to show up and be counted.

That said it can be difficult to teach synchronously for the same length of time that we teach synchronously in a classroom. Attention spans drift and students wander away. It’s okay to plan synchronous session that are shorter than your regular campus sessions, or to have fewer synchronous meetings per week than campus meetings. You can fill in with asynchronous activities, or reserve part of the time for Q&A or office hours.

Also be aware that synchronous instruction may leave some students excluded. This is not a reason to avoid synchronous instruction, but it does mean that you need to be aware of who your students are, what their living and technology access conditions will be for the next few weeks, and provide alternates or make accommodations for them as needed. Synchronous sessions should not be mandatory, and should not be the only way to access critical information. They should be recorded and shared with students for viewing at a later time. Ideally you will also use a tool that generates a transcript (or upload to youtube and generate one that way), so you can offer the transcript and a copy of slides or other shared files to students who may have bandwidth issues.

STEP TWO: Choose your tools

As a general rule, I discourage instructors from trying too many tools in an online class. It just causes confusion. Even if you know how to use the tools already, your students may not, and each additional tool can add layers of confusion as students try to orient themselves in virtual space and struggle to remember multiple URLs, usernames, and passwords.

This is not the time to be playing with new tools if you can help it. A lot of people are recommending tools right now, and there are so many good ones to choose from. Some companies are offering free use of their tools for the next few months, which is very generous. However, success in the current context means keeping it simple. Learning new tools is not keeping it simple, and the more complex the tool, the steeper the learning curve.

Still, most folks who are new to online learning will have to learn a new tool or tool feature in order to teach online. If you’re already using a learning management system (LMS), like Canvas, then you’re well on your way. Stick with it and learn new features of it, as needed. If the LMS doesn’t fully meet your needs, look for the simplest tool you can find that will meet your needs.

If your campus has supported conferencing tools, those can be a good choice because it’s likely that you will be able to access technical and instructional support at your institution. Additionally, using institution-supported tools increases the likelihood that your students are already familiar with the tools you choose.

STEP THREE: Prepare your students

Your campus students are probably used to a predictable routine. They know what time class starts and what time class ends. They know how you start and end each session. They have already developed a clear rhythm for the semester, and that rhythm is being disrupted. They are now looking to you to set the new rhythm.

As chaotic as things may feel right now, it is your job to determine a plan, share it with students, and then stick to it. If you can tell your students right now what they should expect when their class goes online, they will appreciate it and have less anxiety over the situation. Specifically, students will want to know

  • what they need to do
  • when they need to do it
  • what tools they will use to do it
  • how they need to prepare to use those tools and interact in class

Providing this information in multiple modes and locations can be helpful. For example, you might write it all up into a long email and send that to your class via email, post a copy of it in the LMS, and also take advantage of a face-to-face meeting (if you have any left) or record a video. Your students might benefit from having this information delivered via video because they will see your familiar face and hear your voice reassuring them that this switch to online instruction is going to be okay.

Also remind your students that these are unusual circumstances, and that you’re doing the best you can on short notice. Ask them for their patience and kindness, and offer them yours in return. Tell them you will solicit and be open to their feedback, and then follow up on that.

You also might ask if you have anyone in the class who is familiar with the tools you are using and would like to help out, whether that means supporting classmates as they try to figure out new tools, or helping you moderate a synchronous class session.

STEP FOUR: Test the tools

Try out whatever tools you plan to use for online instruction before you have to teach with them. If you have time, do it quickly before telling students what you’re using so you can make an easy switch if it doesn’t work as planned.

Get a friend or two to test tools with you if possible, with one person playing instructor and a few people playing student. Colleagues who also want to use these tools can be helpful collaborators for testing tools.

Once you have a sense of how the tools work and how you want to use them, you might even set up an optional test session with your students, so they can try the tools without feeling the simultaneous pressure of needing to learn how to use the tool and focus on course content at the same time.

STEP FIVE: Teach … and be kind to yourself

This is probably not going to be your best teaching experience ever, but it also doesn’t have to be your worst one. Allow it to be imperfect. Put the people first, the content second, and the tools third. Recognize that it’s pretty amazing that you’re doing this shift in the middle of a term, and focus on how well you’re meeting your students’ needs.

My Research in a Minute

I recently recorded a Research in a Minute video thanks to the FSU College of Education. It’s difficult to encapsulate all that you do in a mere 60 seconds (give or take), but I think this video gives a pretty decent overview of the main interests that drive my various projects, whether they reflect research, practice, or a combination of the two.

