At POT workshop presentations now and then, it is noted that I use a Tech Check for my students. It’s like a little quiz at the very beginning of the class, sort of an online version of the syllabus quiz. The idea is for them to check their technology before the class gets rolling. I put in audio and video clips in all the formats I intend to use, and they answer a question about each (i.e. “what am I saying in this audio clip?”). Whenever it comes up at a workshop, people say “oh, that’s a great idea!” and they go do it too.
But this semester I’m thinking it isn’t such a good idea.
It started like any other week-before-the-semester, the early birds coming in and doing the check, what I call the First Day Exercise. Moodle scores each question that has a correct answer (I also collect info about their ISP, browser, technology use, etc that don’t have correct answers). I have had to turn off the feedback because Moodle insists on a “correct” answer for the general questions, and I didn’t like Moodle telling them it was wrong. So now I allow unlimited attempts – they can do it as often as they like. The feedback tells them they’re good to go, or to try it again. Formative assessment and all that.
Well, in addition to the usual Moodle-isn’t-saving-my-answers problem, this semester the students have been really stressing because the audio files aren’t working well in their systems. Many could not hear my embedded Quicktime audio, coded using object and embed tags for maximum compatibility and working fairly well for years.
The audio files are of me reading the exact same lecture text as appears on the screen, or playing some music. As years have gone by, according to my surveys, more and more students are using the audio (there’s likely a reading level/laziness factor here). So more students want it to work.
I knew years ago that eventually those old QT codecs wouldn’t work with newer browsers, so I had a plan to use mp3s. In fact, most of the lecture audio is already converted to mp3 and zipped so students can download the whole lecture (a student request from those who listen while they drive). So I figured I’d just embed the mp3s next to the QT buttons. We’re talking hundreds of files – 16 lectures per class, from 6-12 audio files per lecture, 3 classes.
Friday night I started converting, uploading, adding code. I got through one entire class. Then a student reported that all the audio was playing at the same time, creating cacophony. After hours in Facebook with my wonderful POT social network, we discovered that this is a problem in Chrome only for PC only. And the brilliant Michael Glasser figured out mp4 would work better instead, but I had already done a whole class and had no clue what might go wrong with mp4. Plus, that would be three formats for each file (.mov, .mp3 and .mp4) when I was resisting html5 because it meant converting to both mp3 and ogg.
Meanwhile, students were panicking. Moodle wouldn’t save their answers, and the damned audio buttons wouldn’t work. Many didn’t try another browser, or notice that I’d added the mp3 button to the Exercise question, or that others had already asked the same question in the Help forum. I sent out a reassuring announcement/email, explaining that I didn’t want anyone stressing about this, that it didn’t count for points, that if a couple of tech things didn’t work, we’d deal with it later, and that I would change the “grading” on the check so that 75% correct was fine. I even put a “do it, but don’t stress it” tag on the link to the Exercise.
Several straggly student emails and anxiety-ridden posts later, it occurred to me that this is a lousy way to start the semester. And perhaps it always has been.
When a student enters an online class (or any class), there is some natural trepidation. In the online environment, some of this trepidation is caused by technological obstacles – finding the URL for the class, waiting for the registration system to talk to the class website/LMS system so you can get in, figuring out that you should use your college username and password. You enter a page with a bunch of links, and start clicking on the “Start Here” or “Class Tour” or you just start clicking. You discover the Tech Check needs to be done right away, open it, and there are a dozen more obstacles, and some things that don’t work.
This doesn’t cause a rise-to-the-challenge feeling of confidence. It causes panic and despair, loss of self-worth as you fail again and again taking the tech check over and over. By the time you receive some reassurance you might already have bad feelings about the class.
(A student emailed me today apologizing for all the technical problems, like it was her fault. I wrote back immediately that it was I who was sorry about them.)
If I bail on the Tech Check next time around, then we deal with tech difficulties as they arise. The initial tech problems we had a decade ago are now rare: inability to get into the site at all, or seeing a blank screen. Most websites and LMSs are more reliable in general. More students have taken online classes, and it’s considered normal. And is it really harder to deal with a bunch of technical problems as they come up than this panic as I try to prevent that?
There’s no earthly justification for panic and despair. And if it’s the Tech Check causing that before we’ve even started, I’m thinking of dumping it.