Have a “When you can reach me” policy

One critical factor in building a sustainable online course is deciding how and when to set limits on your own work and interaction time with the course. In-person classes have the advantage of a clear end time: You walk out of the classroom.

This fall, for many of us, the classroom will go with us wherever we are, in our pockets on the internet-connected smartphones we may be carrying around. At the furthest, class is but a few doors down in most households.

That can be exhausting. If you’re feeling a need to reply to student email in the middle of the night (or dinner, or during TV breaks), consider whether you’re able to provide thoughtful and quality help in these situations. Then think about whether you can sustain the always-on work mode for the rest of the year.

Ready to set some limits now? Try this:

  1. Communicate clearly from the start of your class when you will be available.
    • This includes office hours (synchronous video? phone?), class times, and other by-appointment times, and the hours when you’re available by email or other contact methods (if you provide a texting number or use an app).
  2. Stick to those times.
    • If you can’t stop yourself from replying to email at 2 a.m., consider using the Schedule Send feature in Gmail to make that message appear within your scheduled work hours.
  3. Explain why you have these policies, and what students should do if an issue comes up when you’re not available.
    • Technical problems can be referred to the Student Help Desk (SHeD).
    • Tutoring and academic questions can go to Academic Tutoring Services, where they can find appointments at many hours of the day.
    • I offer automatic extensions on deadlines if students contact me in advance of a due date. If their printer explodes or their understanding of citation evaporates between Friday afternoon and Monday morning, they can ask for an extension, know that they’ll have one, set up an appointment with me, and be ready to work as soon as I’m back on Monday.
  4. Don’t feel bad about being less than always-on.
    • Taking time off is not a disservice to your students. It is vital to your own survival.
    • Being clear about how soon you’ll respond lets students know that they aren’t screaming into the void, which can reduce some anxiety.

Other things to consider (not recommendations, just ideas):

  • Add an autoreply message when you’re not available to remind students (and colleagues) that you’ll get back to them at X time, and also to show them their message has been received.
  • Poll students to find out when they plan to complete their work, and schedule your available time to match up with these hours.

Do you have a way of dividing work and non-work time that’s, um, worked for you? Let us know in the comments, or join us at an upcoming Friday morning Coffee Check-In with Colleagues to talk about it.

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