Contingency Planning your Online Classes

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Online teaching presents some new difficulties that have the potential of derailing a class. This article explores some possible sources of disruption and considers ways of reducing the likelihood of issues arising, or dealing with such problems should they occur in the class. 

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Technical issues with webcams, microphones or computers

One of the most basic things that can go wrong with the class is to have a webcam or microphone that does not work. While at this point Zoom-calls have become almost an everyday activity, it is useful to make sure that you are coming across clear by for example viewing a test recording back, or setting up a test call with a friend logged into Zoom in a separate room, so that you are able to see how they sound on your setup. Making sure to log into the Zoom call ahead of time can also ensure you have sufficient time to make sure that the microphone and speakers are all configured on the day of class.

In a crunch: While advance testing can avoid most issues, if issues do arise, one possibility is to log in via a phone, tablet, or alternative laptop. 

Internet and power outages

A less avoidable event that can have just as disruptive impact on class, is a power or internet outage. While you may never experience such a disruption, particularly if you live in an area more susceptible to outages, it is useful to consider how you would handle such a scenario should it arise.

One possibility as a fall-back is to log in via your cell phone, which is not dependent on electric nor cable internet. It is useful to have a phone charged (a backup laptop is less useful since if the power goes out your internet modem will also power off. With the exception of major outages, cell phone towers are less susceptible to disruption). An alternative is to identify locations that are unlikely to be impacted by an outage (e.g., your university office), which at least for longer outages, you may be able to plan ahead to use. Finally, another possibility is to know the details of an alternative professor who may be able to take the class – while likely over-kill to plan ahead for given the rarity of outages, it is one possible option in the event of other options not working.

In a crunch: If you have exhausted fallback options, make sure to communicate with students the current situation – there is nothing worse than being stuck on a call and not knowing what is going on!

Running long and short on time

One of the most common issues that you are likely to face when transitioning online is either running long or short on time – the timing of things just play out slightly differently than teaching in-person. For example, you may find discussions take longer than usual from slightly more delay associated with the transition between individuals speaking, or you may find that students are less talkative than when in an in-person environment. Indeed, if you teach multiple sections of the same course, you may find greater between-section variation, with certain sections adapting readily to the online environment, while others less so. 

In a crunch: The more that you have planned ahead and are aware of the key material to cover, the easier it is to scrap some less critical points (potentially in a way that students are unaware that anything was missed). Similarly, having a fall-back exercise, and maybe especially one that is relatively open-ended, can be a good way of addressing the possibility that the class runs short. For example, putting students in a breakout room to discuss a specific point can be a good low-preparation way of ensuring the class does not end excessively early.

Video playback issues

Just as using videos in class poses the slight risk that the video may not play, the risk of technical issues is slightly heightened when students are shown a video online (with the added complication that not only must the video play on the main machine but also transfer smoothly to the students). 

In a crunch: Maybe especially for videos included for variety and to maintain student’s interest, if the video doesn’t play, don’t worry about it – just move on. If you can’t figure out the reason it is not playing, you are unlikely to be able to diagnose the issue on the fly, and quickly cutting losses is often a better approach than to spend a long time troubleshooting why a short clip isn’t working. For more critical class components, where the video is integral to a substantial component of the class, consider ways of sharing a fall-back to the material – if for example, if the video is online elsewhere, you could share the link to the video so that each student is able to watch the video individually outside of Zoom. 

Student technical issues

Given that conference calls are becoming increasingly common for teaching, students should already be familiar with the setup – the most common issue that you will likely face is students talking with their microphone off (holding down the space bar temporarily enables the mic in Zoom).

In a crunch:  Ultimately you are not best placed to troubleshoot individual technical issues during the class itself. Don’t let an isolated issue de-rail the whole class – the best approach in many cases is to suggest they speak to computing support, and move on with the class. 

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