On-line Education Pitfalls   September 23rd, 2010

A key component of on-line education, such as the Master of Fine Arts in Photography that I’ve started pursuing this semester, is a stable Internet connection. In an on-line program, like the one I’m in, you’re supposed to submit your assignments via upload to a web site and actively participate in dedicated discussion groups, which take the place of classroom interaction.

One of the things we are told is that having computer problems or Internet connection issues on our end is no reason to not participate, and that we should use available resources, like an Internet cafe, to ensure we meet our obligations. Okay – I agree that the Internet is now relatively ubiquitous, so unless there’s a complete Internet outage and you’re stuck on some sort of desert island and can’t get to an active connection (which here, on Bonaire, which is a desert island, could actually happen), there should be little excuse to not be able to get on-line in some capacity.

But what if the school goes off-line? Can’t happen, right? Wrong.

It’s happening right now. If you’re a person with an inflexible schedule, perhaps due to a job, and your plan was to check into class in the morning before leaving for work, you are hosed. Going to an Internet cafe will not fix the problem if the problem is at the other end and outside of your control.

Not an encouraging sign when you try to access your classes

Not an encouraging sign when you try to access your classes

I’ve been getting the above message since I first tried to get in about two hours ago. And the school’s main web site is down too.

Even the University's main web site is down

Even the University's main web site is down

We’ve been advised to call the On-Line Help Desk if we have problems with the web site, but unless we somehow had the forethought to store that phone number locally, you’re stuck because you have to be able to get to the school’s web site to get the phone number (this is where Google’s cache feature is really handy – I found it there – 888-431-2787).

But even calling the help desk doesn’t help here because the number is either busy or dumps you to an answering machine, suggesting others have located the number and are trying to get through too.

This reminds me of the fire drills and bomb scares we used to have in my grade school and junior high classes in Munich during the 70s. Everything was shut down and were sent home for the day. Maybe a server outage is the modern day equivalent?

I’m sure that this will get resolved at some point today, hopefully with our work from yesterday intact, but it’s a great lesson to all of us – namely that computing technology can fail in unpredictable ways, and if we rely on it too much or leave things to the last minute, we may suffer unintended consequences.

Back to my paper-bound, handheld books while I wait for class to resume.