I came across a wonderful study published in the Journal of Distance Learning Administration (Volume IV, Number 1, Spring 2011) entitled, “The Role of Online Learning in the Emergency Plans of Flagship Institutions.” Authors Katrina Mayer and Jeffrey Wilson had a simple but elegant idea to research the websites of “50 state flagship higher education institutions to investigate whether and how online or distance learning were included in the institution’s emergency plans as solutions to emergencies like H1N1.” (Mayer and Wilson, 2011). This study, conducted several years after the Hurricane Katrina crisis, is significant since it is the first to connect the potential role for online learning to keep academic programs functioning in times of emergencies (they used the term “academic continuity”). They were disappointed to find that most college websites lacked any reference to how academic programs would continue to function, and if they did, provided no specific methods for faculty to make that a reality.
Most large institutions have emergency plans in place if a crisis occurs—a major weather event, a natural disaster, a terrorist incident, or a disease outbreak. For colleges, it is essential that their major mission—educating students—be fully restored as quickly as possible after a disaster or crisis. Increasingly, online learning (and instructional technology generally) is seen as a cornerstone of a college’s disaster preparation plans. However, even if these plans have been formulated, are they being communicated to key stakeholders within the academic community? Alas, in most cases, not well, if at all.
Mayer and Wilson’s research shows that many institutions had “remarkable plans or guides on their websites” which often lacked any reference to academic continuity using online resources. Even those institutional websites that mentioned academic continuity, “most were non-directive, such as stressing ‘alternative ways’ of delivering instructions without mentioning how to make this happen…” Only a handful of institutions (links provided below) backed up their directive for academic continuity with actual plans for faculty to follow. Some of the standouts include:
University of Washington: Academic Continuity Toolkit
University of Alabama: Emergency Planning Website
University of Oregon: Academic and Research Continuity Planning Initiative
I have taught an online class for the CUNY Online BA Program for several years. During a winter storm last year, CUNY campuses had to be closed for 2-3 days for safety reasons. Academic work stopped during that period, and the semester’s schedule was thrown off track for many professors. Online courses, however, were not impacted. In other emergencies of a longer duration, like a SARS virus outbreak, the option of online can be a lifeline to the university.
Caveat: Any crisis that would impact the electrical or communications grid (e.g. severe solar storm or nuclear attack) would make the online option moot, as well as most routine aspects of our existence.
Implications for CUNY
While it is true that CUNY has much company in this regard, a search for “emergency plans” (or synonymous phrases on the CUNY website) would produce nothing of value in terms of a plan. The CUNY Alert function, while useful in an emergency for notification, would not be the means of providing detailed instructions on academic continuity in the scenarios I have cited.
Certain colleges do have a plan on their website. One of the best is the College of Staten Island Emergency Management page that, although extensive, does not cite anything substantive about academic continuity or even mentions online courses. This is unfortunate since all CUNY matriculated courses in a college’s schedule of classes have a Blackboard course shell created for it. Professors can be apprised of this fact, and be given minimal instruction on how to access the class—even to send out emails.
John Jay College was recently awarded a major grant on assessing emergency planning within the entire CUNY system (announcement). Ironically, their emergency plan (PDF link) has nothing about academic continuity or how online classes could be an option for instructors. Even a cursory review of CUNY websites points to a large gap in our emergency planning as an institution of learning, namely, how to continuing learning in times of real emergency.
A Modest Proposal
Any worthwhile emergency plan within CUNY – or any university – needs to include:
- An accessible website about emergency planning and preparedness.
- A clear statement that after concerns of safety have been addresses, the University affirms that academic continuity is the number two priority in times of crisis.
- A clear explanation to the CUNY community how faculty, staff and students can restore academic continuity.
- To publicize the procedures, website and training opportunities to the greater CUNY community regarding how online learning might be utilized to restore academics in case of an emergency.
- A recommended “in case of emergency” section in syllabi for all CUNY courses.
- A plan and procedure for staff/administrators/faculty to meet and collaborate during the period that campuses are closed (e.g. administrative continuity plan).
A first step in this process (that may take several years) is to have the School of Professional Studies (which incorporates all of CUNY’s online programs) create and disseminate a procedure such as the one described above.
Meyer, Katrina & Wilson, Jeffery (2011). The Role of Online Learning In the Emergency Plans of Flagship Institutions, Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Volume IV, Number I, Spring 2011, University of West Georgia, Distance Education Center. Retrieved from: http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring141/meyer_wilson141.html
Benton, T. H. (2009, November 30). Teaching in the plague year. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Teaching-in-the-Plague-Year/49275. (An excellent article about the H1N1 epidemic and higher education’s disaster preparedness.)