A Critical Digital Pedagogy Musing: Going Beyond 11:59pm

One thing that has been on my mind lately (for a long time actually) is the concept of time in online classes. (Filing this under the umbrella of thoughts inspired by Critical Digital Pedagogy (Morris & Stommel), An Urgency of Teachers, #digped and #femedtech discussions.) We often sell online courses/programs as convenient, they can “fit in your schedule,” “anytime anywhere.” Those of us who have been online learners know…that’s simply not the case, it’s way more complicated.  

I’ve been teaching online (as fixed-term/clinical faculty) since 2006 (with the Master of Art in Educational Technology program at MSU and now with the EdD program in Leadership and Innovation at ASU.) Additionally, a good portion of my own MA coursework (at MSU) was online.  So, I’m creeping up on 20 years of being an online learner. With experience comes some comfort – and an understanding of what time means online, especially in a course management system (CMS). 

Most of the tools in CMSs that relate to time are surveillance oriented: how long did you spend in the course, how long did you spend on a specific page, when did you submit the assignment, how much of the video did you watch? As if seeing a statistic that a student “only” spent 15 minutes in the course means that they didn’t engage (when, in fact, they could have downloaded all of the materials and worked outside of the CMS.)

I don’t completely ignore the stats – if I see one of my students hasn’t logged in or engaged, that’s a cue to me to check in on them to see if they’re ok, if there is any way I can help.  When you teach online, you develop a sixth sense for the “vibe” of your class.  If I’m engaged, the students are also engaged.  I don’t have “late penalties” (even though the CMS forces a submission deadline) – if it’s submitted at 1am instead of 11:59pm it’s most likely because my student has been working all day, taking care of their family, and has budgeted midnight to 3 am to do coursework. This is scenario that I want to talk about – and provide some scaffolding around for my students. 

Graduate coursework takes time – time you’re giving to yourself.  Time to engage in ideas, time to read, time to write. When we’re bounded in 3 hour blocks, or all-day weekend classes in on-campus courses, it’s easy (for the most part) to block out distractions.  When we try to block that time at home or at work…not so easy.  

As online instructors (and you might even be able to argue any mode of learning), I think we need to be more up front about time – and our expectations for time.  Most universities have provided some scaffolding around this (which is usually hidden in academic procedures manuals, which, I like to read!) Generally, for a 3-credit graduate course, you are expected to dedicate about 9 hours of work. I honestly have no idea how universities came up with this metric, but the idea is that you spend 3 hours “in-class” and 6 hours of “homework.” So, I use that as a general rule. If students are new to online learning, how are they expected to know how much, or even how, to dedicate time in the online classroom space – which, isn’t always (especially in my class) in a CMS.

Here are two ways I make time open to students: 

Example 1: Module Overview 

This is an example of the text/format I use for TEL 713: Advanced Qualitative Methods. 

A Note on Time on Task
This course is 3 graduate credits. For 3 graduate credits, you should expect to dedicate 9 hours per week to the course. In designing the course, we have worked very hard to make sure that expectations fall within the 9 hours. At the end of every module overview, you will see a section called TIME ON TASK* with suggested time frames for each activity. These expectations are provided in the spirit of openness and transparency – and are simply that, guidelines. If you complete some tasks faster, that is ok. If you’re finding you are spending well over the time suggested, please contact the instructor.

These are general guidelines, however, especially as you start to work on concepts which directly apply to your dissertation, you may find yourself in what Csikszentmihalyi defines as flow. You certainly should not worry about going over the time allotted you find yourself in this state!

Module Assignments & Time On Task
Listen to instructor video & read overview – 30 minutes

    • Readings – 3 hours
    • Connect (this includes posting your VoiceThread and & listening) – 1 hour
    • Question (post to discussion forum) – 30 minutes
    • Play (set up notebook and write first entry) – 2 hours
    • Apply (set up document and start assignment) – 2 hours

Example 2: Spreadsheet

This is an example of the text/spreadsheet I use for TEL 703 Innovation in Teaching and Learning, TEL 711 Strategies for Inquiry, and TEL 707 Reading the Research. This is a cluster of courses that students take simultaneously over 15 weeks.  (I teach 2 of the 3 courses, but, we work as a team to deliver the experience.) 

