Everyone who has ever taught or taken a class online knows that this is inevitable—there will be tech snafus that crop up from time to time. That’s especially true in online classroom environments. When they do, teachers can be challenged to keep students engaged while they attempt to address and fix the technical issues they’re having. But there are some things that can be done, both proactively and while facing a tech challenge. Here we take a look at how to keep students engaged.

Know Your Virtual Learning Technology

It pays to be prepared, says Sarah Miller, a former teacher with a degree in education who blogs at Homeschooling 4 Him. Miller knows how to keep students engaged. “The first step is to make sure that you are comfortable with the technology platform that you are using before your lessons begin,” she says. She recommends taking the time to read the platform’s FAQ and troubleshooting guides or to watch tutorial videos on your virtual learning tools. Logging in to practice using the technology before going live is also a good idea, she says.

Also be familiar with any online classroom help or support options available so you can quickly access these resources to find the information  you need quickly. It’s also a good idea says Karen Gross, an author and educator who trains teachers and teaches online herself, to “get to know the technology experts in your school before something happens.” 

When considering how to keep students engaged when breakdowns occur, pre-planning is an important best practice.

Plan Proactive Online Teaching Strategies in Advance

One critical proactive step that teachers can take is to acknowledge, up front, that there will be technical snafus, says  Gross. “This is a way of preparing students for the inevitable,” she says. In addition, she recommends, provide students with pre-set activities for what to do if there is a glitch.  

Miller agrees. “It is so important to have an arsenal of activities available that you can use to keep students engaged while you work through a tech issue,” she says. “If your software allows screen sharing, providing a short video to watch can be a helpful option.” Or, if that’s not possible, send students a link to the video so they can watch it on their own, then come back to discuss as a group once the tech issue has been addressed.

Miller also recommends having a back-up way to communicate with students in case of an emergency. “Communicate in advance that, if there are technology issues, you will reach out via a specific email or text thread,” she suggests. “Then students will know where to look for communications from you while their main learning platform is down.”

It’s also good to consider the types of activities you might have on hand to keep students engaged as you’re dealing with any technical issues.  

Have Student Online Learning Back-Up Activities at Your Disposal

Jennifer Pankowski, EdD, is a clinical assistant professor and program coordinator for special education at Pace University School of Education. Pankowski suggests considering creating a recording of yourself teaching lessons in a mini format. Or, she adds, get students interacting among themselves. “I’m a big fan of breakout groups or a thought-provoking discussion prompt that students can discuss if you have to either work one-on-one with a student, or deal with your own technology issues,” she says. 

Another great option, if you need to use the platform to fix the issue, is to open a Google document and have students work on it together in real-time based on the topic or problem they are learning about,” Pankowski suggests. “You can then save these files and use it as a piece of informal assessment data to determine who may or may not understand or be participating.” 

Ultimately, though, the best thing instructors can do when facing technology breakdowns in their online classrooms is to remain calm. 

Stay Calm: You Know How to Keep Students Engaged

It’s important when snafus occur to stay calm, Gross stresses. Otherwise, she says, “some students may get flustered and flummoxed.” The attitude of the educator experiencing the problems with technology makes a big difference, she says. “If one is negative, students pick up on the negativity. If one is positive, students pick up on that. 

“As educators, we always need to have those teachable moments, while remembering we are all human,” says Pankowski. “It is how you handle the issue, more than correcting it,” she says.  

Older students can be called upon to help find a solution to online classroom snafus in some cases. “Help students feel like they are involved in, not alienated from, the process,” Gross suggests. Some students, she notes, maybe very tech-savvy.

Finally, maintain a positive perspective to help keep students engaged through a technical snafu. “No one was trained in an educator prep program to teach during a pandemic,” Pankowski points out. “However, many are well adept at being lifelong learners who adapt.” If the pandemic has left us with any key lifelong lessons, it’s the importance of being flexible and adapting to whatever challenges and opportunities that may face us. Virtual learning glitches will occur; when they do, you’ll be ready for them.