Sleep and Let Grow: Rhythms and Seasons in Online Higher Education

In The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective, author and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr advises that those of us focused on achievement should contemplate the agricultural parables of Christ. In them, we learn are reminded that growth comes not from sheer will and brute force, but from patient nourishing and care over time. We cannot force a particular plant or crop to grow; instead we can nurture the plant and try to create favorable conditions over time. Growth happens if it will happen, whether we are awake or asleep. As Lowe & Lowe succinctly summarize, “we cannot make anything grow on our own,” (p. 43).

Contrast this restorative and patient vision of the agricultural parables with the reality of our work lives in 2020. Due to the novel coronavirus, many of us are working from home, or “WFH” as it’s been abbreviated. However, Human Resources expert Alison Green explains in Slate that it often feels that we’re “living at work” more than working from home (2020). We’re always on; always working.

Not only have we adjusted our workplaces and schedules, but we are also now amateur teachers and epidemiologists, psychologists, political statisticians, and more.

Adult learners in online education have even more responsibilities in addition to the new ones brought about by the novel coronavirus. They must add to the daily planner academic writing, work, and research.

How can an adult learner honor the natural in Scripture or the more secular idea of work-life balance? How can institutions of higher education help create a climate likely to sustain and encourage life rather than to smother it?

Fortunately, the ISTE Standards for Coaches speak to this very issue. Standard 7b, in particular, advises that we must “Partner with educators, leaders, students and families to foster a culture of respectful online interactions and a healthy balance in their use of technology.”

Some academic researchers explore this area with online education in mind. They’ve found that students often share common stressors. Martinak (2012) interviewed approximately 60 students after a few months of online education and the students listed the following categories of stressors as especially impactful:

1. Life/work/school balance issues: baby due, spouse deployed, moving to new house;

2. Time management of online work: work increasing at job, boss quit, new role at job;

3. Online group projects: scheduling meetings, all members not contributing;

4. Logistical issues of navigating the online course materials: orienting to the learning management system (LMS), losing track of discussions, losing things in the computer abyss, finding things on the LMS, keeping up with readings;

5. Uncertainty: nonverbal cues missing from online course, everything was new, dialogue difficult online, anxiety at the start of the course; and

6. New experiences: going from undergrad to grad, APA use, no tests only papers (p. 169).

While this article was published in 2012, the categories match my experiences as both an online student and professor. In particular, I highlight items 1, 2, and 6 above. My students are generally adults already well into their careers and family lives (meaning they have created their own family unit). Job changes, (re)marriages and divorces, and managing health crises of parents or other loved ones often take significant time and emotional energy. Finally, because they are experienced adults, they are often out of practice when it comes to school, let alone school on an online learning management system.

To help relieve student stress, Martinak goes on to recommend social and technical support for students, easy access to professors, structuring courses and assignments well, and providing meaningful feedback on assignments and in the program (p. 170).

While these tips are helpful in fostering a healthy environment in which students can grow, sometimes a little bit of luck may be necessary, as well. For example, researchers from the University of Calgary studied the implementation of a “late bank” from which students could draw some grace in turning in late assignments without penalty. They found that students reported less stress as a result, whether they utilized it or not. (Students who did not utilize it liked knowing it was there.) Additionally, the researchers found that several students’ feelings towards faculty were improved as a result of the availability of the late bank.

Additionally, faculty no longer had the need to judge student’s individual circumstances to determine whether they qualified for any special exceptions to general late policies, and faculty didn’t have to manage as many extension requests since they were in effect already granted on a limited basis by the late bank’s existence (p. 8).

Faculty stress is also an important component when considering the “soil” at a university and whether or not it is healthy. As is implicit above in Martinak’s list of stressors, what negatively impacts students also negatively impacts faculty. For example, technical issues within an online course or poor course design can cause issues. It is faculty that often has to deal with the fallout of poorly designed courses and other similar issues whether the issue is related to the learning management system or something within the faculty’s control.

Likewise, any time constraints that students feel will often also be felt by faculty because they are working within the same schedule, only they must grade all of the work within the allotted time instead of just completing each assignment or group project once as students do.

Researchers at Carrol University observed that faculty members are often nervous about online education like students are (Johnson et al., 2012). Bootcamps for faculty on online education may boost their feelings of wisdom regarding online technology and therefore reduce their stress related to online education (Johnson et al., 2012). Anectdotally I have also found that acting as a student within the learning management system provides faculty with an emotional “booster shot” of empathy for how students feel in a course.

One of my colleagues at work suggested I pay special attention to the unique stress of adjuncts. While many faculty members teaching online are not tenured, serving as an adjunct can come with even less job security and more of a desire to please. However, adjuncts may not be as familiar with written and unwritten institutional culture and exceptions, let alone the substantive courses. Dolan (2012) found that while adjuncts had concerns about pay and how certain institutions manage things, some of the main things they desired were more clear and consistent communication with administration and opportunities to learn from other faculty members (p.73).

The conclusion I draw from this research is also an agricultural one: A thriving ecosystem requires that many interconnected things thrive together. Our stresses and successes are shared. We need to be mindful of the strength of our interdependence, as well as our obligations within it. We need to be mindful of the ever-changing needs of our colleagues and students and address them as appropriate for the “season.” Lowe & Lowe summarize it this way:

The primary feature of any ecosystem, whether natural, social, spiritual, or educational, is that it is interconnective, interactive, dynamic, and mutualistic in terms of the shared benefits that pass between individual organisms. All organisms need an ecosystem, including student organisms in an educational setting (p. 88).


Dolan, V. (2011). The isolation of online adjunct faculty and its impact on their performance. International Review of Research in Open and Distance
, (12)2, 62-77.

Johnson, T., Wisniewski, M. A., Kuhlemeyer, G., Isaacs, G., & Krzykowski, J. (2012). Technology adoption in higher education: Overcoming anxiety through faculty bootcamp. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. 16(2), 63–72.

Martinak, M. L. (2012). Virtually stress free: Keeping online graduate management students healthy from afar. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education. (3), 165–174.

Green, A. (2020, October 12). Working from home is making a lot of people miserable. Slate.

Lowe, S.D., Lowe, M.E. (2018). Ecologies of faith in a digital age. InterVarsity Press.

Rohr, R. (2001). The enneagram: A christian perspective. Crossroad.

Schroeder, M., Makarenko, E., & Warren, K. (2019). Introducing a late bank in online graduate courses: The response of students. Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(2).

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