This is a “time on task*” spreadsheet that many students found helpful last semester. Many students find the transition to three 3-credit courses a bit overwhelming.  This spreadsheet helps to give an idea of how to break your work up across the weekly modules.  Please do not see the suggested times as “set in stone” – everyone works at a different pace. But, if you do find yourself going well over the suggested times, please reach out to us as your instructors to help provide strategies for managing your workload (click image to enlarge): 

screenshot of spreadsheet with class tasks and time estimates

Now, I know it may seem silly to articulate time down to the minute, but, those are only provided as general guidelines..simply a place to start…an initial point of reference until you find your own pace. 

I’m also up front with the time I dedicate to feedback. It’s ideal that assignments/posts/blogs/artifacts are submitted when requested, because, I turn those back within 24-48 hours.  You email me, I email you back, generally in less than 12 hours – never more than 24. If something is marked urgent (which I tell my students to do if they need an ASAP answer) and if it’s within (my) waking hours, you get a response ASAP.  This is the hardest part of the “anytime anywhere” – it’s anytime anywhere for the learner…which to me is a twisted perspective that the instructor/guide is absent in an online environment. We mediate just as much as the content on the screen mediates.  In a class I can read your face, I can see the struggle…I can’t see that online.  BUT if I give you some guidelines, and open the door wide open to ask for help – at that moment you’re feeling the struggle…I hope I can catch you before you start spinning wheels and getting angry, sad, frustrated, defeated, second guessing…all things that happen way to easily in asynchronous spaces. 

Now, the paragraph above is tricky as well – I do have to be diligent myself with turning things off, something I’ve gotten much better at doing. (I used to get up at 3am to answer emails. I no longer do this.) Because I’m open with my time (and when my time is open), I have found that students respect and understand these boundaries and know when I’m “on” and if an urgent response is needed – they email me during those times. 

So…this is my first attempt at articulating this in the open. I would love to hear your strategies for dealing with time. Would also love to hear criticisms or critiques of my lines of thinking. 

*The naming of this as “time on task” was very intentional.  A standard question on instructor evaluation forms often reads “Instructors emphasize time on task”…what does that mean?! I’m not 100% sure (and neither are the students based upon their comments) but, we’re evaluated on it nonetheless. 

6 thoughts on “A Critical Digital Pedagogy Musing: Going Beyond 11:59pm

  1. Hey Leigh,

    Bravo on a great post and wonderful approach to being transparent with students about your expectations with the course.

    I believe that what you are bumping into here is the federal definition of the credit hour in the US. 34 CFR 600.2 – https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?rgn=div8&node=34:

    I bumped into it myself a few years ago as I was working in a T&L center that was trying to get accredited for online programs. It kind of plagued me for a bit and I find the whole frame to be pretty problematic especially in online spaces.

    I applaud your breakdown for students but I do have a lot of questions when we start quantifying learning? I’m just curious how you get to the times that you posted? Did you survey students who performed these activities in the past and then create some kind of average? Did you maybe do them yourself and or with your colleagues and then add some set amount of time to account for the fact that you are likely more experienced than your students? Do you have a feedback mechanism for your students – You do encourage students to reach out if it is taking longer but what if everyone is struggling and only a few are brave enough to speak up? Could this give you the false impression that you only have a few who are struggling because of some kind of situational factors when in reality you’ve overloaded the expectations but only some are coming forward?

    I tend to trust that professors have a good sense of how long they think that students should spend on “homework” and I think that you’ve spelled it out for students is great. But it seems to me that all of this works toward standardizing and so I just get a lot of questions that run through my head – especially if thinking about large scale deployments.

    Other questions that run through my mind when considering the federal definition of the credit hour:
    Does this definition persists outside of the US and what the norm is in other countries when quantifying time in online spaces? What about the other side of this… so 1hr in class to 2hrs outside of class – but what is 1hr “in class” in an online class? Is it a 1hr lecture video? Don’t we often discourage those from a design perspective? Is that 1hr spent reading? What about competency based educational models – they throw this whole thing on its side… would there be any way to blend the credit hour and a competency model? Finally, and maybe most importantly – what about the quality of the time spent? If I spend 30min on task does that guarantee quality learning? What does quality “on task” time look like?

  2. Autumm! Thank you so much for that federal definition – now I know! And yes, putting that frame onto online feels like a square peg in a round hole – which is why I put the “in-class” and “homework” in scare quotes. And actually, it didn’t fit with my in-person teaching either because “in-class” most certainly meant lecture in the definition, and you can be sure I was not doing that for 3 hours!

    I would LOVE to see definitions in other contexts, especially international! My gut tells me it may be similar for undergraduate? But, very different at the graduate level? I think there is a very strong distinction between undergraduate online courses and graduate (as they exist broadly in the world, not in how I/you/many others envision them.)

