We weathered the storm of the three and a half day outage of our campus learning management system and have come out the other side relatively intact. It has left me thinking about our reliance on this technology and about redundancy and contingency. Basically, what do we need to do to prevent complete immobilization in the (I hope extremely unlikely) event of another shutdown?
An IT colleague described redundancy as: “If a system crashes, or the building falls in a sinkhole, an identical backup system takes over within minutes. Like our Connect email server. We have 5 servers in the Math building and 5 identical in another building. If the math building gets sucked into space, within minutes the other building takes over and users notice little or no change.” Obviously, Desire2Learn needs to be responsible for the server redundancy – but it behooves all of us to have backup plans, our own redundancies, in place in case another black hole event occurs.
That brings me to contingency. In hospitals contingency plans are required to be in place to cover the eventuality of any system outage. Arguably there are more serious consequences of a system failure in a hospital environment. However, since so many are reliant on our course management system, a framework both system wide and as individuals should be in place – at least for peace of mind. The conversations have begun at an institutional level and I believe many individuals created their own workarounds.
It seems to me that the key in an event such as this, as with so many other things, is communication. A great deal of anxiety can be alleviated if communication lines can be kept open. Keeping an email list of your students is a good idea. If you have sent an email to your class the copy that the system sends to you will have all the Bcc: addresses – keep that. The classlists available for download from Quest contain the student email addresses as well. Just having the ability to let students know that you know what is going on and what your expectations are of them is a good first step. A number of faculty members are already using twitter as a means of communicating with their students. Generally a course specific Twitter account is created and then students are invited to follow and important information can be broadcast. Bill Power in Chemistry has been using this for several semesters now and his students did not feel the pain of the recent outage. Bill presented on his successful use of Twitter last year at the OND conference. During this downtime the Biology Department began using its departmental Twitter account to communicate with students.
Course materials are the other thing of primary concern to students. IST supports a secure file transfer service called Sendit by which faculty can send a link via email to their students. The advantage of this route is that it is secure and supported by the university. Many people already use Dropbox to share files (even just between their own computers). With Dropbox, a url to a specific file can be shared to students via email or tweeted via Twitter. Google Drive is another option.
These are just a couple examples of the contingencies that had been devised and I would love to hear of others that were used. Of course we hope that something like this does not happen again, but if it does at least we can be prepared. I wonder if that is the silver lining? Or the 100s of new followers of the Biology Department on Twitter!