A Word of Warning
Online or distance teaching is NOT for everyone. Before you accept a distance assignment, ask yourself several serious questions.
1. Are you comfortable dealing with assignments in electronic format? If you consider electronic documents second-class citizens and find yourself wanting to require paper copies, or are uncomfortable manipulating electronic formats, you will need to either give yourself an attitude adjustment or get the necessary training.
2. What is your typical communication style? If you prefer open-ended and indirect phrasings, you’re in the wrong market. Distance students need explicit and very clear language not because they lack communication abilities, but because the only means they have of receiving that information is generally via a black and white screen. Deadlines and expectations must be clearly and cleanly phrased. For instance, “Please send me the revision via e-mail in RTF format not later than noon on Monday, 20 April” will always be better than “Do get me that revision soon”; the latter is worse than useless.
3. In line with that, gut check the clarity of your language. For instance, if you say, “Let’s talk about the sources you’ve used since the first draft,” the implication is that you want the student to elaborate on the new materials she has used within the revision. If you, however, are referring to materials she may have reviewed, read, or considered but not used within the essay, then the two of you are going to have a horribly frustrating meeting because of a clash of expectations as a result of your lack of clarity.
4. What priority do you place on your distance students? If you feel that you can focus on them around your other responsibilities, meetings, and assignments simply because you do not have a predefined schedule, then you’re giving less than your best. Indeed, you’ll be the source of frustration for the student, and will set your student up to fail. As you already know, you should establish a normal working schedule for your distance students. They are no different than your face-to-face students, and deserve no less.
5. Part of the question of priority includes e-mail. There is no reason for a student to wait more than 24 hours for a response from you during the normal work week, barring system failures or extreme illness. The accepted response time is 4-12 hours. If you know you’ll be out of town or offline for a specific period of time, inform your students ahead of time. Let them know specifically when you’ll be responding to mail upon your return. Likewise, sending a message which says that you’ll “respond as quickly as humanly possible” or “as soon as I get the chance” is simply not acceptable. Tell your students specifically when to look for that response: “I’ll send you feedback on this draft not later than close of business on Monday.” Distance students often feel as if they’re being given the mushroom treatment; if you are vague and uncommunicative, you only contribute to that feeling and their frustration. If a student asks for a return call or answer to an e-mail (depending on the system setup), don’t just blow it off. It doesn’t matter whether you think you’ve already responded to that question or not: You are obligated to respond to the call for contact. The exception to this is if you have established a routine for answering e-mail (e.g., “I’ll respond to all student mail on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.”), but in order to use such a system you must inform your students ahead of time.
If you’re considering taking on an individual in a mentoring or supervisory position, you need to consider those questions in addition to two others:
1. If you are uncomfortable with a distance environment, then obviously you either need to find a way to get comfortable (i.e., obtain the necessary pedagogy and skills), or avoid it. There is no shame in admitting that you prefer face-to-face teaching.
2. Consider the student. If it is a returning or older student, gut check your own responses. Most instructors thoroughly enjoy returning students because those students enter the academic environment knowing precisely what they want to accomplish, when, and why. If, however, you are more comfortable with younger students who have had fewer life experiences, whose life experiences have been limited to high school and college, or are still slightly awed by the possession of a terminal degree, then you may well feel yourself challenged (or even threatened) by returning students. Older students have had the opportunity to form their own opinions about larger issues and develop their own perspectives about life. Some instructors find it difficult to recognize the returning students’ unique knowledge and areas of expertise. If you fall in that category, do yourself and the student a favor and turn down the assignment. Recognize that you may not be able to work with every student, so gut check your own personality and comfort zone.