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Managing the Stress of the Online Classroom: Finding Your Teaching Zen

Ted Cross (Grand Canyon University, USA)
B. Jean Mandernach (Grand Canyon University, USA)
Session Information
November 20, 2013 - 3:00pm
Faculty and Professional Development & Support
Areas of Special Interest: 
Institutional Initiatives
Major Emphasis of Presentation: 
Practical Application
Institutional Level: 
Universities and Four Year Institutions
Audience Level: 
Session Type: 
Information Session
Southern Hemisphere 4
Session Duration: 
35 Minutes
Information Session 5
Virtual Session

Finding your "Teaching Zen" helps online faculty manage the unique challenges of facilitating learning in the ubiquitous online classroom.

Extended Abstract

Description and Goals:

As online education continues to expand and evolve it has created new opportunities and tensions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in lives of those faculty members that dare to teach in the online classroom. The paradigm shift from traditional ground instruction to hybrid, and more recently 100% online teaching loads presents new problems from a human capital perspective. These problems include: increased rates of burnout, lack of work/life balance, and wavering job satisfaction (Mandernach, 2006a). These problems are not just bad for faculty but also for students, as current research indicates the importance of passionate and engaged online instructors (Greenberger, 2013). Having worked in the world of online education for a number of years and listened carefully to online faculty, we have come to realize that a new set of skills is necessary for being an effective online teacher and that many of these skills are not grounded in traditional pedagogical or andragogical approaches, but rather in the mixture of performance psychology and self leadership.

"Finding Your Teaching Zen" is about focusing our attention as faculty where it will create the biggest gains for students whileAllowing us to remain engaged and energized in our work. In order to achieve this type of focused instruction we must confront the barriers to great online teaching. The first and most prevalent barrier to effective online teaching is a result of the online teaching environment. We term this barrier the ubiquity of the online classroom. By ubiquity we mean the ever present and sometimes consuming aspects of online teaching. This presentation will present both theoretical and practical ideas with the aims of creating an online environment that is conducive to learning and teaching. By providing research based ideas and tools to overcome the ubiquity of the online classroom, online faculty can remain engaged and productive in their online teaching assignments.

The Barriers

To begin, the ubiquity of the online classroom creates stress for instructors and thus students. For instructors this generally plays out in two detrimental ways. First, is the overwhelming possibilities of the online classroom that creates a paralyzing sense of not knowing what is most important, and even more, what to do first. Next, is the lack of boundaries within the virtual classroom that can create problems of focus and time management. Taken together the lack of boundaries and the information overload of the virtual classroom can become demotivating.

Focusing on What Matters (Create Clear Priorities)

In a traditional classroom setting physical space and time can limit many of our interactions with students. Conversely, in the virtual classroom, while physical distance does present challenges, the technology enhanced learning environment creates a new and sometimes strange world. This new environment requires that we as instructors carefully prioritize teaching tasks. Our experience and research suggest the following priorities that follow the principle of putting "teaching activities" before "administrative tasks":

  • Teaching activities
    • Posting in the discussion forums (Mandernach, Forrest, Babuzke, & Manaker, 2009; Mandernach, Hebert-Dailey, & Donnelli-Sallee, 2007; Mandernach, Gonzales, & Garrett, 2006)
    • Adding new content to the discussion forums (Mandernach, 2010; Mandernach, 2009b)
    • Creating course materials, especially videos (Mandernach, Dailey, & Donnelli, 2008; Donnelli, Dailey, & Mandernach, 2009; Mandernach & Taylor, 2011; Mandernach, 2009a)
    • Grading (Mandernach, Dailey, & Donnelli, 2007; Mandernach, 2006b)
  • Administrative Tasks
    • Emails
    • Announcements
    • Grade book
    • Calls

After creating clear priorities it is now possible to create a time management plan and use time saving tools to make sure that we can give the appropriate time and energy to those things that matter most while reducing the amount of time spent on the necessary, but less important items.

Lack of Boundaries (Manage Time)

In the traditional classroom there are built-in limits and stops. For example, classes last for only a specified amount of time. In the online classroom, especially in asynchronous classes, class is in session whenever we are at the computer. This lost sense of boundaries can cause problems for focus and time management. To overcome this barrier we suggest the following that follows the principle of "manage energy, focus, then time":

  • Mange your energy (spiritual- purpose, physical- exercise, mental- intervals) (Loehr & Schwartz, 2005; Schwartz, 2007)
  • Focus (environment & computer- ear phones, timers, apps that block distractions) (Babauta, 2011)
  • Creating time management structures that put priorities first- Parkinsons Law (i.e., weekly to-do's, calendar time, Evernote) (Covey, 1990; Ferriss, 2009)
  • Create hard stops and starts and manage transitions (when will you check email, when won't you? When will you start and stop, what ritual will you use to transition?)(Freidman, 2008; Loehr & Schwartz, 2005).
  • Use technology to make administrative tasks efficient and meaningful to free up time for teaching (i.e., Animoto, TedTalks, Screencast o'Matic, TypeItIn, Presto, Skype, Email Templates, auto-respond IFTTT, Evernote etc.)

In short, this presentation will present practical tools and ideas, based in research, that will help online faculty to prioritize what matters most in the online classroom as well as develop a plan and toolbox for managing time and energy to focus on their teaching priorities.

References Available on Full Version

Lead Presenter

Ted Cross is the Manager of Research and Assessment in the College of Doctoral Studies as well as an instructor at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, AZ. Ted's work focuses on improving online community, teaching, and research practices. As a former Manager of Full-time Online Faculty and finalist for Online Teacher of the year, Ted brings experiential knowledge to the world of online education. Ted earned a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University, a M.A. in English from Arizona State University, and a M.S.ed in Education from The University of Pennsylvania. Further, Ted holds a Post Bac. Certificate in H.R. Management from The Wharton School of Business and is currently a doctoral student at Pepperdine University studying Organizational Leadership.