One of the issues in the move towards online education and use of digital platforms for teaching is with respect to the availability of the teachers. This is something that I have personally heard from different teachers that although digital education tools and platforms provide so many benefits, but on the flip side, they may make the teachers too available to the students. This means that the students may use many different forms of communication including even social media such as Facebook and Facebook Messenger to initiate contact with their teachers at any time of the day, and expect the teacher to thus always be available and reply to them. Therefore, it may implicitly increase students expectations on the availability of the teachers. This issue can easily cause problems for teachers and interfere even in their personal life and negatively impact the balance in their personal vs professional life.

At the other end is the feeling of isolation that students may experience in an online learning environment, as discussed by Croft et al (2015). While the issue of isolation itself is not the main focus of my post here, it has some connections to the topic of availability and reflects another aspect of this topic. In the article by Croft et al (2015), the authors identify five dimensions or axes of isolation: 1) chronological (time delay), 2) communication, 3) geographical and distance, 4) professional, and 5) technological. The solutions that can be used to improve the interaction between students and teachers, and increase their feeling of closeness and availability in times of need can somehow address these five dimensions as well; for instance with respect to communication channels and arranged meeting times suitable for students in different timezones. The main challenge here is that the expectation of the students on the availability of the teachers may be different and may not necessarily match the schedule and allocated time of the teachers. This is also reflected in the aforementioned article where the authors talk about tutor contact and that “maintaining appropriate levels and methods of contact” is a major challenge. As can be observed from the article and their investigation, some students were quite satisfied with their contact with the teachers and their availability, while a couple of students felt that the teachers were not available at times when they needed to discuss an issue. Moreover, speed of response is identified as another factor that can contribute to the students’ perception of the availability of the teachers. These results highlight an important and interesting point regarding the issue of availability: the level and forms of availability that a teacher may use and also consider appropriate in a course may not necessarily match the expectation of the students on the availability of their teachers. One way to tackle this may be to explicitly specify it and define its boundaries as part of the course contract and learning agreement (e.g., a dedicated section on availability and contact) which students receive at the beginning of an online course. Additionally, means of communication and platforms via which the students can reach the teachers is another important factor that affects the perception of the students about teachers’ availability which needs a well-defined description and agreement as well. From the teachers’ side, ensuring early on that the students get a good understanding about the availability of the teachers (including communication channels and the time slots at which they can be available for contact) can save lots of hassle and unwanted contact (i.e., contacts at undesired hours or via undesired channels such as private phone or emails), and thus help with the separation of their professional and personal life in the online world.

Croft et al (2015): Nicholas Croft, Alice Dalton & Marcus Grant; Overcoming Isolation in Distance Learning: Building a Learning Community through Time and Space; Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 5:1, 27-64; Published online: 15 Dec 2015; DOI: 10.11120/jebe.2010.05010027

Availability Problem