How H1N1 Improved My Teaching and Student Communication
In fall 2009, the potential of an H1N1 Avian Flu pandemic seemed high in the US and everyone was in a panic. Our university created an emergency action plan and it included that all faculty needed to have backup plans in place for students who might be quarantined. The plan could not include issuing incompletes. The fear was that more than half the students in a class might feel fine but not be allowed on campus during their quarantine period and it was up to faculty to figure out how to make that happen.
I created a plan called “Skype Buddies.” Students were randomly assigned to groups of 4 or 5 Skype Buddies who were the colleagues in the class that would "Skype" you in if you need to miss class. I took time out of class for students to make sure everyone had Skype on their laptops and knew how to use it. Also, everyone in the group exchanged contact information as well as Skype names and added them to their contact list. It was during a time when Skype was fairly prevalent as a communication tool amongst the 18-25 year-old crowd. The plan would be that you could contact any of your Skype Buddies using the contact information (text or email) and find one who was going to be in class that day (in case the pandemic panned out and half the students couldn’t attend class). The Skype Buddy would set up his/her laptop in class in such a manner that you could hear (and maybe see?) what's going on in class. The Skype Buddy would also be able to have an occasional quiet conversation with you if you need something repeated or have input to offer to the class (this was before the chat feature of Skype).
The beauty of the plan was it took me as instructor out of the loop. I wasn’t having to spend valuable time before class trying to Skype in missing students or run tech support if it didn’t work. The onus was on the students. The funny part of the plan was no one in any of my classes that semester caught H1N1. But I did have a student who had to go to a family funeral out of town and a commuter student whose car wouldn’t start and wasn’t going to be able to be in class. They asked if they could implement the Skype Buddy for something besides H1N1. Who was I to say “no” to a student wanting to be in class?!
For the spring 2010 semester, the university didn’t require any kind of H1N1 emergency plan, but I kept Skype Buddies in place. Over time, I changed the name to “Backup Buddies” and offer the groups the chance to pick the communication tool of their choice (Skype, FaceBook Messenger, FaceTime,…). I’ve even let them pick the groups based on preference of communication tool. A little of class time is spent giving everyone a chance to make sure they have contact information for all their group members and has the ability to use the given tool and features prior to needing it.
On my end, it feels like the student is right there in the class. The Backup Buddy in class often pays better attention than they do when they aren’t a Backup Buddy due to the heightened responsibility of repeating what might have been missed or relaying a question on behalf of their Buddy. I never ask the reason why a student needed to implement the Backup Buddy plan, but I often hear why anyway. One student was at the hospital waiting room while her father was in surgery. Several students have had sick children at home and were unable to find a babysitter on short notice. My favorite anecdote related to Backup Buddies is the student who was out of town for a relative’s funeral who admitted that he had lied to his family that our class was a 3-hour class when it really wasn’t because he was trying to avoid encountering an overly affectionate aunt. I’ve met students’ parents, pets, and children via the distance technologies. In the 17 semesters that I’ve had Backup Buddies, I’ve never had a student abuse the privilege but students who’ve used it have always been appreciative.