On role models, activism, and being an academic mama

Some days the parts of one’s world seem to converge, bringing together moments and thoughts that were meant to be unrelated to show you how they really are related.

Recently I had one of those moments.

I was attending a dissertation defense, playing the role of outside member. It was an all-woman committee. I was on time that morning, but worried I would be late. My day had taken a slight detour at motherhood. My child had needed, and so I was there for her, but that meant entering the shower about 10 minutes later than I would have liked. It ended up fine. I was on time. Another academic mama on the committee was a few minutes late. No big deal, but also a kid issue. Sometimes mornings are difficult. And to be honest, I had difficult mornings before I became a mother.

The dissertation was about scholar-activism among Chicana doctoral students. The dissertation was memorable. The student (now graduate) wrote some powerful words as she synthesized and commented upon the words and experiences of other women. The presentation was also memorable. The student purposefully broke with convention in ways that made the audience feel the power of others. It was a provocative document and defense. We – the reader, and the audience in the packed room – were asked to consider what we do with our power, and what our acts of activism are. Continue reading

Social Media Confessional

People come to me with their confessions.

I am not a priest. I am merely a scholar who researches social media use, and an educator who teaches about it. When people hear what I study and teach, they confess.

The confess their true feelings about social media.

What do they tell me? Continue reading

One foot in the past, one in the future, and the time between

The time “between” terms is always a challenging one for me to manage. At my university, spring term ended on last Friday, classes ended a week earlier, with grades due on Tuesday (2 days ago). And summer term begins on Monday.
Students are clear between terms. They turned in their papers and exams, and await their next directions, which are still a solid week away. Me? I just finished grading the last few papers Monday night, and now I’m finishing up a bunch of paperwork (GA/TA evaluations! Service hour verifications!) and starting to feel the panic of new classes starting in a few days. I had hoped to have a break. I will not have a break.
I feel both rushed and compelled to rest. I’ve been looking back to last term out of necessity. I need to be able to complete all of the checklists and file it in the archives, but in the midst of those tasks I want to be looking forward. Grading and filing all required paperwork has a final deadline and gets prioritized for that reason, but course planning has felt so much more urgent all week. I want to start the new term feeling centered and organized. I want to have everything nailed down sooner rather than later. Is Friday unreasonable? If I have it all done, I could take the weekend off. Really, truly off. With no obligations. That would be glorious and rare.
This time, the panic feels worse than usual. First, it’s a tight turnaround. There’s more time between summer and fall, and fall and spring (although the latter is squeezed with the holidays). By this time of year I find that everyone — myself included — just wants to drop with exhaustion and enjoy the lovely weather. However I have classes with major changes to them. I can’t just copy what was done the last time. One class has been taught in a 6-week term for the last 6 years. This year it’s going to the 12-week term. The other has been taught on campus, and this is the first online offering.
I have things I want to do in the time between. I have whiteboards that I want to fill with my scholarly plans. I want to see my projects and ideas laid out clearly, a guide for my work over the next several months. I want to take a few long walks. Work in the garden. Sleep in (okay, that plan will be thwarted by having a kid who needs to go to school and weekend activities by 9 am).
It’s a weird week, this time between terms. It neither fits a rhythm of a typical term, nor defies a rhythm in the way that vacations do.
Just another year in academic life. Bring it, summer!

Learning from Peer Review: Resources

Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Firm Faith Watson. If you don’t know her, you should! Her title is Director of the Faculty Development Center at Murray State University, but she serves more than just the Murray State community. She has created the This Works for Me Virtual Summit, a series in which she interviews various academics about … well, about what works for them! The youtube channel is here.

My contribution to the series is on the topic of peer review. We don’t talk about peer review all that much in academe other than to complain about Reviewer 2 (who maybe isn’t so bad after all), but we should!

Continue reading

What would happen if …

What would happen if …

  • I answered email when I got to it rather than the second I saw it?
  • I  said no to a professional opportunity?
  • I rearranged my schedule so I could pick my daughter up at school at 3:45 two days a week so I could take her to dance class?
  • I gave myself the time to read a novel every weekend (barring unusual events)?
  • I worked out 3-4 days per week?
  • I wrote (almost) every day, just a little bit?
  • I got enough sleep?

These all are questions I have asked myself in the past. They’re all questions I’ve tried to answer through direct experience.

Continue reading