Staying Healthy While Teaching Online

Spread of the coronavirus has led some U.S. universities with overseas campuses to move classes to online. Rather than cancel study abroad programs, the shift to online helps to keep faculty, staff, and students safe while continuing to provide employment and education. The move to full-time online teaching poses other health risks, however. These health risks are physical, mental, and emotional. For the moment, I want to tackle only the physical: How can faculty maintain physical well-being when teaching fully online?

Designing accessible courses, creating new content, and providing feedback to students: each of these activities is fundamental to online teaching. And each takes an incredible amount of time — time usually spent in a chair looking at a computer screen and typing on a keyboard. Many of us are accustomed to long stretches at desks with books and journals, which increasingly we access electronically. But then we get up, go to our classrooms or to a committee room, and then walk back to our offices or to the library or (dare I write it?) to our homes. Not so much for those of us who teach online and, as I do, and as I expect many of the faculty impacted by the coronavirus are doing, conduct committee and other administrative work online.

The physiological effects of exclusive online teaching can be significant. From chronic back pain to carpel tunnel syndrome, the body responds negatively to days at a time sitting and typing. So what’s an online teacher to do? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Get a standing desk. The science is in: sitting is the new smoking! So whether or not you teach fully online, it is a good idea to stand while you work, at least some portion of the day. Your institution may not subsidize the purchase of a standing desk, even with medical documentation. But it is a worthwhile investment! Start slowly, a half an hour at a time, and be sure to have a rug or other supportive surface under foot.
  2. Be cognizant of your eyes. Computer eye strain is a real thing. The American Optometrist Association offers specific guidelines on how to protect yourself.
  3. Record your feedback. Varying the format of feedback is a good idea in any event; students with differing learning styles may respond better to audio or video comments than to written ones. (Every LMS I have come across provides both audio and video capabilities.) But when you are commenting on student work product day after day, recording rather than typing feedback can mean the difference between strained and healthy wrists, shoulders, and neck.
  4. Incorporate omnibus feedback. Providing omnibus feedback rather than responding to individual students isn’t just for heavily enrolled classes. It can foster that sense of community that is critical to online classes regardless of their size. It also provides an opportunity to celebrate advances in the sophistication of students’ work, to point out common errors, and to provide students with models by their peers. Writing omnibus feedback isn’t always a time-saver, I admit. But that time is dedicated to gathering data, organizing it, and shaping the narrative, not to repetitive writing.
  5. Set a timer (or make a cup of tea). This suggestion takes us back to #1 and #2. Creating mechanisms that will get you away from your desk will help you to stay physically healthy while teaching online. You might set the alarm on your phone to go off at 50 minutes past the hour, so you remember to get up and stretch, or throw a load of laundry in the machine, or call your mother. Or you might drink cups of tea or water or some such throughout the day, which will get you up routinely as well as keep you hydrated. The point is to give your limbs and eyes a break!

What strategies have you used to stay healthy while teaching online?

Stay tuned for posts on taking care of your mental and emotional health as a (fully) online instructor.

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