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CUNY Closed vs. Academic Continuity: An Institutional Choice

The current weather-related closing of all CUNY campuses for several days this week offers a case study in emergency preparedness or lack thereof. In bold red letters, many campus websites proclaim:

All (CUNY College of choice) Classes and Activities Cancelled Monday, Oct. 29, Tuesday, Oct. 30, Wednesday, Oct. 31, and Thursday, Nov. 1

Such emergency notifications on college websites represent a significant improvement over the previous policy of recorded telephone messages.  However, the message is clear; the storm has hit, so the college is closed.  Everyone can rejoice in a job well done; clear communication and a few days off from school or work. However, I’m not everyone.  I believe this crisis could have been better addressed if the university had a clear vision, policy, and procedures for ongoing teaching/learning during this storm and other emergencies.

Imagine, if you would, this message on campus websites . . .

Teaching and Learning Continue at all CUNY Campuses.

Despite College Facilities being Closed from Monday, Oct. 29, through Thursday, Nov. 1, Classes will Continue to be Held Online.
See link for more details . . .

The link would provide information on how students can continue their studies via Blackboard and/or other tools used to deliver course content, submit assignments and interact with the class. An instructor may even schedule an ad-hoc webinar during hours normally reserved for that class or in the evening. In other words, the primary purpose of the college — teaching and learning — will continue despite the crisis at hand. This concept is called “academic continuity” and has been included as part of emergency planning in those higher education institutions with vision and leadership in this area.

In my blog post earlier this year entitled, ” Online and Emergency Planing,” I discuss an important article (see reference below) that explores the need to include academic continuity in an emergency plan. It is ironic that the emergency preparedness policies that colleges typically promulgate consider every contingency except the one that is most important, namely, how teaching and learning will continue to be conducted despite the emergency at hand. In my estimation, this shows a significant lack of imagination and understanding of how to manage such events by CUNY.  Does teaching and learning stop dead in its tracks because a storm blows through, or can we plan for these eventualities and make faculty responsible for the maintenance of teaching in such circumstances? I believe we can establish reasonable academic continuity policies, especially considering that all CUNY matriculated courses automatically have a Blackboard course shell assigned. Professors can be apprised of this fact, and be given succinct instructions on how to access the class, post materials, send emails and conduct the class using several fairly basic technologies.

In my previous blog post I offered several recommendations for creating a worthwhile emergency plan within CUNY – or any university – that addresses the issue of academic continuity by:

  1. An accessible website about emergency planning and preparedness.
  2. A clear statement that after concerns of safety have been addressed, the University affirms that academic continuity is a second priority in times of crisis.
  3. A clear explanation to the CUNY community how faculty, staff and students can restore academic continuity.
  4. A new training program to be initiated for all CUNY faculty which shows how online learning might be utilized to restore academics in case of an emergency.
  5. A recommended “in case of emergency” section in syllabi for all CUNY courses.
  6. A plan and procedure for staff/administrators/faculty to meet and collaborate during the period that campuses are closed (e.g., administrative continuity plan).

These procedures will require planning, program design and implementation, publicity and a modicum of resources to implement. If CUNY administrators, faculty and other stakeholders are serious about the mission of this institution, I beleive it is imperative to include a well-designed section on academic continuity in our emergency plans. In light of the cost and disruption of this emergency — essentially suspending classes for the duration of a week — there is an opportunity for some reflection and possibly action —  taken to ensure such plans in the future. With such planning in place, it is possible that the next emergency may again close our campuses,  yet keep open the educational process for our students.

References:

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.)

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
(A paper exploring the need for an academic continuity policy in emergency planning)

Rosenbloom, Bruce (February 16, 2012), “Online and Emergency Planning,” CUNY Academic Commons. Retrieved from:  https://onlinelearning.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2012/02/28/online-and-emergency-planning

This entry was posted in CUNY Practices, Online Best Practices, Online Learning Policies, Procedures, Systems, Strategic Planning for Online. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to CUNY Closed vs. Academic Continuity: An Institutional Choice

  1. Sarah–Thanks for that link. I hope that with the storm behind us, we can better prepare for future emergencies.

  2. Hi Bruce,

    It looks like the folks at CUNY read your blog post: http://www.cuny.edu/about/people/experts.html.

