The vast majority of U.S. schools are relying on technology platforms more than ever before.
That means schools have been particularly affected when big tech providers like Zoom and Google have experienced temporary outages. Zoom was down on the first day of school for thousands of students across the country last fall, and the possibility of another outage for a key tech-based service always looms on the horizon.
For the Joliet school district in Illinois, this school year started off on a rough note with the Zoom disruption, followed by a Google outage, as well as some local Comcast internet service problems, all of which disrupted students’ learning. “At that point in time, we didn’t have a plan B,” said John Armstrong, the district’s director of technology. “We hadn’t gotten that far.”
A few months later, outages are less disruptive, with more money invested in more robust technology options that can serve as backups in case of an outage. “Now it certainly has an impact, but it’s more on the annoyance level than shutting us down,” he said.
Technology is inherently fallible. More outages are inevitable. The question, then, is what schools can do to prepare before they happen, and to navigate them as they do. Education Week asked Armstrong and the following school technology experts to share the lessons they’ve learned. Those leaders included:
- Hannah Farnum, director of technology, Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative
- Bill Fritz, director of technology, Sycamore Community Schools in Ohio
- Stacy Hawthorne, director of online programs, The Davidson Academy in Nevada
- Anna Ridenour, state testing coordinator, Ohio Connections Academy
Before an Outage
Develop robust asynchronous learning materials.
Many schools have emphasized that teachers should be trying to replicate the classroom experience for remote learners as closely as possible, with lengthy live-streaming that can last as long as a regular school day. Online learning experts say that approach forces students to pay attention for too long to a videoconference call and spend too much time staring at a computer screen.
That approach also isn’t conducive to persevering through tech outages. If students are relying entirely on technology to keep instruction going, an unexpected outage will completely derail instruction. Instead, teachers should be encouraging students to work independently and supplying them with learning materials they can use if technology falters.
Investigate offline options.
Some platforms, like Google, allow users to work in documents even when the internet isn’t working. Progress during the offline session then gets uploaded online once the internet is restored. School tech leaders and teachers should investigate offline options for the tech platforms they use so they can confidently direct students to use them if it becomes necessary.
Build in redundancies—and make sure they’re ready to deploy.
If Zoom is your primary videoconference platform, have Microsoft Teams or Google Meet on standby, and prioritize making sure students know how to use the backup options and when to turn to them.
Think of it like preparing for a snow day.
Teachers in areas with cold winters are accustomed to thinking about lesson plans and contingencies for inclement weather days. The approach should be no different when thinking about the possibility of tech outages—they’re unpredictable and disruptive, but it’s possible to be ready for them if you acknowledge that they are inevitable.
During an Outage
Let the school community know as soon as possible that you’re aware of the issue.
Once it becomes clear that a tech outage is affecting some portion of the school community, it’s imperative to notify teachers, students, and families as quickly as possible that tech administrators are aware of the situation and working on solutions. Getting the message out quickly will also limit the number of individual messages you’ll receive letting you know about the same problem.
Here’s an example:
Well in case we needed a reminder that it’s still 2020, Zoom is out on the east coast where the DAO school day is about to kick-off. All students should have Teams open and wait for communication from their teacher about next steps. We have contingency plans, we had just hoped not to use them on day 1.
We got this! A little outage doesn’t stop DAO!
Director of Online Programs
Communicate with families using multiple channels.
Sending the same message by email, text, and on social media will ensure that the largest number of affected people will get the same information about an outage at the same time. It’s crucial for those messages to be conveyed in as many languages as possible, and for each one to offer clear and succinct explanations about what’s going on and how instruction will proceed.
Listen to the teachers and follow their lead.
Sometimes an outage is only affecting scattered groups of people, while other times it’s school-wide, nationwide, or even worldwide. Quickly determining who’s affected and to what degree will help determine how to proceed.
Sometimes, one teacher will find a clever workaround for dealing with an outage that other teachers might be able to use as well. Other times, a consensus among teachers might indicate a widespread issue that demands administrator intervention. Teachers and students tend to be on the front lines of technology breakdowns, so it’s important to maintain an open line of communication with them.
When we’re in a pandemic, human errors are more likely because we’re all dealing with a lot of stress and a lot of unprecedented stress and a lot of new challenges.
Ask teachers pointed questions; they can help solve the problem.
- Which services appear to be down?
- Who is experiencing the issue?
- How long has the issue been going on?
- What browser are you using?
- When did you last update your computer?
Model to students the value of staying calm even if you are frustrated
“When we’re in a pandemic, human errors are more likely because we’re all dealing with a lot of stress and a lot of unprecedented stress and a lot of new challenges,” Ridenour said. When tech outages happen, “it’s helpful for me to contextualize that and recognize that most likely there’s a human out there that is just having a really bad day.”
Students benefit from seeing adults stay calm under pressure and develop creative workarounds to new problems. Teachers want students to have those skills too, and they’re more likely to get them if they’re given opportunities to take control of an unexpected situation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as Zoom and Google Outages: How Schools Should Prepare for Tech Problems