As an online instructor you may have found yourself on the front lines when the technology fails. Whether it's the school website, course management software, or email, when a large system goes offline it can create a lot of problems for you and your students, directly impacting progress and assignment due dates. One of the sessions I attended at the TCC Online Conference last week was called Digital Detours: A Menu of Solutions for when Technology Fails. This was so practical in its advice to all of us who rely on computers and the Internet to do our work and complete our studies that I thought I would share some of the tips here.
The presenters, from Kodiak College and the University of Alaska Anchorage, experienced a "catastrophic failure" of instructional technology, which prompted them to conduct a survey in which they asked faculty members to share their solutions to technology "disasters" in the online learning environment. They found the most response, and most value, in advice to proactively plan for alternatives to three primary components of online course delivery: 1) learning or content management systems (e.g., Blackboard, Moodle), 2) synchronous meeting software (e.g., Elluminate/Collaborate, WebEx), and 3) school sponsored email accounts. Consider how you might implement the following suggestions in your online course:
- Create a roster of student contact information. This should include at least one method that is external to the school's systems, such as phone numbers and other email addresses. Do this early in the term.
- Establish expectations for response times. This advice is often part of creating an online course syllabus and can also be helpful when technology problems arise. Make it clear to your students when they should expect a reply from you via email and other forms of course communication.
- Identify alternate options for meeting and working. Look for other tools that allow you to meet online with students and create collaborative workspaces (i.e., Google+ Hangouts as an alternative to Blackboard Collaborate). Skype, Wikispaces, GoogleDocs, and ClassDojo were among the suggestions of session attendees.
- Create alternate copies of course materials. The example provided included creating a PDF of each week's course materials from the course site. This document could then be provided through other channels, such as email or blog post, if the course site goes down for an extended period of time.
Check with your school to see if there are any policies or procedures already in place at the institution or program level to support you and your students during a widespread technology failure. There may be some limitations to what you can do, but additional support may also be available in extreme circumstances. Several institutions have posted their guidelines as examples and individual instructors are also sharing their techniques.
- Be prepared to alter assignment parameters and reschedule online quizzes. Know what your options are with the technologies available and have instructions for students ready to go should you need this contingency. As instructional technology support at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign recommends, "have a back-up plan." Your school may also have policies in place for extreme outage situations, including notification to affected students and instructors.
- Identify an emergency broadcast channel. And communicate this to your students early in the course. If they are unable to communicate with you through the course site or your school email address, where should they turn to find information about what is happening and how to proceed with that week's assignments? Check with your program for guidance and to find out what other options may be acceptable.
- Be flexible and propose solutions. North Georgia College and State University encourages instructors using technology in blended courses to acknowledge the fact that "problems will occur and it's okay." And Northeastern University recognizes technology failure as an opportunity to "model problem-solving for your students."
- Know where to turn for support. This could be in the form of a help desk and a larger group that manages your school's academic technologies. This group may also be responsible for notifying users when there is a problem. Support may include faculty development centers offering assistance and training with the school's technology. Knowing more about what is available and how it all works not only adds to your ability to react in a crisis, but also helps you direct student troubleshooting in non-emergency situations.
In a research bulletin titled Being Prepared for Technology Snow Days [PDF], EDUCAUSE states that, "institutions and instructors should assume that technology will occasionally fail." Written in 2002, this advice is just as applicable today. With this assumption in mind, there are steps you can take "to ensure orderly and consistent academic continuity through such outages."
Although rare, there are many reasons why large-scale technology failures happen, from hardware and software issues to power outages and natural disasters. The TCC presentation reminded me of my own experience years ago in an online course being offered by a college in Florida – during a hurricane season that affected the school's and students' power and Internet connections for weeks in a row. Thankfully we had an instructor who was not only prepared with alternative assignments and scheduling options, but also communicated a calm demeanor that signaled patience and understanding for all involved.
I nominated the Kodiak and University of Alaska presenters for TCC's Innovative Thinker Badge, part of the BadgeStack project, for tackling the important, but not often mentioned, topic of what to do when technology fails. Their presentation provided a host of practical suggestions and reminded us that this could happen in any course, so why not be ready and not wait to react.
Do you have experience with long-term technology problems in an online course? Share your stories and recommendations for instructors with our readers.
Image credit: Sean MacEntee, Flickr, CC-BY