Online Instruction Challenge Number 1: Managing Time and Space

By Crista Mohammed, former IDeaL Editor and volunteer

After 2 years of living with and through the global pandemic, it is tiring to say and tiring to hear that every dimension of our lives has changed. Tiring or not, however, it’s true. For me—a university instructor—the biggest impact has been reshaping my teaching for online delivery. In this article, my first installment in a series that shares my challenges with online instruction, I explore the challenge of managing instructional space and time.

I imagine many readers of IDeaL are instructors in workplace settings; I teach at a university. While you may practice in a different space, I am reminded of this pearl of wisdom from my teacher-educator professor Prof. June George: good teaching is good teaching anywhere! So here goes.

In ideal circumstances, it would be great to allow discussion and questions at any time, but in online “classrooms” it becomes particularly challenging for a few reasons. When instructors and participants cannot see each other, turn-taking becomes problematic. Additionally, instructors do not benefit from non-verbal cues from participants, allowing them to work out who is on-task and progressing and who is not. Managing the instructional space and time becomes hellish. Participants and the facilitator can inadvertently be rude to each other, interrupting without meaning to. And setting the instructional pace is guesswork at best because the facilitator cannot see how participants are faring. I have found that some instructors compensate for lack of physical co-presence by allowing discussion and questions at any time. But when no one manages participation, it becomes a free-for-all. And whether face-to-face or online, run-away discussions can derail even your very best planned workshop.

Today I attended a workshop roughly 13 hours before putting these thoughts to paper. Thirteen hours on, I am still irritated! The instructor allowed questions and discussion, without limits, both verbally and in the chat of our Zoom session. Some participants used the raised hand functionality to signal their wish to speak, and others did not. The instructor mostly ignored those poor hand-raising souls, including me. His attention was absorbed by others who simply opened their microphones to speak. Without the benefit of seeing each other, several participants often spoke at the same time. The instructor allowed long-winded, off-task discussions and frequently was distracted, mid-instruction, by the chat. Time frittered away, and he did not meet the bulk of his instructional goals.

So, what are we to do? Back to the old basics of good teaching:

  1. Manage your classroom by setting ground rules. Establish how participants should engage with others and you. At the beginning of my online instruction, I remind my students to use the hand-raising function.
  2. Consider building in a question and answer “moment” at the end of each instructional segment. I ask participants to post any questions and contributions they may have to the chat during my delivery. I only look at the chat during this QA moment. I turn off the notification sounds to avoid getting distracted by posts while I’m instructing (I work in Blackboard collaborate).
  3. I track progress and manage my instructional pace by following each instructional segment with an appropriate task that participants must complete given the available time and means to report. I no longer have the benefit of one-on-one interactions in my physical classroom. I can no longer flit around asking: “How are you doing?” “Can I see your re-write?”
  4. I create groups, depending on my instructional goal and the task, with the following benefits:
    1. Unlike an in-person lab where I can stop by single workstations, I can easily pop into online groups.
    2. I ask groups to report in plenary on their tasks because it is more manageable to hear from a few groups rather than many participants.
    3. When groups are mandated to report back, we all avoid the awkward, unproductive silence of waiting for a good soul to volunteer an answer!
  5. I allow for what I call “hang-back time.” I remain available for a specified time after my class, and students know that they have a dedicated space to chat with me one-on-one.

Tell your students when and how to seek individual support ahead of your training. I advertise my availability to students via specified communication channels—the class forum on our learning management system and university email. In this way, I hope to allay their anxiety over not “getting” the material right away and reduce their need to seek my every assurance during instructional time.

Some may find this restricting of participation a bit heavy-handed, but it is not so much restricting as managing instructional pace and place. It is about cultivating order and respect for others, which are essential to a productive learning environment. Ultimately, I would rather err on the side of being overly controlling than run a fish market!