Thursday, September 14, 2006

When Bad Things Happen to Good Online Teachers [Solutions? Questions!]

Attitudes: How can we develop realistic expectations and lower everyone’s stress when technical interruptions happen during online sessions?

Activities: What kinds of constructive alternatives – both for teachers and students – can be prepared? By whom? For which kinds of interruptions?

Triage: What kinds of interruptions can be safely ignored? What kinds deserve alternative plans? What kinds require rescheduling the session?

How can we develop good answers to these questions:

1. When is the risk of technical interruptions during live synchronous online sessions worth the trouble?
2. What can be done to minimize that risk?
3. What should be done to prepare for those breakdowns?
4. How does/doesn't it help when we use team activities or CATs [Classroom Assessment Techniques] in the TLT Group’s online professional development workshops? Can we effectively exemplify what we are advocating? Does that help our workshop registrants use these options in their own online and hybrid courses? [Both in synchronous and asynchronous online sessions.]

These questions emerged from the frustrating, brief, technical difficulties we had in our 9/12 online workshop session about "CATS Online." Our workshop leaders proved themselves thoughtful, effective, resourceful and highly flexible in coping with the technical interruptions. I’ve invited them to consider these questions and share their thinking with us here and in our next workshop session.


  1. Anonymous8:12 PM

    If the students know what is to be covered for the day and what the assignment is they can continue without the connection to complete the learning activity.
    Sure, they miss out on the instructor's explaination and interaction with other students, but they don't feel they have missed a whole class.
    This requires that class time is NOT about lecture, but interaction with the material. These need to be clearnly defined before the class beging.

  2. Anonymous10:39 PM

    Competency and redundancy comprise a pretty fair solution. Use the KISS system as a source for your online materials. Keep the technology relatively simple and under your control. I use course management systems but I don’t use all of their features. I use them primarily as an expensive way to distribute materials. I don’t use the grade book feature; I don’t collect statistics on visits to the various modules that comprise my course. I cannot fix my current class management system if it breaks and must rely on the IT help folks. But it doesn’t matter.

    I have my course management system point at one of two servers. On these servers, I place my class materials. I have significant control over these servers and move materials via ftp to and from them. If one server goes down, my students know to look at the other server. I’m not sure where these servers are physically located (I buy space from commercial vendors). If both servers go down, the country is probably in a world of hurt because of some disaster and more important things need to be considered.

    While I have material submission goals for my students, I’m flexible. A paper that is a day or two late is no big thing.

    I don’t generally use on-line materials during face-to-face teaching. On those rare occasions, I always have backup materials ready to use. I know my material well enough to wax eloquently for 50 minutes. While this doesn’t exactly replace the on-line material, it suffices.

    Finally, I have copies of my class materials on my computer system at home. I create my own class materials at home using contemporary tools. I’m competent and have a lot of redundancy.

    Technology glitches are just not a significant problem.

  3. Re developing realistic expectations, here are a few ideas which may seem obvious but which I've rarely seen in online courses.

    1) Remind participants that technical interruptions may happen and describe the procedures for that eventuality.
    2) Remind participants that f2f interruptions happen as well: snow days, fires, fire drills, floods, sprinkler malfunctions, bomb threats, bee infestations, presidential assassinations, illness, car accidents, traffic delays, transit delays, flat tires, wrong turns, flight delays, emergency room visits (just to name the ones I've personally experienced or been told about).
    3) When applicable, use the same procedures for synchronous online sessions which are applied to interruptions of classroom sessions.

    This summer, I had to reschedule a synchronous online workshop session because of an emergency (taking my son to the emergency room). We rescheduled for the same time two days later. Rescheduling for the same time helps somewhat with people's schedules; making synchronous activities optional (as this one was) rather than required helps as well -- participants had the alternative of viewing a recorded Breeze session which included roughly the same content, and could contact us via e-mail and discussion forum for individual questions. So making multiple communication and content options available also helps (forms of redundancy).


What do you think?