Many workplaces have the “accidental techie” — the person not from the IT department but who everyone instinctively turns to first when they encounter one of those frustrating “why won’t this work?” computer problems.
Now, with more college and university courses going virtual, many instructors find themselves in the role of accidental techie. They are the person a student contacts first when they hit a technology glitch. When a student can’t log on to a virtual class session, has trouble uploading an assignment, or can’t get an adaptive learning module to load, they email the instructor for help.
Dr. Heather Michaels, Chair of the Physical Sciences Department at Indian River State College (IRSC) found this out firsthand when implementing adaptive courseware in her Introductory Chemistry course. In the pilot semester using adaptive learning courseware, Michaels ended up fielding more email questions from students than she had anticipated, and her experience is similar to other instructors who are implementing adaptive courseware in their courses.
Michaels realized that, rather than just grabbing their textbook and showing up in class, students now needed to navigate over troublesome tech speedbumps. Just to name a few, when an individual student can’t access the new courseware, it might be because their personal computer is using a web browser that isn’t compatible, because they have a software-blocking popup ad when the courseware uses popup windows, or because they are running a security or video player software that is outdated or otherwise incompatible with the courseware.
“You can imagine a student who’s not really checked in and how easily something like that makes them check out,” says Michaels.
It’s impossible to predict all of those tech troubles, but experienced instructors will begin to recognize some of them (often from their own experience) and can advise students on fixes.
Of course, most institutions have an IT help desk where students can be referred to when they are having trouble accessing online course materials. But as a practical matter, that may not work if a student is emailing an instructor the night before class while working on a quiz, and the lesson the next day assumes they’ve completed the quiz. A small tech frustration could compound to seriously impede a student’s progress through the course.
From the student’s perspective, the instructor is the person they have a relationship with. As a result, instructors must have a mental map of the middle ground where it’s more effective if they act as the technology support for their students.
Here are some practical tips to be responsive to a student’s tech glitches without getting overwhelmed.
Address common issues up front
When Lorain County Community College Professor of Mathematics Kathryn Dobeck helped implement adaptive courseware in all the statistics courses at LCCC, she learned from the pilot which tech issues students commonly experienced, so she decided to address them up front in the future.
Dobeck recorded videos with a simple screencasting software that illustrated how the courseware works for both the instructors and students. Explaining things as thoroughly as possible up front gives students and her colleagues the confidence they need in an otherwise intimidating situation.
“Students are scared of college, or scared of math, or just out of their element,” says Dobeck. “You can’t be as afraid if you’ve utilized the technology to successfully solve dozens of problems.”
Create templates to quickly respond to questions
Dobeck also wrote standard replies to common tech questions that she shared with all the Statistics instructors so they could answer quickly. She shared those templates as a text document, and colleagues were then able to personalize it.
At IRSC, Michaels wrote a step-by-step tutorial on how to download and install a new browser that she keeps handy and can quickly send to students who are having issues.
Set up shared places to ask questions
When Georgia Institute of Technology went remote at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, computer science major Jerius Smith appreciated the way graduate teacher’s assistants (TAs) in many of his classes created shared places to ask questions.
In some cases that meant a shared workspace in Microsoft Teams; other TAs set up virtual office hours where students could come and get help or advice.
By creating a space for students to ask questions communally, instructors can help more students at a time, and often students can answer each other’s questions, or find their own questions have already been answered.
Collaborate with peers
Other instructors are likely dealing with similar student tech issues, and brainstorming solutions together may yield innovative results.
For example, Cuyahoga Community College’s (Tri-C) faculty learning community shared resources between departments as they were implementing adaptive courseware during the Every Learner Everywhere pilot program.
Communicate information in multiple ways
Although Michaels recorded a detailed welcome video to give IRSC students all the information they need up front, she still found herself getting questions she had addressed in the video. She plans on incorporating a way to ensure that students actually watch the video all the way through, like asking them to send her an email with a smiley face in it at the end of the video.
Similarly, the Tri-C Biology department created a low-stakes assignment that takes students through the adaptive learning software step by step, which helped iron out tech wrinkles early on.
Michaels, having created a video and her own documentation, and having the software vendor’s support documentation to point students toward, has learned that she needs to communicate information in multiple ways before every student gets it.
“Be patient,” Michaels advises other instructors. “Know that you’re going to say the same thing one hundred times.”
While the early weeks of a semester with a new digital learning technology may be challenging as students get used to it and encounter technology wrinkles for the first time, instructors who prepare to play the “accidental techie” role can help students stay on course.
Learn more about succeeding with adaptive courseware with Every Learner Everywhere’s Implementation Toolkit.