    Cheers,
    Sarah

  3. Elizabeth–Thanks for your feedback. A plan B is essential as you mentioned. Even if not all students/instructors have electricity, those that do can continue to learn via online materials. The idea that if a percentage of students have no access then no classes should take place, strikes me as accepting the limitations of few over the interests of the many. In essence, that is our current policy of all or nothing during emergencies.

  4. Elizabeth Matthews says:

    HI Bruce
    I think you raise some good points. The other instructors also raise good points. Technology , like face time requires “access” and sometimes(e.g when the whole city went dark a few years ago) we are left with few options. The beauty of the online course access is that it allows for truly individualized responses to the crises and continuity of education for those who can….which ultimately helps those who can’t. If an instructor can keep the course going for some, if not most of the students, s/he is in a much better position to work more closely with those who have more pressing issues. For example, it’s easier to work with a handful of students who need to submit papers at the very end of term, rather doing this for the whole class.

    I think it’s always a good idea to have a plan B–if we have warning that a hurricane or snow storm will impact us, we can post materials/assignments while we have power and time. I think it’s also good practice to help our students develop their own initiative –plan study groups, work on assignments, etc, even when the professor isn’t there.

    My daughter’s school has been closed for some time and I wish that the school and faculty had taken some initiative to organize skype sessions, plan study groups or just do *something* Instead, parents took it upon themselves to do what they could.

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  6. Kasey–I agree with you. If students have no access to electricity, even online options would fail in regards to emergency planning. Professors routinely make adjustments to assignment due dates, and in such an emergency, could do so for those without power. The issue is should learning stop for a week while sections of the city recover, or can classes continue, albeit imperfectly, with an online component? As such events become more common, the university may see “academic continuity” as an issue to consider.

  7. Kasey says:

    I teach a hybrid course and on Sunday posted supplemental materials online to make-up what would be covered in Monday’s class. However, I believe current policy is that assignments can’t be due on days the college is closed. So the students are able to complete the additional work on their time. Since I teach in Staten Island the majority of my students may not have power for some time. But what I think would be very useful in an online back-up policy is it would reduce the stress of trying to reschedule classes and move finals – if that is what CUNY chooses to do, or trying to fit missed classes into the time remaining. An online back-up would allow students the opportunity to get all material even if it does come after power is restored.

  8. Thanks Sarah for your feedback. I am grateful for all the efforts of CUNY employees in regards to sheltering those displaced by the storm and grateful that despite intense property damage in low-lying areas, most people will weather the storm safely. Without power, I agree, any technology will not be useful–as I mentioned in my orignal blog post. Given that it may be many days until students can attend classes, and given the amount of lost educational time and cost to reschedule classes that such a storm will bring, the cost for this storm will be hugh. Proper emergency planning around the issue of academic continuity would have paid off in a big way. Now that the cows have scattered, maybe it’s time to close the barn door?

  9. I don’t think anyone was truly prepared for the devastation that Hurricane Sandy unleashed — 80+ homes destroyed in Breezy Point, tunnels filled with water, and the city doesn’t even know when subways will be up and running. I think that given the circumstances, CUNY has done a tremendous job of helping to prepare for the storm, providing shelters for those who had to evacuate, and keeping us informed. I completed by bachelor’s degree online at CUNY SPS and agree that it’s a good idea to have an online back-up for courses, but when thousands are out of power I’m not so sure that Blackboard would make much of a difference. The point you raise is a good one, and one that all city entities need to consider. I’m at home right now with my first grader and would love nothing more than for her to be able to go back to school, but right now I’m just grateful that we have electricity. In any case, I hope everyone is safe and dry out there!

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