Teaching Online with Errol: A Mini Guide for Fixing Anything That Can Go Wrong in the Online Classroom!

How nice it is when we teach an online course from beginning to end, with no errors, no problems, and no emergencies! Ah, but this is the stuff of fiction, for in reality each online instructor will encounter difficulties in his or her course. How each is handled can determine a good or poor outcome. What follows are the top five suggestions for handling all possible problems, followed by the three most common genres of problems, and how to respond to the most common three in each category:

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How nice it is when we teach an online course from beginning to end, with no errors, no problems, and no emergencies! Ah, but this is the stuff of fiction, for in reality each online instructor will encounter difficulties in his or her course. How each is handled can determine a good or poor outcome.

What follows are the top five suggestions for handling all possible problems, followed by the three most common genres of problems, and how to respond to the most common three in each category:

The five most important approaches to fixing problems

Don't panic. Cools heads need to prevail with any online teaching crisis—your world will not end. Using a computer introduces more opportunities for mishaps and problems. Thousands of online instructors have come before you, and each has encountered his or her share of mistakes. Keep this in mind, and it will place any online teaching problems you encounter in a better perspective. Work methodically and smartly to overcome the situation—it will happen, and you'll gain valuable experience for future classes.

Have a Plan B folder ready. While we cannot anticipate all problems we'll encounter while teaching our online classes, there are many possible scenarios we can list. These come from personal experience, colleagues, and professional development activities. As you come across these problems, develop a list of what you would do in case each happened to you. Include any contact information needed for each scenario. Having a Plan B prepared can help minimize initial distress.

Communicate about the problem. It's admirable to want to go it alone in correcting any unexpected problem, but since the problem usually affects others as well, you should let them know about it. Also, you just may not have the skills or ability to right the situation on your own. Keep a complete list of email addresses, phone numbers; and Twitter, instant messaging, and Facebook contact information handy. Be sure to contact your students.

Know how to repair any resulting damage. Take immediate steps to do any necessary damage control. This can include allowing extra time for submission of assignments, waiving of late submission penalties, reworking and/or adding assignments, and calling students. And be sure to add the steps you took to your Plan B folder: the problem may not happen again, but if it does it's nice to have all the steps you took in print, so the situation can be handled smoothly.

Don't let it get you down. The thoughts of negative evaluations, extra time needed to correct the problem, and a less-than-satisfying teaching experience are possible post-incident outcomes. But don't let these linger. They will wear on your ability to teach. Understand some things are out of your control. Also, if you have an overall stellar teaching record it becomes a wonderful insurance policy.

The three areas of problems in online courses—and how to resolve the three most common problems in each:

(A) Your course

(B)  Your students

(C) Your personal life 

REMEMBER: Pencil points break, copiers go down, cars get flat tires, and food spoils—it's how we react to such situations that helps determine a smooth or bumpy day in our lives.

Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for 19 years and has a national reputation in the subject, writing and conducting workshops on distance learning, with national recognition in the field of distance education. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his second online teaching text. Please write him at errolcraigsull@aol.com with your suggestions and comments—he always responds!