Adapting to online in a pinch


Whenever a situation occurs that keeps students from their physical classrooms, online learning gets more attention. 

In this case, the emergency is COVID-19, but it may as easily be a natural disaster or even a snow day. And though more college students are enrolling in online than ever before, online offerings are still the minority at most community colleges, which means the majority of teachers are unprepared to teach online. This leaves a large swathe of students vulnerable in an emergency.

Every community college should have a strategy for academic emergencies that is widely shared with faculty, staff and students. This strategy should include a teaching continuity plan aimed at helping everyone adapt to remote or online teaching/learning if school stays in session when a campus shuts down. Having read dozens of teaching continuity plans, I’ve synthesized key recommendations that your college can implement to support teaching continuity. In this article, I’ll share ideas that your institution can adopt before, during and after an emergency.

 Teaching continuity

“When danger comes there will not be time for such work as this…”
– Aesop, “The Wild Boar and The Fox”

Ideally, every institution would be prepared for teaching continuity before an incident occurs. Their plan would be widely shared and teams would be ready to execute. But the following recommendations can be helpful even if your institution is already in the midst of a switch to remote teaching:

Create an online environment for every teacher, every course. Having instructors consistently use the college’s learning management system (LMS) before a campus closure can ensure that each instructor has the minimum experience and materials online to help with a transition to remote teaching. When a crisis does hit, the LMS provides instructors with most of the capabilities they need to keep teaching, and focusing on one central system can simplify the student experience and streamline support. The LMS can also be the hub for additional tools that your instructors may need, from video conferencing to remote exam proctoring. 

In order to leverage the LMS, each instructor and each student must have access to the LMS. Unfortunately, some institutions do not automate LMS course creation, requiring faculty to request a course shell. This creates another layer of work for the faculty and IT in an emergency – and the added complication can create additional help desk load for the college. The better path is to automate the creation of online course environments every semester, even if some teachers aren’t ready to use them.

Most community colleges that use Canvas for their LMS have integrated it with their student information system (SIS) and authentication systems. This can ensure that every teacher has an online course environment and that every student can access the LMS using their standard user ID and password.

Help service providers anticipate your needs. No system is perfect, but modern, cloud-native online tools that are widely adopted and have a track record of scalability are more likely to provide some peace of mind to institutional administrators, faculty and students – especially during peak usage. A crisis like coronavirus is, by definition, unpredictable. So it’s important that the college keep service providers in the loop, even if you’ve not experienced downtime or performance issues in the past.

This is especially important because many colleges rely on multiple systems from different vendors on different technology stacks and with different capabilities to support teaching and learning. Many of these systems will struggle with a massive increase in load or unexpected usage spikes. Some of them will even fall down. But most of them can prepare ahead of time – if they know the traffic is coming.

Your IT team can help those service providers by informing them ASAP when your institution decides to switch to remote teaching and how many active users you expect. Each service provider should be asked to assess their own capacity and then to scale up and even over-provision as needed. IT should learn how they can proactively monitor each service themselves, and how they should report slowdowns or incidents. Be sure to understand how the service provider will inform you if something goes wrong, and know what to expect if disaster recovery is necessary.

Finally, have IT evaluate possible points of failure in your own teaching and learning ecosystem. For example, if users typically access the LMS via a campus portal, determine if there is a Plan B or alternate entries for students if one service fails.

Prepare to scale and deploy teaching support staff. When you switch to remote teaching, the increase in technology usage will likely be mirrored by an increase in faculty training and support needs.

So how do you prepare for this? Start by bringing together the teaching support staff you already have – trainers, instructional designers and technologists. These roles tend to have some overlap in skills and abilities, so see rally them together in an emergency. Knowing who these expert staff members are is the first step in enlisting their help. They may be able to put current projects on hold in order to train or support faculty. They may also be able to find or create useful resources like job aids and checklists.

If you expect faculty demand to outpace your staff’s capacity, consider hiring temporary student employees through one-time budgeting, work-study or internships. Your existing support staff will be critical in on-boarding and training new student employees, so let them know that this is one step back for two steps forward.

Finally, every department likely has some faculty who are experienced online teachers and may even have online versions of face-to-face courses. These faculty may be willing and able to help their colleagues, but we should respect the fact that, as well-prepared as they may be, they’re also under additional pressure to adapt their own courses.

Like the boar who sharpens his tusks against the tree before despite not being in danger, educational institutions should ideally prepare for teaching continuity before a crisis occurs, but this is not always possible. In the next post, we’ll look at what you can do to support faculty and students during a teaching continuity event.

About the Author

Jared Stein
is vice president of strategy at Canvas. He and his team explore new ways that technology can improve teaching and learning — often in collaboration with colleges and universities. Stein works to help teachers design effective blended and online learning so that all students can have great experiences in education.