Designing for disaster resistance

General considerations

We are facing pressure to plan for keeping our courses going if our normal face-to-face teaching environment is disrupted. By and large, this involves being prepared to move operations online, to the extent that that is practicable. These are some thoughts on how to do that.

Moving a course online means a complex multi-way tradeoff between how resource-intensive you want your course to be, the richness of the learning experience you offer, the constraints of your particular discipline (and its material), and (not least) how much effort you are willing (and able) to spend. One size will not fit all courses or all situations.

That said, here are some considerations for making your course more resistant to disruption:

  1. Communication is key!
    • Students will need to know:
      • Where to look for updates on your class
      • What is expected of them
      • How to fulfill those expectations
      • What to do if circumstances keep them from fulfilling those expectations
    • You will need to hear back from your students, to know:
      • How they're doing
      • What works, what doesn't
      • What accommodations might be needed
        • Students may need different accommodations online than they would face to face
      • What other unforeseen obstacles they're running into
    1. Times of upheaval increase cognitive load. Students won't necessarily comprehend as quickly or thoroughly as they usually would. Repetition can help with that.
    2. Don't rely on just one communication channel. Use Moodle/Google Classroom and email and face-to-face communication (if you have a chance as the crisis develops). One channel may get through where another fails (or doesn't get checked).
  2. Low-bandwidth methods will generally outperform high-bandwidth methods. In a disaster, everyone and their various pets1 will be trying to do things online. The network infrastructure may hold up, or it may not. In addition, some of our students have slow or unreliable Internet service at home. Take that into consideration as you plan, and have a low-bandwidth fallback for the folks whose Internet pipe is really more like a small straw.
  3. Online, all tests are open-book. You can try to proctor exams through screen sharing or the like, but the most reliable solution to online cheating is to reduce the temptation to cheat. Students, like most people, will generally resist temptation as long as it's not too strong. If your assessments are designed on the assumption that the students have the entire Internet available at a click (or on an alternate device), then they won't be greatly tempted by actually having that access (just by virtue of being online). Avoiding high-stakes assessments (such as the proverbial final exam that's worth 75% of the course grade) is another way to help students keep temptation in check.
  4. Synchronous or asynchronous?
    • Synchronous interactions are those where everyone is (virtually) present at the same time. Advantages:
      • Real-time interaction allows for a more responsive and flexible approach to the material.
      • Misunderstandings and miscommunications can be discovered and cleared up quickly.
      • The immediacy of the interaction can foster feelings of community, which may be important in a time of crisis.
    • Asynchronous interactions happen over a period of time, without requiring everyone to be in the same virtual space at the same time. Advantages:
      • The load on the infrastructure is spread out, making these interactions more resistant to technical and network issues.
      • Scheduling is far easier, which may allow more students to participate.
      • The increased amount of time allows more opportunities for students to reflect.

Specific points

Moodle basics

Easy preparations

Mostly-easy preparations

More involved preparations

1↑ On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.

Last modified: Friday, March 27, 2020, 3:15 PM