    Thank you for all of the thought provoking questions – this is exactly what I was seeking. I know it’s such a slippery slope to start quantifying. But, in these particular courses, I felt the benefits were worth the risk. In terms of large scale deployments – I would certainly not argue that this is a set heuristic that works at scale…that seems like an even slippery-er slope.

    The very first thing that prompted me to start this practice was about 7 or 8 years ago when a student emailed me at the end of a module EXTREMELY angry and upset that they had “wasted” 20+ hours trying to learn/use a digital storytelling tool (I wish I could remember which one.) In any case, it was a cue to me that I certainly was not providing enough scaffolding and guidance around the balance between learning, tinkering, and unproductively spinning wheels. (Gah, what I would have given to be able to catch that student a few hours in!) Despite groups, forums, backchannels – learning online is primarily a solitary experience. We have been schooled to believe that asking for help is some sort of failure (when we know that isn’t the case!) So, this is my attempt at opening doors, rather than closing them (which, like I said in the post, seems silly when I’m listing minutes on task…still working on a better way?) I make weekly “intro” videos for students at the beginning of each module where I reinforce this (and bring my presence to the forefront.) Feedback has been very positive on this (and there have been mentions on how this helped them manage time and expectations.)

    I used a few things to come up with these timings – I ran the readings through a website that estimated times (there are similar plug-ins for wordpress that do this as well.) Many of the assignments were done in Google Docs and I checked the revision history to get an idea of how long an average assignment was taking (and, added extra time, since we know that’s not exactly the best measure, but it gave me somewhere to start.) I also did ask students – many of my estimates were too low. This has helped me in revisions I’ve been making over the summer to reduce assignments. We have a shared/set (faculty created and ID supported) curriculum and I proposed these changes and have been working with our wonderful ID this summer to make updates. I originally made the time on task spreadsheet for MYSELF. As a new instructor, I was having problems seeing the big picture…which…CERTAINLY meant the students were as well. Because of my ID background, I could see the intention, but…was able to make tweaks so what was intended became more clearly visible. For example, there were assignments that fed into each other across the three courses, but, in the way they were originally positioned, that wasn’t quite clear. On the fly in class (in the videos) I was able to help explain so students could see — and now — I’m making that more visible in the content up front.

    As for quality…yep, there is no measure that time = quality assignments. BUT one argument that resonates with me, especially in my qualitative research course specifically, but with action research (which our program is centered around) more broadly – is that time spend with the subject/research problem/questions is a recognized measure of validity in qualitative research. Their dissertation writing is deeply embedded in all of the course work (authentic work over busy work!) – thus, we’re helping them early on establish that they’ve been reflecting on/working through a problem of practice in an action research cycle that feeds into their dissertation proposal and eventually their dissertation cycle of research. That is (obviously) highly specific to this context, another reason I wouldn’t advocate for this across the board at scale.

    BUT questions and discussion remain – thanks for helping me to continue to work these things through in my head…these are just initial thoughts, but, know you’ve helped me surface many more things I need to work out/articulate better!

  3. Hi Leigh,
    Excellent post and very timely. I have been pondering this myself – the concept of time – especially given the time I spent in the on-line class I took a few weeks ago. The discussion between you and Autumn was interesting and thought provoking.

  4. Hi Leigh, thanks for this really thoughtful post and sharing of your practice and your thinking behind it! I wish more people did this!

  5. Leigh,
    Thank you for sharing this blog. I am a student in your 707 course right now and I also teach a course in an Administrative Tier 1 credential program in California. My course is typically in person – 4 hours a week in class + reading/homework. This year, due to the pandemic, it is fully online using Canvas. We still have 2 hours of synchronous time each week and then, the remaining 2 hours has been moved to asynchronous time along with the reading/homework. I read your blog right after I had just sent an email to a student about a “late” discussion post, encouraging him to complete it. I felt guilty about it at the time, for the reasons you shared: should the 11:59 time really be a witching hour and what does it really mean to have anytime/anywhere learning when there are rigid deadlines? I have resolved to have the deadlines, but to communicate that if they need more time, that we can work together to make that happen. I needed to do this because what I find difficult from the instructor side, is the time that I need to be able to read student work and give valuable feedback. I want to be flexible in my deadlines, however, I have to schedule my time too. I wonder a few things…how do you set time to review student work and just how flexible are you with deadlines?

    I also try to monitor the length of assignments. In polling the students in my course, they are all spending more time that I have designated for the asynchronous work but usually because they just get interested in the work and lose track of time.

    I appreciate your thoughts and those of others that have responded.

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