A student in my Collaborative Communities class who teaches online, and is obviously, an online student wrote this in her weekly reflections...
instructor, I want to structure my class so that the students still have a
life. As a student, I want to have a life. What is the best balance between
discussion (and requiring students to participate throughout the week) and
allowing students the flexibility they need and want from an online class?"
Here was my response with some added thoughts which came to me after I sent her the original response...
You have pointed out one of the difficulties of teaching online. We cannot just put a note on the door and say "Class is cancelled today." And I do understand that everyone needs a life.
This class (Collaborative Communities) is a little different in terms of expectations because we are trying to build the habits needed to be a successful online instructor after this course most of you will be doing the practicum. The instructor habits we want to instill in this course have everyone online and visible more than the students have to be in a regular class.
I have taught online for 11 years. I have been through a separation, then later a divorce. My mother died unexpectedly two years ago and my father has advanced Alzheimer's. Even though he is in a care facility it takes a lot of my time. So... how do I keep up with my duties and have a life (or a crisis). First of all in a worst case scenario I would first contact my incredible boss and friend Joan Vandervelde at UW-Stout for my courses there. She would post a note in my courses and then she would cover my discussions or ask another instructor to do so. A good choice for that coverage would be my co-author Lisa Chamberlin. I haven't ever had to ask either of them to do that but I know it is possible. I would handle other institutions for whom I work in a similar way.
At a crisis time, I would try to use my online time very judiciously, read the Q&A's to check for issues if I don't have time for anything else. I would read at least Q&A forums in every class every day. No matter what else is going on I stay current on email because I use my phone for emails. Even in a crisis I would look at my email. Emails requiring a response I don't have time for right away get marked as Unread.
Sometimes I tell students by email or announcement about an issue, and sometimes I don't. I will say though that even in very serious times I have found that finding a quiet spot for just 30 minutes and checking the discussion boards gives me some peace and normality.
As a student all you need to do is tell the instructor the issue and I think all/most of them would waive deadlines or participation requirements. As an instructor you do what you can, or what you really have to do, and let the rest wait. There does come a time when you have to get caught up though. The longer you let it wait the more challenging it becomes to get caught up.
There is another discussion to be had about participation requirements in general and offering alternatives, that will be another posting.