Sunday, March 8, 2015

Be Prepared! Online Courses on Autopilot

I've been out of the loop for the past three weeks as you can see and, sadly, it is because of a family emergency: my mother, who was on hospice care, died last week. I've started a separate blog about that, both to work through the hard times of the past few weeks and also to share with others what I learn about death-with-dignity legislation: Morituris Omnibus. I've always felt strongly about each person's right to choose the manner and time of their dying, especially when facing medical calamities like my mother was facing; now that cause is much more urgent and personal, and I will be using that blog to share my involvement in this movement for change in our medical and legal systems.

Meanwhile, in this blog post for #OpenTeachingOU, I want to share what I learned about my online course design and how in some ways it was flexible enough to accommodate my sudden and unexpected absence, although I now know that I should also make some improvements for the future.

Communication. By relying on the class announcements blog along with emails, I was able to keep all the students informed about what was happening. That felt very solid; I don't think I need to make any changes there, and I was incredibly grateful to the students for their patience and understanding during this hard time. Of course, if I were really out of action completely, I would need the director of the online course program to communicate about that to my students; see note below about planning for a really serious emergency like that.

Assignment Readiness. This was the main problem I need to fix. In the past, I used to have all the assignments 100% ready to go before the semester started, but over the past two years I have been tinkering with my classes a lot, which means I have been writing up some assignment instructions and declarations during the course of the semester so that I could be really responsive to student suggestions and feedback. To accommodate emergencies like this in the future, I need to be more careful. Before the semester starts I need to have every assignment ready to go; that doesn't mean I cannot tinker with them and improve them. Instead, it just means that in case of an emergency like what I faced this semester, I would not have any doubts about the students being able to carry on in my absence. Because I did have some Internet access during this crisis, I was able to get the assignments ready this time — but in a different kind of emergency (if I were in the hospital or something myself), the students would have been missing some of the assignments that they needed.

Project Feedback. The bulk of my time each week (appx. 30 hours) is spent giving feedback to students, and the week by week assignments are structured such that the students have my feedback from the previous week in time to do their work on the next week's assignment. Over these two weeks, however, I was not able to keep that up given my limited Internet access. Out of the appx. 160 projects students turned in while I was gone, there were 25 where I could not write my reply in time, so I gave those students an extra free pass for that assignment. This strategy assumes, of course, that I have Internet access. If I were completely out of the loop, I would need a different strategy so that the students could keep on working ahead to develop their project, while postponing all the revision work until my return. So, I need to write up a kind of "emergency plan" which will explain to the students how to carry on doing the work for their Projects in my absence, catching up on the revision process later.

Administrative Coordination. I contacted the director of our online course office when I had to leave town to let her know what was happening, and because I did have some Internet access, there was really nothing that she needed to do or worry about. If, however, this had been an emergency where I was incapacitated, it would have been very hard for her to figure out what needed to be done in my classes, especially if the emergency were to occur at the end of the semester when grades are due. So, at the beginning of each semester, I need to write up an "emergency plan" not just for my students but also for the online course director so that she would be able to easily manage any emergency that might come up at any time during the semester. Besides the Projects, everything in the course is ready to run on its own, student-driven, in my absence. Even in a really dire emergency (if I were kidnapped by space aliens in Week 2 of the semester, for example), the courses would still be viable. Not optimal — but viable!

Overall, I am really pleased about how my classes are very much the result of the students' own work and their interactions with each other. So, while I am definitely a hands-on instructor, heavily involved with my students' work every week, my classes really can survive a disruption like this — and what a big relief that was over the past two weeks! I am very grateful about that: it meant that I could hang up the phone with hospice and immediately go online to get a plane ticket without a moment's hesitation, knowing that my students would be fine without me. At the same time, this is the first ever emergency I've faced in 10+ years of teaching online that meant I had to be "absent" from class for more than a just a day. So, I learned a lot from the experience, and I will be sure to do a better job in future of making my classes emergency-proof.

Yes, we can all use the help of Otto the Auto-Pilot in case of an emergency!

And here's an Airplane click featuring Otto at work:

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