Murphy’s Law, Emerging Technologies & Online Education

April 23, 2018 in K12, Higher Education



This is the first of two posts discussing Murphy's Law and how it impacts components of online learning, especially with the increase in technology being utilized in the online learning environment.

This first post addresses these Murphy's Law issues and provides steps for how to plan for broken links, misbehaving applications, etc. both before and after they happen.

Murphy's Law, Emerging Technologies & Online Education

Murphy’s Law, in its iconic formulation, goes something like this: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Faculty who have taught online courses for any length of time live the hard truth of Murphy’s Law. Broken links, lockouts, and misbehaving applications are inevitabilities at one point or another. There are, of course, solutions and workarounds to any technology problem that arises. But still, those solutions and workarounds can only address problems once they exist.

The rapid pace of change in technology means that as online classrooms evolve and embrace new tools, instructors will have to become increasingly agile at managing the new problems that arise in the never-ending supply of new tools.

So, competence in online classroom instruction demands that instructors be prepared for two types of problems: 1) Known Problems 2) Unknown Problems that do not yet exist. When it comes to managing online problems, the acronym R.E.A.D.Y is a helpful reminder of best practices:

Rapid Response
Educate and Orient
Alternative path
Damage control

Rapid responsiveness from an instructional team is a cornerstone for student success in any online course. In fact, accreditors often require that students have access to 24/7 help-desk technology services. While instructors themselves might not be able to personally address student needs around the clock, responsiveness is still important, especially when things go wrong in online classrooms. Even if an instructor cannot solve the problem, a simple email acknowledgment of the problem and/or the student’s concern can make a big difference to the learner. An effective response can be as simple as, “Thank you for notifying me. I will look into this, and have an answer for you within 24 hours.”  Two short sentences acknowledge the student’s concerns, and give him or her a timeline for resolution.

Education and orientation for students in an online program is a mechanism for preventing problems when it comes to online education. Even tech-savvy students may arrive in the online classroom unsure of how to navigate the learning management system (LMS), or even the difference between a Word Document and a Portable Document Format (PDF). Moreover, many students arrive without netiquette skills, and can easily make missteps in communication. Providing students with an orientation that allows them to practice, in a safe environment, discussion posts, assignment submissions, and testing technology, helps foster success and confidence in new students. At the same time, this orientation process gives students an opportunity to see that faculty want them to succeed.

Alternative Paths are solutions for problems such as broken links or lockouts. If a class reading link becomes unavailable, there is a good chance it still exists in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Try pasting the URL into its search engine at, where the destination has preserved more than 325 billion web pages for all eternity. When it comes to being locked out of class, it is best practice for instructors to keep a record of student contact information in a Word document. Then an alternative path of communication exists that can be used for lockouts and if the LMS goes down, too.

Damage Control complements rapid responsiveness. When a student discovers a glitch in an online course, a rapid response to the student is certainly in order. Chances are good that other students will run into the same problem before it is corrected. Controlling the damage means notifying the entire class when problems are detected, so they know a resolution is underway.

And finally, Yield: Within the online classroom, things can go wrong for instructors and students. If a student cites technology problems as a reason for missed deadlines, assume positive intent. Grace extended to student experiencing technology problems models grace that should be extended to instructor experiencing technology problems. Of course, while one missed deadline may be attributed to technology failures, repeated missed deadlines indicate that there may be other, non-technological problems.

The next post addresses giant lockouts, learning curves, updates to the Learning Management System and how you can apply R.E.A.D.Y. to some of these less familiar scenarios.

 Screen Shot 2018-04-11 at 9.51.50 AMMiriam Abbott (right) and Peggy Shaw (left) have a combined two decades of experience in online education. They’ve used multiple Learning Management Systems and had plenty of opportunities to learn from mistakes. Peggy is a nurse educator, with a profound commitment to helping new students acclimate to online learning environments. Miriam teaches online and hybrid courses in ethics and composition. Happily, neither have experienced a Murphy’s Moment with SoftChalk, it’s been a terrific tool for engaging students in their online classrooms. Both educators hail from Mount Carmel College of Nursing in Columbus, Ohio.


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