Designing with Time in Mind: Supporting Students Online

Time is relative. Time stands still and then slips away without notice. I am continually negotiating time: time for work, time for family, time for me. The best gift is time. I am ecstatic when meetings end early or are cancelled entirely. In my online course design, I support learners with little gifts of time through community-building, flexibility, and advisories.


Time Community

One of my first undergraduate classes at the University of Toronto was held at Convocation Hall (or Con Hall). I was one of over one thousand students. I remember walking into the massive space, looking around anxiously, and becoming dizzy and disoriented from spinning and being pushed around. I found an aisle seat so that I have the option to bolt at any time. Did I make any new friends in that class? No, because I could never find the same person again in the following weeks.

Large asynchronous classes are just as disorienting and isolating as a class in Con Hall. Constructing micro-communities supports student learning by generating opportunities for discussions, reflections, and transformations. Kate Schick notes how micro-communities facilitate a safe space of vulnerability within a fourth-year global politics class (2020). My challenge was creating functional micro-communities of learners studying in various time zones around the world. And this is where the gift of time comes in.

Why don’t I create micro-communities based on time zones? As someone who regularly wakes up for 3 AM meetings, I do not want to inflict this pain on anyone else. Adding a time zone question to my pre-course survey or syllabus quiz (refer to my Re:THINK article) is easy. My students adored the time-zone based micro-communities. Several groups held study broadcast sessions (see “A Pedagogy of Kindness: Compassion in the Classroom”). Other groups created discussion topics within the course forum to facilitate questions and answers between members. The time-zone based micro-communities helped students cultivate shared experience during these difficult times. Solidarity through experience (and time zone).

One thing I miss about campus life is the informal conversations. I no longer walk with students to and from class, nor do I run into students in libraries or cafeterias. For online synchronous courses, informal conversations can still take place before and after class. Arriving at the synchronous sessions early and staying behind allows me to chat with students. I have received many excellent Netflix recommendations through these conversations, and students are often happy to provide informal feedback about course design. Arriving early to class is a good strategy from the technology set-up standpoint. More importantly, budgeting time to chat with learners before and after class is an excellent strategy for enriching the learning community.


Time Flex

If we know that our learners study in various time zones, why don’t we adjust course deadlines to match our learners’ working hours? When I set assessment deadlines, I usually choose 12:00 AM midnight. It makes sense, right? 12:00 AM is the end of the day. Everyone should finish and submit their assignments, then get some rest. Wrong.

Susan Spangler calls midnight deadlines “Cinderella Deadlines” (2020). Unless I begin grading at 12:01 AM, I do not need my students’ assignments at midnight. If my TA team and I meet at 2:00 PM to grade, I can accept submissions until 1:30 PM, which gives me enough time to compile a submission report. The hours between midnight and 1:30 PM may make a difference for some learners. Rethinking submission policies prompts me to reevaluate the type of culture that I want to foster in my classroom. Spangler cites Maryellen Weimer, who asks, “Does the policy relate to my teaching philosophy or does it simply ‘promote the power and position of the professor?’ (2018)” Spangler suggests that as instructors, we can practice “transparent teaching” and share deadline rationale with our learners (2020).

When I created the time-zone based micro-communities, I considered adjusting the deadlines to match the learners’ working hours. For example, if the assignment is due at 1:30 PM Eastern Time, the assignment would be due at 1:30 PM Pacific Time for the groups based on the West Coast. But would I be giving a three-hour advantage to the West Coast groups? If my teaching philosophy values well-being and supports learners in developing a work-life balance, then the three-hour time-zone difference does not offer an advantage; instead, the deadline adjustment aligns with my pedagogical practice.

One argument for maintaining the Cinderella deadlines is that much of the deadlines in our professional lives are at the stroke of midnight. Time management is an essential life skill, but humanizing learning is just as important. Designing student-centred learning (SCL) means shifting our mindsets and “placing learners at the heart of the learning process” (Edwards, 2001; for a summary of the dangers of SCL approach, see O’Neill and McMahon, 2005, and Mckenna, 2013). Instead of Friday midnight deadlines, altering deadlines to Sunday evenings acknowledges our diverse learners’ responsibilities and schedules while maintaining professional realities and establishing routines (see “The Comfort of Routines Online”). Deadline decisions reflect teaching and learning priorities. Having a conversation with our learners will help us decide on how we can negotiate time.


Time Advisory

My final strategy has to do with time advisories. The landing page of my weekly modules feature the following information:

  • Module Learning Outcomes
  • Module Overview (aka the table of contents listing module pages)
  • Types of Activities
  • Time Advisory

If the week’s module takes three hours to complete, I spread the three-hour content evenly across the module pages by calculating video timings and text word counts. The time advisory allows learners to budget their time, and several students shared how the time advisory helps them establish their study schedule and to-do list. The time advisory can be coupled with a workload map to support students in managing their time throughout the semester (Ashby, 2004; Benda, Bruckman, and Guzdial, 2012).

The time advisory also guides me on content creation. I confess that sometimes I get very excited, and I want to share numerous readings and resources with students. The time advisory and workload map help me maintain consistency, and I invite learners to notify me when the time advisory is inaccurate. For example, when several students note that the prior week’s module took two hours more than advised, we held a class discussion to investigate which components took more time. Some learners shared study tips for navigating through similar contents, and after class, I adopted the feedback and adjusted the subsequent week’s module materials accordingly. Course design is an ongoing, collaborative, iterative process involving all members of the learning community. Ultimately, giving my learners time and valuing their well-being seems obvious, does it not?


Works Cited

Ashby, A. (2004). Monitoring Student Retention in the Open University: Definition, Measurement, Interpretation and Action. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 19(1), 65–77.

Benda, K., Bruckman, A., and Guzdial, M. (2012). When Life and Learning Do Not Fit: Challenges of Workload and Communication in Introductory Computer Science Online. ACM Transactions on Computing Education, 12(4). http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/2382564.2382567

Edwards, R. (2001). Meeting Individual Learner Needs: Power, Subject, and Subjection. In C. Paechter, M. Preedy, D. Scott, and J. Soler (Eds.), Knowledge, Power and Learning (pp. 37–46). SAGE.

Mckenna, S. (2013). The Dangers of Student-Centered Learning: A Caution about Blind Spots in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7(2). https://doi.org/10.20429/ijsotl.2013.070206

O’Neill, G., and McMahon, T. (2005). Student-Centred Learning: What Does It Mean for Students and Lecturers? In G. O’Neill, S. Moore, and B. McMullin (Eds.), Emerging Issues in the Practice of University Learning and Teaching. AISHE.

Schick, K. (2020). Pedagogical Micro-communities: Sites of Relationality, Sites of Transformation. In J. Frueh (Ed.), Pedagogical Journeys through World Politics (pp. 27–39). Springer International Publishing.

Shi, M., Bonk, C. J., and Magjuka, R. J. (2006). Time Management Strategies for Online Teaching. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 3(2). http://itdl.org/Journal/Feb_06/article01.htm

Spangler, S. (2020). Cinderella Deadline: Reconsidering Timelines for Student Work. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/course-design-ideas/cinderella-deadlines-reconsidering-timelines-for-student-work/

Weimer, M. (2018). Examining Our Course Policies. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/educational-assessment/examining-course-policies/

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