The Connectivity Conundrum

The Connectivity Conundrum

By Virginia Pitts, Director of University Teaching

Using technologies such as Zoom in our teaching can give students the opportunity to interact with us – and each other – in real time.  While we in the OTL recommend that no more than 50% of your course be synchronous, providing at least some opportunities for these real-time interactions can help create the sense of community and connection that is so critical in this time when many of our students are likely feeling isolated and disconnected. 

This presents a conundrum, however.  How do we provide these opportunities for students to connect with us and each other in real time, while not exacerbating the inequities that arise from some students’ lack of access to the internet bandwidth these interactions require?  It is likely that at any point in time, you have students who are experiencing intermittent, unreliable, or possibly even non-existent internet connections; below are some recommendations for minimizing the negative impact on learning and connection that these connectivity issues can introduce.

Make sure students know the options and supports that are available to help them get access to stable and reliable internet.  If students have internet access issues, they should email to request help. You can also direct them to DU’s webpage on Resources for Students Taking Classes Remotely, where they can find information on additional technology supports (including free Internet hotspots and providers offering free 60-day access to the internet during the coronavirus outbreak).  If students believe their internet is fine but are still experiencing issues, they can also contact DU IT.  You may want to provide a link to these resources in your course syllabus, announcements, and/or home page. 

Make sure students know about options for connecting “real time” when they are experiencing bandwidth issues.  Given bandwidth issues, during synchronous sessions, some students may sometimes need to turn off their video and just have audio.  If just turning off the video doesn’t help (or if they want to try another way to still have their video on), students may want to download the Zoom app to their phone and join your Zoom meetings that way (then they will still have access to Zoom features such as the chat, raising their hands, etc.).  Another option – if the only thing students need is the audio – is for them to call into to the Zoom session via the bridge phone number assigned to every Zoom meeting (you can find this phone number on the invitation that is generated for each Zoom meeting). 

Provide support in your course so that students who do experience connectivity issues during live sessions are still able to engage.  While turning off the video or calling into Zoom still allows students to hear what is going on during these live sessions, not being able to “see and be seen” can make students feels less connected and less engaged, and can also make it difficult for them to participate in breakout rooms/activities.  Furthermore, some students may experience intermittent connectivity issues during a session (which means they miss pieces and parts of what is happening).  To address that:

  • If you will be sharing any visuals, send those to students ahead of time or post them on Canvas so that they can be downloaded (along with notes/annotations that will support students in making sense of them if they miss part of the lecture). When talking about these visuals during your live session, be sure to verbally note/describe what you are pointing to/referencing (rather than just assuming all students can see what you are sharing).   
  • If you are having students do any sort of activity during the synchronous session, provide an outline of that activity (you could send this ahead of time, post to Canvas, or have it in a shared document that students can link to) so that students are able to follow along (or review this retrospectively) if they are experiencing intermittent or consistent connectivity issues.
  • Since you will not be able to “see” students who are not sharing their video, it will be important to intentionally check in with them (since you cannot rely on your visual assessment to gauge whether they are confused, engaged, etc.). At the very least, if you are lecturing, it is more important than ever to frequently pause to ask if people have questions (particularly if you have any students who have called in), and to allow multiple options for students to “raise their hands” or interject a question/comment (utilizing the chat space and the hand-raising feature in Zoom, for instance).
  • If you are having students work collaboratively during these synchronous sessions (using Zoom breakout rooms), it may be worth providing some lower bandwidth options for doing real-time work together (such as collaborative documents or group chats/messaging). You can find a description of some of these options in this article on videoconferencing alternatives

Provide asynchronous options for students who are not able to connect “real time”.  We have talked about some of these options in previous blogs (see A Plan B for Your Plan B: What to Do When Your Tech Fails and Structuring Your Time in Online Courses).  For example, you might use the discussion board in Canvas to provide opportunities for students to interact with you and their classmates, or pre-record your lectures so that students who are not able to connect live can still view them,  or record your Zoom session so that students can get back on later when the internet is running faster and view the recording to either catch up or fill in the blanks. 

Ask your students to let you know if there are aspects of your course that they are not able to access, and provide multiple avenues for them to do this.  Even in a course where you have done your best to plan/design for every possible connectivity issue, it is likely that some students will still have difficulty connecting in ways you had not anticipated.  Therefore, it is important to explicitly and regularly invite students to let you know if they are having challenges accessing/interacting with aspects of your course.  You might even want to survey them periodically to check in on how they are doing with accessing the course materials  (see Designing a Mid-Quarter Survey and Mitigating Increasing Inequity as We Move Online for example questions).