How nice it is when we teach an online course from beginning to end, with no errors, no problems, and no emergencies! Ah, but this is the stuff of fiction, for in reality each online instructor will encounter difficulties in his or her course. How each is handled can determine a good or poor outcome.
What follows are the top five suggestions for handling all possible problems, followed by the three most common genres of problems, and how to respond to the most common three in each category:
The five most important approaches to fixing problems
Don't panic. Cools heads need to prevail with any online teaching crisis—your world will not end. Using a computer introduces more opportunities for mishaps and problems. Thousands of online instructors have come before you, and each has encountered his or her share of mistakes. Keep this in mind, and it will place any online teaching problems you encounter in a better perspective. Work methodically and smartly to overcome the situation—it will happen, and you'll gain valuable experience for future classes.
Have a Plan B folder ready. While we cannot anticipate all problems we'll encounter while teaching our online classes, there are many possible scenarios we can list. These come from personal experience, colleagues, and professional development activities. As you come across these problems, develop a list of what you would do in case each happened to you. Include any contact information needed for each scenario. Having a Plan B prepared can help minimize initial distress.
Communicate about the problem. It's admirable to want to go it alone in correcting any unexpected problem, but since the problem usually affects others as well, you should let them know about it. Also, you just may not have the skills or ability to right the situation on your own. Keep a complete list of email addresses, phone numbers; and Twitter, instant messaging, and Facebook contact information handy. Be sure to contact your students.
Know how to repair any resulting damage. Take immediate steps to do any necessary damage control. This can include allowing extra time for submission of assignments, waiving of late submission penalties, reworking and/or adding assignments, and calling students. And be sure to add the steps you took to your Plan B folder: the problem may not happen again, but if it does it's nice to have all the steps you took in print, so the situation can be handled smoothly.
Don't let it get you down. The thoughts of negative evaluations, extra time needed to correct the problem, and a less-than-satisfying teaching experience are possible post-incident outcomes. But don't let these linger. They will wear on your ability to teach. Understand some things are out of your control. Also, if you have an overall stellar teaching record it becomes a wonderful insurance policy.
The three areas of problems in online courses—and how to resolve the three most common problems in each:
(A) Your course
- Course or school website down. This happens at any school that offers online courses. The reasons are many, and the website can be down for a short time or a day or more. Have student phone numbers (and other contact information) available to give them an update on the situation and provide reassurance. When the website comes back, post a general announcement to the class about any changes that might have to be made as a result of the problem (Remember that you might not be able to reach all students when the site is down).
- Loss of Internet. The same approaches apply here as when a school or course website is down with one exception: loss of Internet connectivity is usually localized to the online instructor, so an immediate call to the supervisor might be necessary (depending on how long the Internet will be down) to explain the problem.
- Links and/or software not working. Even a thorough run-through of everything prior to the beginning of the course does not guarantee that all links and software will remain error-free throughout the course. Have all contacts to the school's IT department handy, and when something is not working, immediately contact the department. Also, let your supervisor know and post a general announcement to the class (and make any necessary adjustments to the course).
(B) Your students
- Controlling and/or angry students. These students can disrupt an otherwise harmonious online class and must be addressed immediately. Begin with individual emails (and, when applicable, general postings in class reminding of course decorum). When these don't yield the desired results, call the disruptive student. Whether you communicate via text or voice, always be positive, upbeat, and polite. Be sure to let the student know you value his or her presence, and your primary goal is a great learning experience for the student. And when such a situation still cannot be resolved, or it is resolved but you deem it necessary, let your supervisor know.
- Hesitant and/or shy students. There are many possible reasons for students to hang back and not participate in discussions or to give a minimal effort. Positive encouragement is the key to drawing these students out. One of the best ways is to acknowledge and congratulate the student on something positive the student posted in a discussion or wrote on an assignment. An email or a phone call can reveal some personal situation in the student's life that is affecting his or her involvement. Assure the student that you will work with him or her in getting through the course.
- Students who are absent or who don't submit assignments on time. The two major reasons for these occurrences are students who don't care much for the course or school and students who have personal situations that affect their ability to meet deadlines. While you can't change every student's behavior, individualized emails—and especially phone calls—can go a long way toward resolving the absences/tardiness. Also, keep an upbeat, interested, and enthusiastic tone in the course. It helps make students feel more at ease.
(C) Your personal life
- Major negative life events. Deaths, illnesses, relationship problems, loss of full-time employment are just a few examples of the negative situations that can distract us from our online teaching duties. Of course, the show must go on. If you cannot work through the problem be sure to let your supervisor know so arrangements can be made. Sometimes, you may need a few days away from the course—let your supervisor know—and perhaps you can maintain the course on autopilot for this time. Should you tell your students about the event? It's up to you to decide how much to reveal, but often it's enough to say, “a personal situation that must be addressed” is fine.
- New responsibilities. A new child, added work duties, and additional school studies can impact one's time, and if not managed properly these can disrupt your online teaching. To minimize the disruption, be sure to use solid time management and organizational techniques. Also, see if there is anything in your life that can temporarily be put on hold to allow for a bit more time.
- Travel. When traveling, be sure you will have the connectivity and the time needed to teach the course. Make sure your laptop, tablet, or other device is in top form before travel, and let the students know how your trip might change your schedule.
REMEMBER: Pencil points break, copiers go down, cars get flat tires, and food spoils—it's how we react to such situations that helps determine a smooth or bumpy day in our lives.
Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for 19 years and has a national reputation in the subject, writing and conducting workshops on distance learning, with national recognition in the field of distance education. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his second online teaching text. Please write him at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions and comments—he always responds!