WiFi in a Remote Location

Over the last couple days, I’ve been working in Anzac, a hamlet in Northern Alberta. I drove up with my project manager to support the facilitators and twelve women enrolled in a blended course. My role was to introduce the Moodle course and GoToMeeting, so students would feel comfortable with their online learning experience in the coming weeks.

This morning, it was close to -50. Our car door locks were frozen shut. The tires felt like solid blocks of ice on the highway. Slow and steady, we made it to the training centre, ready to present. However, it was so cold that the tablets in the room were dropping 10% in battery every few minutes. The facility’s WiFi quickly became overloaded, blocking people from entering the online course. The WiFi boosters didn’t work. It sounds like a cheesy sitcom plot, but this was real life.

Let’s start from the beginning.

The Day Before Presenting

We arrived in Anzac the day before to help set up the classroom. After unloading the simulators and boxes of supplies we had driven down, we ran a quick bandwidth test, determining the WiFi was strong. It was already a long day by that point, so we headed to the hotel.

A (Somewhat) Related Side Note

A while back, I had read about this PhD candidate who brought in fresh baked muffins and coffee to his thesis defence. He personally wanted to feel comfortable, but he also wanted to create a comfortable environment for all people involved. It’s the same reason realtors bring in fresh baked cookies to an open house. Anyway, I loved this candidate’s effort to make the room inviting while minimizing stress levels. I started to think about ways I could do the same for the students I was introducing to Moodle. I focused more on my design choices in Moodle, and how I could offer reasonable support as the 5-week course unfolded. Some of my strategies:

  • Create a course discussion forum in Moodle where I can answer future questions related to course logistics.
  • Create a narrative structure in Moodle to direct people how to move through it. (FontAwesome is amazing for this!)
  • Build trust by giving students simple tasks during the presentation, like changing their passwords.

In highsight, I should have paid more attention to students being able to access Moodle quickly and efficiently during the presentation….

The Day Of Presenting

A new student began the course that morning, so my main focus was creating a profile for her in Moodle and then signing her up for courses and GoToMeeting. After I got that sorted, it was time to present to students.

The training room was much more toasty today. Before we had arrived, the lovely training centre employees had set up space heaters in the room. Little did we know, this caused the breakers to trip. Anywhere that we tried to draw power from was a dead end. This means we couldn’t plug in the tablets or WiFi boosters, and the WiFi bandwidth and tablet batteries were quickly depleting.

I focused on helping students sign into Moodle and change their passwords. I had plugged my laptop into the tv, so they could at least see my screen and follow along. It was hard though, because Moodle is new for most of them, and I didn’t want to move too quickly. Some of them were using their mobile phones to access the Moodle course, while others had some luck on their tablets. (I hadn’t even thought to introduce them to the Moodle mobile site, so this was an interesting turn of events, because it displays differently from tablets or desktops.)

As my co-workers talked with the training centre employees, I continued to help students access Moodle. I ended up telling them to follow along as best they could with what I was doing on screen. All of them were eventually able to log into Moodle and change their passwords, but because of the WiFi issues, I didn’t have them all sign into GoToMeeting. I simply showed them what it would look like, along with a few pointers for future use.

Lessons Learned

All of this was a less than ideal way to show students Moodle (and GoToMeeting), but it was a good lesson. My greatest takeaway is that I will try to avoid making assumptions before another presentation.

I had assumed the tablets would be mostly charged, ready for use. Next time, I will make sure someone is responsible for charging them the night before, and that power cords are accessible for all. I will also test the WiFi boosters ahead of time, in case there is a need to troubleshoot issues. While I presented, one of the WiFi boosters turned on, while the other didn’t. A co-worker had to call someone from our IT department to walk us through troubleshooting the issue. After trying to reset the booster, they ended up having to take out the SIM card and reinsert it. Once we did that, it fired up no problem. We also realized that the boosters were on two separate networks. We were advised that half of the students should be on each network, and that we should retain the network passwords so students aren’t logging onto those networks with their phones. They already had access to free WiFi through the training centre, anyway.

Working in Remote Locations

This was my first time up in Fort McMurray and the Anzac area. It was such an amazing experience to meet the students taking the course I designed. Previously, I had been used to designing content for students I’d never meet. I was also used to facilitating in classrooms that had fairly stable network connections. There were never any crazy surprises like what I experienced up in Anzac.

I’m going to start keeping a running list of items that need to be checked off before working in a remote location. I can share this checklist with co-workers ahead of time, delegating tasks to those who can complete them. This way, the setup is more straightforward, even though I will always anticipate a technology-related issue!

My checklist (so far):

  • Check WiFi bandwidth
  • Test outlets
  • Plug in tablets/devices ahead of time
  • Make sure all students have access to plugins or extensions
  • Have printed instructions for troubleshooting WiFi boosters
  • Check WiFi boosters ahead of time
  • Connect tablets/devices to boosters ahead of time
  • Set home website to the course page
  • Write instructions (in black marker) on whiteboard
  • Create instructions for students to use after presentation (so they can focus on presentation, especially if something goes wrong)

Through this experience, I realized the “muffins and coffee” feeling I described earlier is nostalgic, but it’s also creating a sense of safety and security for people. By using a checklist such as the one above, I can set up the conditions for those feelings to occur at the first point of contact in their online learning journey!

Reference

Anzac image taken from Wikimedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Welcome_to_Anzac_Sign.JPG

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