Friday, January 18, 2013

Controlling Mayhem in the Synchronous Classroom

A seemingly ubiquitous commercial for an insurance company uses an evil, smug character called "Mayhem" to illustrate what can happen to change an ordinary day into a catastrophe. Mayhem falls through roofs, wrecks cars, spills coffee, drives lawnmowers through windows and boats, and diverts the attention of or misdirects drivers. All in all, he's a scary character.

There are moments when the Confer classroom may seem to have been invaded by Mayhem. A guest lecturer or speaker fails to connect or has audio problems, and your students begin to discuss things on their own that have nothing to do with the course. Students logging on have technical problems and insist on immediate attention; meanwhile, the rest of your online audience becomes irritable and even hostile in their chat remarks. Your network goes down in the middle of your lecture. A fire engine roars by your window, siren blaring. The software you're using freezes up. And so on.

Here are some suggestions for controlling the mayhem (and, no, these do not involve buying an insurance policy).

Roll With It

Understand that the nature of Web conferencing - like teaching itself - invites an element of mayhem. There are human factors, as in the traditional classroom, and these interact with (and sometimes exacerbate) the technical factors. If you use this technology often enough, something is sure to mess up at least once, and it will mess up when it's least convenient for you. 

When this happens, your reaction will be the most important factor in determining the outcome of your online session. Rage at the machine, roar at the outrage, or dissolve into a blubbering heap and you're certain to make the session a memorable failure. Roll with the punches and you at least have a chance of salvaging something from the shipwreck. If you remain upbeat and conversational, your audience will be more likely to wait out the problem with humor and patience.

I suggest that you deal with the problem directly instead of trying to mask or ignore it. If it's a human problem, confront the disrupters and enlist their help in restoring order. Coach your audience by explaining what you expect to see happen and providing alternatives to disrupting the session (e.g., call the help desk, take the discussion offline). Be quick to bring disruptive students on task, using the tact you would expect to receive if you were behaving similarly. When all else fails, boot them out. All the time you're doing this, keep a cool head and a smile (if possible). You're setting an example that your audience will find comforting: yes, there's a problem, and yes, I'm going to deal with it and move on. 

If the problem is technical, your best bet is to have a backup or fallback option. For example, about a month ago my campus network went down in the middle of a Webinar I was hosting. My remote presenter and the majority of our audience didn't experience the problem, but I was lost, temporarily. I have a backup network option (actually two), fortunately, and was able to re-join the session without anyone realizing that there had been a problem.

Know how to mute and un-mute your audience and speakers so that you can avoid the annoying disruptions that are otherwise beyond your control. Test your equipment, and have backups available, just in case. Deliver your slides to another moderator just in case you're prevented from presenting them. Have a way to communicate with at least one other participant without using the Confer tools (e.g., cell phone, IM, text message). 

Fortify Yourself

You can keep mayhem at bay by building a fortress that is impermeable. Get a room that can't be opened by co-workers, family members, etc. and put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on it. In selecting the room, try to make sure that it is well insulated from outside sounds and noises. If you're going to be on-camera, choose a non-distracting background. Clear your desk, get rid of the party hats, wash your face.

Check your network and phone status, and have a backup for each if possible. I like to use two computers whenever I'm presenting, and I also generally have each connected to a different network. 

Your audio equipment is important, and you can't easily handle an emergency if your audience can't hear you. Use a good microphone or headset and have substitute equipment, even if you're sure there's nothing wrong with the set you're using. Earlier this month, I used a high-end wireless microphone for a keynote speaker at a conference and was overjoyed to see the glowing reviews by online attendees at the sound quality. I used the same microphone the next day and got nothing but complaints until I plugged in the alternate equipment. 

If you have to use the bathroom, make sure you can get to it quickly from your spot and that it will be open. Likewise, prevent voice cracks by having water handy while you're speaking.

Warning: Danger, Will Robinson!

Let your students or online audience know that they're using technology that requires a certain amount of technical checking and may be susceptible to interruption. If possible, have them do the technical checking before joining the session, either by using a practice room or by running setup wizards in advance. Make this a requirement so that you're not greeted with indignant protests when they try to join the room with incompatible equipment.

You can spend some time orienting students to the environment and to acceptable behavior in your classroom. Show them how to participate, ask questions, raise hands, and communicate. Stress that you expect them to be open-minded and patient. 

Some instructors I know enlist the aid of students to perform some of the moderating tasks. They assign someone the duty of monitoring the chat, letting the instructor know when there's a question that needs answering, and some even assign students to provide the answers if possible. Another student will be asked to remind the instructor to start the recording, and another may have the job of looking for raised hands. This method - particularly if it's re-distributed over a semester - helps to keep students engaged and on-task.

An Ounce of Prevention

The worst way to come to a Confer session is on time. ALWAYS plan to be in the room at least 15 minutes early, so that you're able to deal with the unexpected in advance. It's also a good idea to have students come early, so that their problems can be fixed before the class actually begins. 

Design your class so that there are breaks where minor problems can be addressed or corrected. Have a plan of action, complete with re-actions, and keep planning right up to the time of the presentation. Sending e-mails to students to inform or remind them of the event and what you expect them to do in advance is always a good idea. Have a slide where emergency numbers are listed so that students will know what to do when all else fails. 

Know how to use private messaging so that you can deal with disrupters directly and quickly without embarrassing them. Calling out one of the audience for bad behavior has negative consequences that are very difficult to overcome. Be the adult in the room.

Your audience does not really expect a perfect world, even online. And they've all made mistakes or experienced situations where things didn't go as expected. A hint of mayhem won't send them into a panic, provided you deal with it cheerfully and appropriately. Your professionalism and commitment to getting them the materials and content you're paid to deliver will impress them.
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