by Lorraine B. Elder
Okay, Twitter is not really the new Tamiflu, but educational technology and social media are useful tools in combating the effects of sweeping illness. The World Health Organization has declared a flu pandemic, meaning widespread human H1N1 infection is occurring. Many colleges are bracing for large numbers of flu-related absences among staff and students. Wise faculty members are planning ahead to ensure continuity of classes in the event that either they or their students are felled by flu. Here are some steps you can take.
Use Officially Supported Tools
First, try using officially supported tools at your campus. At Northern Arizona University, we recommend using Blackboard Vista for posting class materials, iTunes U for distributing podcasts, Elluminate for live web conferences, and classlists.nau.edu for sending bulk emails to all students enrolled in a class.
Use Social Media
Then in addition to those tools, consider using social media—your blog, a class wiki, Twitter—to communicate frequently with your students if you or a large number of them are ill and can’t come to class. Just be sure to tell students which social media you’re using. Blogs are good for pushing information out to students while also giving them a mechanism for offering comments and feedback. Wikis are especially good for allowing students to complete group projects even if one or more group members get sick, and by collaborating online, sick students reduce the risk of infecting their classmates. If you designate a hashtag for your class, Twitter can serve as a chat tool and discussion board.
Use File Formats Accessible to All Students
Students don’t all have access to the same versions of software that you do, so avoid posting your class materials in formats that require proprietary software. For example, you might have the latest version of Microsoft Word, but your students might have an older version or no version at all, which means they won’t be able to open your .docx files. Instead, convert your class materials to web pages that students can view in a browser. In a pinch, you can convert documents to PDFs, which students can view using Adobe Reader or other free PDF viewers. But keep accessibility in mind for students who use screen readers or other assistive technology.
While we don’t advocate recording entire class-length lectures, we do suggest scripting and recording short (no more than 5–10 minutes each) talks or demonstrations focused on a single key point or topic in your course. Audio recordings are fine for some subjects. Others, particularly demonstrations, lend themselves to video recordings. Be sure to include transcripts, and tell students where to find the recordings. If you have access to iTunes U, post them there. If not, post them in your learning management system or on your blog.
At the outset of your class, tell students how you will communicate with them if you become ill, and tell them which communication channels they should use to let you know when they’re sick. Take a look at the Communication Toolkit for Institutions of Higher Education. Above all, be flexible and understanding with your students. Remember that the H1N1 virus seems to affect younger people more strongly than older people, so instead of giving students grief for missing class, send them some virtual chicken soup.
Ask for Help
Most campuses have support organizations that can help you figure out which kinds of educational technology are appropriate for you and your students. Don’t hesitate to ask for guidance.
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