In February 2020, I decided to restart my Blog. I outlined a series of topics (26 at that time) that I would write about, mostly having to do with the research I was doing on International Virtual Exchange. A week later, our university called a special meeting to discuss the closing of our university due to a pandemic that they foresaw in the near future. It was not a question of if there would be a pandemic, but when. At the same time, my son, who lived and studied in Northern Italy was talking about an unusual illness/flu going around Milan with a dry cough which was turning into pneumonia. It would turn out to be Covid-19.
By the beginning of March, our University announced that in person classes would be suspended after Spring Break and that students (except those with no other place to go) would be expected to stay home and finish the semester online. We were lucky that our Provost (which I discovered later) was a specialist in infectious diseases; many professors in our school of public health had joint appointments with the New York State Dept. of Health; and for many years my department had been involved in a research project on healthcare disparities in minority communities focusing on (among other things) improving communication between public health officials, healthcare providers, scientists, and the population in marginalized communities.
Needless to say, my idea to restart my Blog went by the wayside as we were forced to pivot to online learning. The first case of Covid was identified in New York state on March 1, 2020. We were luckier than most universities, because we had been given about a month to start preparing for alternative teaching methods, encouraged to start thinking about contingencies if the university had to close down. Many faculty didn’t take this opportunity either because they did not believe we would need to close down (we lived through SARS even though it raged through Toronto and Ontario, only a bit more than 200 miles away) or because they were not sure how to prepare for a long term shut down.
While the university had been trying to move more courses to an online format, most of the online courses were graduate level and only about 10% of the courses were offered online. This meant there were few teachers that were trained or experienced enough to create and teach an entire class online. The good news though was that many (but not all) faculty used technology to augment their teaching due to a push/program in the early 2000’s for all the schools to hire professors with a joint appointment in the then School of Information Studies and another field of study (e.g. Education, Communication, Government, Social Work, Criminal Justice). Those with joint appointments would be the resource on teaching and research technology. To support this group of special appointments, an educational technology group and a center for teaching and instruction was created, providing instructional support for faculty and teaching assistants interested in integrating technology into their classes.
I myself had received a Phd in Curriculum and Instruction, with a focus on educational technology. I had not only taught online (having received training within the SUNY system in 1999), but had taught classes in distance learning and other educational technology courses to teachers from Pre-school to all levels of K-12 (primary and secondary education) to university to professional education.
During class, as I was preparing my students for what would happen after Spring Break when we would move the class online, I projected my screen to the class to show them how to navigate the course I had quickly put together on the LMS. In order to get to the LMS, I needed to go to our university portal. Up popped an announcement across the screen to my class: “Effective immediately, classes are canceled for the rest of the week!” The first case of Covid had been diagnosed in the county from someone on our campus. After calming down my students, assuring them that we had everything under control, I quickly went through the course design. Some students were upset, but this seemed to calm them. Other students were convinced they’d be back on campus by the beginning of April.
While I and some other colleagues in my department who had been teaching online for a while were prepared, many others were not. Three of us stepped up to help prepare those that were not. They had 10 days to figure out what they would do for the rest of the semester.
Long-term vs Short-term Crisis Preparation
For many in the department, they were prepared for a short term crisis (illness, family emergency, snow days). They may even have taught a regular online course. However, few of us were prepared to design for online courses for a Long-term crisis. So what is the difference between long-term crisis preparation and short-term crisis preparation?
- Student trauma: Most "short-term" crises result in individualized trauma (family emergency, illness such as cancer or long-term chronic disease). The result is usually an individualized plan to address the student trauma or no direct student trauma if the crisis is only suffered by the teacher/instructor. However, long-term crises such as natural disasters, campus violence, or campus outbreaks of disease (e.g. mold infestation in the dorms, flu, meningitis, or other diseases that may result in the closing of campus) can result in a collective student trauma. This collective trauma may require instructors or instructional designers to address the results of this trauma on student learning (see Oleenu, Arnberger, Grant, Davis, Abramson, Asola, 2011). To do this, however, they need to know what will work, how to manage classroom behaviors that are the result of trauma, and the "viral" effect of those that are associated with those that have affected trauma (have not suffered trauma first hand, but feel the affects from those around them dealing with trauma).
- Student centered instruction and teacher stress: In most short-term crisis it is either the faculty OR the student which means that faculty or students are more flexible. But in long-term crisis, both students and faculty may be suffering from the crisis. Instructors may want to give choice or support their students, but due to their own personal stress (family, health concerns, emotional load), the instructor may not have the capacity to do more than he/she/they may have already done (see Pressly, 2021 for factors contributing to burnout). As a result, student centered instruction may become more difficult, which then creates the cycle of stress.
- Technology: In short term crisis, faculty often use the technology that students are already using and/or can be more flexible with assignments if students don't have access to technology. For example, students that are hospitalized can be given extensions, upload assignments via email if it is ready to go (rather than the LMS), or be given a new assignment when he/she/they are return to school. Many faculty have "emergency assignments" already prepared in case of a short term emergency in which the instructor, students, or both can't be on campus for class. However, in a long term crisis, issues such as access to the internet, devices with sufficient power or storage, and appropriate technology for the learning design becomes more complex. For example, I taught a speech presentation class. When we had closure due to weather, I was able to upload an assignment in which my students could view videos and discuss them in the LMS discussion board. But in a long term closure such as we had due to Covid, my students needed to be able to give a presentation online. I needed to find tools within those offered by my university that would allow them to give these presentations weather they lived in a deadzone (urban or rural), only had a phone for communication technology, or had limited locations/bandwidth when and where they could use the technology. I needed to incorporate numerous technology options for my students which meant I needed to learn how to use new technologies (when in fact I had limited time to learn these).
- Administration requirements (teacher autonomy): As it appeared that the crisis would last longer than just one or two weeks, there were multiple accounts and calls for insurance that there would be no "loss of learning" when learning remotely. Short term remote learning often has mechanisms within the educational structure to make up for short term interruptions in the educational process (extending the school year, adding instructional days or taking away vacation days, delaying standardized tests). But the educational system, especially in the US, has not been set up for remote learning that may require the reset of curriculums and evaluation systems. I have seen very little discussion in the press and trade journals about new skills that would need to be identified and assessed due to the change in educational delivery (e.g. digital communication skills, self-regulated learning, technology/digital literacy). In addition, at the beginning of the pandemic, there was a rash of law suits claiming that online learning was less effective than face-to-face. There has been much in the literature about face to face vs. online learning and the consensus is that there are different results depending on level, instructional design, and other factors such as technology, age, and student type. However, since many schools still have faculty with little experience in online learning, administrators moved to standardize instruction, resulting in less teacher autonomy. In addition, assessment of student learning became more standard. In order to make online learning easier for novice online teaching instructors and students, many schools went to a standard template in which the instructional design was already developed and the teachers used that as a jumping off point. As more faculty become more technologically and educational technology pedagogically saave, this might change. But during long term crisis, the standardization of instruction means faculty have less choice, on one hand, but, on the other hand, less preparation requirements as new technology, curriculum, and assessment tools are introduced.