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From the Vault: What To Do When Your Course Management System Goes Down

[Note: A version of this post was originally published in September 2009. This information is important enough to cause us to reach into the vault and pull it back out for public consumption.—Ed.]

On Monday morning of last week, the Michigan State University community (faculty, staff, and students) was greeted with the unfortunate news that ANGEL (our campus wide course management system) was down. The day dragged on with no fix. Many on campus (both student and faculty alike) reacted more like it was the zombie apocalypse than a problem with the server that would (eventually) get dealt with. Emails flew hither and yon about what we (the faculty were supposed to do), students dialed up their “oh my god, what am I supposed to do, I can’t get to my course” freak-out factor to DEFCON 1, and there was general mayhem on campus. In the immortal words of Dr. Venkman, “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!” (well, not literally, but that was definitely the vibe on campus for awhile). When all was said and done, ANGEL was down (or up, but completely useless because of constant errors) for 3 days (give or take a few hours).

Even though I wasn’t overly impacted by the outage (I avoid ANGEL like the plague – except for keeping my grade book – I’ve got a hard time making 2 + 2 add up to 4), I have the utmost sympathies for my colleagues and students. Honestly, who can blame ‘em. As faculty, we are strongly encouraged to mount both online and offline courses on ANGEL – and most faculty do. For all of its problems (and I, personally, think its got a lot of problems), ANGEL definitely has its benefits. The kicker is that many faculty and students come to over rely upon it, firmly believing that nothing will ever go wrong. At MSU (and at many other universities that rely heavily on a centralized course management system) there is no real sense that a healthy technological ecosystem, just like a natural ecosystem, requires diversity. So, when the system goes down, it isn’t a great surprise that everything goes to “H-E-double hockey sticks” very quickly.

So, in the spirit of the Great MSU ANGEL Outage of 09, here are some constructive thoughts on what you can do to either prepare for or mitigate the damage caused by a protracted outage of your course management system:

  1. If your course management system is the primary method by which you mass email your students, take some time at the beginning of the semester to compile all of your student’s emails. That way, you can manually send out a mass email assuring them that it isn’t the end of the world when the system goes down. It is probably wise to get a secondary emails – just in case your email system has gone down as well (seriously, it happens). This way, you can bypass the entire university technology infrastructure and communicate with your students.
  2. If you’ve got the option of mounting course material elsewhere (if you’ve got your own website, or have some server space provided by the university), do it. You don’t have to make everything available, maybe just the syllabus (course schedule, assignments, etc.). This way, if students normally access course material online (as opposed to in a physical, printed format) they will be able to get vital info about upcoming assignments, due dates, etc. even when the course management system is down.
  3. At the beginning of the semester, strongly encourage your students to save course material locally (or go old school and print out hard copies). So, if the system goes down, they’ve got vital course info, reading, etc at their fingertips.
  4. Don’t send email after email to your IT/tech support department. Trust me, they know that the system is down already, and you are only taking time away from their efforts to get things fixed (believe me, they want to get the problem dealt with as badly as you do)
  5. In the wake of the course management system apocalypse, be as flexible as possible with how you pick up the pieces. Don’t shortchange your students on due dates in an effort to get your schedule completely back on track with your schedule. Remember, it isn’t their fault that the system went down. Also, remember that if your class went down, so did all of the rest of your student’s classes. That means your students have 3 or 4 other professors who are madly trying to get their classes back on track – all of which can result in more panic for your students.
  6. In the immortal words of the good book, Don’t Panic! At the end of the day, there isn’t a whole heck of a lot you can do about the outage. Freaking out will only stress you out more…and stress is bad. It’ll get fixed, I promise.

What are your tips for surviving a course management system outage?

[The photo for this entry is from Flickr user Gerald Simmons and is licensed through Creative Commons.]

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