Snow Days 2014: Taking Online Education Offline

snow days onlineDo online classes have snow days? I was asked this question recently while my community waited to hear about school and business closings during the polar vortex weather event. This “once in a generation” storm resulted in drastic conditions where I live, and everyone I knew seemed to be chatting about their “snow day” activities on Twitter and Facebook.

For those of us who teach and learn online, this crazy weather just means business as usual, at least as long as we have electricity and an Internet connection. I was lucky recently and had these things, but what if I didn’t? Outages were certainly possible. Take some time to consider potential scenarios and set yourself up to be prepared to handle them when they happen.

Play “What if…?”

It is not likely that online classes would be canceled due to the weather, and taking days off during already accelerated academic terms can create additional problems. Fortunately, there are a few things instructors and students can do to anticipate the effects of bad weather on their course sites and connections. Create a plan of action for the following situations:

  • Your power is out: Do you have a back-up location? The local library is one of my favorite places to retreat to when I need an alternate workspace. In extreme conditions, however, the library and other government offices may be closed. Develop not only your plan B, but also C and possibly D, so you’ll have ideas ready to go when you need them. Consider adding, “charge batteries” to your pre-storm checklist as well. Laptops, smartphones, and tablets can all be used periodically during a power outage to check email, etc. if they have a charge.
  • You can’t access the Internet: Do you have a back-up connection? The library, coffee shops, and even several fast food chains provide free Wi-Fi access to customers. Be aware of the risks of unsecure Internet access, and manage your activities wisely. You may also have options to connect to the Internet though your mobile devices through a carrier like Verizon or T-Mobile. This access can get expensive though, so review your data plan now to know what might be feasible.
  • The course site is down: You may not have any disruptions to power or Internet service, but your school might. If your school’s servers are in a location that is feeling the effects of bad weather, you may experience some difficulty accessing your course materials. This kind of issue is rare these days, and usually temporary, so watch for notifications from your instructor and institution, and keep checking for access. Know that if the course site is down, no one is able to access it.

Plan to Work Offline

My worst-case scenario is having no power, no Internet, and not being able to travel due to road conditions. During a time like this, my online courses may not be my first priority, but if I find myself in a safe place with nowhere to go, some course work can be accomplished.

If the situation presents a lack of Internet and no travel options, you may still be able to make some progress with your online courses. Prepare for the possibility of working offline with these tips:

  • Print your syllabus now. This document usually includes some kind of course schedule, instructor contact information, and institution policies. It makes a good starting point when you have any questions about your course. Instructors may also want to print out a course roster with student contact information at the beginning of each term, so they will be able to access it if the Internet or course site are unavailable.
  • Make the most of offline time. Prioritize your tasks by identifying what you can do. Discussion boards and email may be out of reach, but do you have access to reading assignments (e.g., textbooks, downloaded files)? Can you move forward with a paper or project? Without the distraction of the Internet, you may be surprised at the progress you can make on a variety of tasks.
  • Explore available tools. There are multiple options for accessing and working with web-based resources, even when you don’t have a connection. Set up offline access for Google Docs, which you can view and edit offline, then sync when you next connect with the Internet. Cloud storage apps like Dropbox also feature offline options with syncing. Firefox is just one browser offering a “work offline” option that allows you to view cached versions of web pages you’ve recently visited.

Know the Communication Plan

Most organizations, including colleges and universities, have an established plan for getting the word out about schedule changes and system outages. In addition to printing out course syllabi and rosters, take these precautions to prepare for the next big storm:

  • Locate your school’s emergency announcements. You may be able to sign up for automated alerts via email or text message. Your school may also advise you to monitor specific local television and radio stations for more information.
  • Share your status. Students should let their instructors know if they are facing issues related to weather. My students this semester log in from a wide range of locations; some felt no effects of the recent storm, while others lost power in their homes or were called into work extra hours because their industries were affected. A quick email let me know the situation and their proposed timeline for completing assignments due that week.
  • Set up an alternative channel. If the course site goes down and there’s no way to check in with the school, a course-level plan may be helpful. Instructors can and should consider identifying an alternate way to communicate with the class, such as social media or non-school email list.

No more snow days for on-campus students?

Traditionally considered by many as a “day off,” if you attend an on-campus program you may find that your next snow day means online learning. Through learning management systems and social media, closed roads and campuses are no longer a reason to cancel class. A change in approach allows students and instructors to keep things moving forward even if they can’t meet in person.

Threaded discussion boards and hashtags make discussions possible. Skype and Google Hangouts allow for live group sessions with video and screen sharing. I saw a lot of updates last week from instructors taking their offline classes online. One example is a professor at Clemson University who held virtual discussions with her film history course using a Twitter hashtag.

How will you react the next time you are faced with challenges accessing your courses? Watch the forecasts closely and take a little time now to make sure you are prepared.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog