Coping with the Demands of “Always On” Learning

Tue, Mar 24, 2015

Distance Learning, Uncategorized

By Dr. Tiffany DePriter
Faculty Member, Mathematics at American Public University

When I tell people that I work from a home office, more specifically that I teach online, a quizzical expression comes over their faces. Surely they envision me padding to my desk at noon, wearing my pajamas. This is quite far from the truth. I have a designated office, and I am at my desk (fully clothed) by 9 am. I answer emails, make calls, and grade papers, just as an instructor in a campus office would do. But at the end of the day, I don’t get in my car and drive home, leaving my work for the next day. I often have conference calls late into the evening. I take my laptop to the kitchen, the living room, and even my bed. Weekends and holidays are work days, too.

I have often questioned if I am the only one who does this. Why can’t I mentally clock out at the end of the day? Do other online instructors struggle with feeling as if they are “always on”? The other night I emailed a colleague, expecting a response the next day. To my surprise, I had a reply within minutes. My first thought was shock that this person was working so late at night. I recalled similar situations recently where I received a reply almost instantaneously. It was great to have an immediate answer to my question, but I wonder what are the implications of “always on” learning for faculty? Does this blur the lines between work and leisure time?

Not too long ago, faculty went to campus to teach their classes and hold office hours. At the end of the day, they went home, probably with a stack of papers to read, but with the understanding that they would not communicate with their students until the next class meeting or set office hours. Under this model there was a clear distinction between instruction time and personal time. Recently, with the help of technology, this notion has been challenged. Now students can take classes anywhere and anytime. At first glance, this might seem like a great convenience. No longer are students required to trek to campus for class. This can allow students to juggle work, school, and family, but what is the impact on the instructor’s work-leisure balance?

Slowly but surely the expectation that faculty are increasingly available to students is creeping into the world of online education. Faculty are encouraged to log into their classrooms every day to check for messages and be active most weekdays and at least one day on the weekends. Faculty who do check in each day are applauded for their efforts. Where does that leave the instructor who wishes to take the occasional weekend off?

Even for those times that a day off is necessary, faculty are still encouraged to work from their mobile devices. Many instructors forward their work email to their personal cell phones. Remember my colleague who responded late that Friday night? The response came from his cell phone. For those instructors who want to be available at any time, it’s wonderful that smart phones and tablets allow them to do so; but, where does it leave the rest of us? Do I need to be on call 24/7 to be a good math instructor? Or am I a better instructor for realizing that I need a balance between work and leisure so that I don’t get burned out?

Last year I completed a professional development session on ways to avoid faculty burnout in the online classroom. I was somewhat reassured to learn that I wasn’t the only one to struggle with this issue. We spent a lot of time discussing the challenges of teaching online, such as never feeling as though you are caught up, that you can never step away for more than 24 hours, and for those of us who work from a home office, the sense that work and leisure time are inextricably intertwined. We also talked about ways to alleviate these feelings, from setting very clear office hours for students to establishing (and sticking to) work hours for ourselves.

My goal in teaching online is simple: to offer my students a supportive and encouraging environment in which to learn math, while holding high standards for academic rigor. Do I need to answer calls during Sunday dinner to achieve that? No, I don’t think so. And so for me, I will continue to seek a balance between work and leisure.

About the Author
Tiffany DePriter, Ed.D. has been teaching mathematics at the American Public University System for five years. She holds a doctorate in mathematics education from Morgan State University. Her research interests center around adult learners who are studying mathematics through distance learning.

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