Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Online as Backup

An occupational hazard of academic administration is that you hear or read about devastation and tragedy, like Hurricane Florence, and your thoughts turn to learning management systems.  

Hey, someone’s have to.

Like most community colleges, we have an LMS.  (Right now it’s Canvas, though this year we’re also auditioning Blackboard and Desire2Learn.)  It’s the platform on which online classes are taught, but it’s also useful for hybrid or blended classes, and even for onsite classes.  

Faculty who teach online use it, as do some who don’t teach online.  But I’d like to see nearly everybody use it at some level, and events like Florence are why.

Onsite classes run on the assumption that the physical campus will be consistently and reliably accessible and fit for use.  Yes, there’s the occasional snow day -- and every so often a squirrel will take a header into a transformer and plunge the campus into darkness, presumably for reasons of its own -- but the expectation is that any interruptions will be brief and random.  And that’s generally true.

But an event like a hurricane can knock out power and/or roads for a week or more.  And even when the campus is back up and running, many students may not be able to make it there.  Brookdale had its own experience with that with Hurricane Sandy a few years ago. (Students of political rhetoric will remember then-governor Christie’s contribution to the genre as Sandy loomed: “Get the hell off the beach!”)  It could be weeks before some students are able to return.

That’s where an LMS can be useful, even for a traditional class.  It can provide a platform for communication to the whole class at once, and a venue for some sort of academically substantive interaction to happen.  An abrupt, temporary, mid-semester switch to online interaction isn’t anybody’s first choice, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing. Even if the academic component is severely attenuated, it provides a way to get messages out quickly.  Sometimes students just need a sense of what’s going on. Consistent communication carries its content, but it also carries a message that the professor cares. Many students pick up on that. It can also foster communication among students in the same class, which can help as the uneven recovery phase kicks in.  

Isolation can be one of the more devastating effects of a disaster.  Now that most LMS’s (plural?) are usable on phones, it’s possible to mitigate that isolation.  It’s worth trying.

Some people will never willingly teach online; I get that.  But I don’t get the unwillingness to at least have an online backup.  Storms hit when they hit; better to be prepared than not.

And best wishes to the folks in the Carolinas.  Here’s hoping it’s not nearly as bad as it could be.