Monday, September 18, 2006

When Bad Things Happen to Good Online Teachers [Context for TLT-SWG #28]

Ray’s sound went out suddenly in the middle of the 1st session of our online workshop [CATs Online] last week. Even though he’s the most technically skillful of our teaching team, we lost him for 5 minutes – a long time during a live, synchronous session – especially when he was the one running the slides.

Later that week, as I was preparing to send a message to participants in our introductory Blogs workshop, all my Blogger blog feeds suddenly began misbehaving. Since I had recently changed some settings for my browser and some Web-based tools, I wasn’t sure what was causing the trouble. It took me two days of exploration, asking for help, etc., to finally get around to the “obvious” solution. I went into my Blogger settings for TLT-SWG and changed the site feed options. These settings hadn't been changed for months, but changing them might have reset something. [Digital equivalent of clearing the throat?] Within a few minutes the problems began to disappear and have not returned. But I didn’t REALLY know if it was my action or some other event that solved the problem. All I know is I was delayed a couple days in my plans for the workshop and I lost several hours of work time.

These two examples are not very unusual.

I’m both reassured and worried every time a NASA launch is scrubbed or postponed due to mechanical or computer problems. The reassuring part is that even NASA with so many highly intelligent highly committed people still has equipment interruptions.

Each of us now has a uniquely complex configuration of software, connections, and settings on our own computers. Like the space launches, we’re using highly complex systems that are unpredictably – but often – subject to changes that no one can fully anticipate or control. New upgrades and updates. New settings. New uses. Etc.

So, those of us who believe there are good reasons for using new options to extend education – including professional development – must learn to live with some risk of temporary technical failure.

Most of us who have taught for more than a year or two have learned some ways of detecting when a course is not working well and some ways of making adjustments to get back on track. But we still have a lot to figure out about how to recognize and deal with technical and other problems that can arise in online and hybrid courses. We can’t rely on exactly the same repertoires.

NOTE: The online workshop I mentioned above is about adapting CATs – techniques originally designed for quickly getting constructive feedback in a traditional classroom – to online activities.

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