by Carlos Guevara

In the past two years, New York has been affected by a tropical storm and a hurricane, and according to weather experts it is highly probable to experience more disasters like Hurricane Sandy in the future. Given the severity of the last hurricane, and the impact on every aspect of our lives, many questions arise about how we can guarantee academic continuity in our schools.

Contingency plans for disasters and other emergencies have long ago been established at CUNY and the majority of educational institutions. The use of technology in these plans has been fundamental to reach as many people as possible with essential information; for instance, CUNY uses a text and voice messaging system to send alerts of emergencies via telephone (mobile and land line) and email. Hostos CC also makes use of social media to alert the college community about any emergency.

EdTech gathered a number of faculty members’ impressions about their experience with the learning disruptions caused by Hurricane Sandy, how they managed to overcome the obstacles, and what they suggest if future class interruptions happen. These responses reflect the general sense from the faculty who responded to our questions.

How has Hurricane Sandy impacted your teaching planning?

“The hurricane forced the rescheduling of all my midterm exams, as well as various assignments. However, as my classes use Blackboard regularly, I was able to update them with new due dates immediately through announcements and emails.”

“…the daily flow of academic life was disturbed. Students who require consistency and contact with their professors may have had difficulty getting back on track once school resumed. For those who lost power, they also lost the ability to stay current or to use the time off from class to catch up on reading and assignments.”

“Hurricane Sandy was an unprecedented challenge from various points. Because the college was closed, we had no central area to manage staff and faculty and basically worked off many details online… Although not immediately affected by the storm, our students still had difficulty reporting back to class immediately after the storm… As a result, teachers had to catch students up individually so that instruction was not affected and the curriculum was implemented as planned.”

 

If you used Blackboard: How did the use of Blackboard (or any other technology) help you overcome the obstacles to reach academic continuity? 

“Our teachers and students have always used Blackboard to extend class instruction, to assign independent assignments connected to educational field trips and to provide coverage in case a teacher was absent and there was or wasn’t a substitute. The use of Blackboard was extremely important during the storm, as teachers were able to post updates, communicate emergency announcements and to conduct their teaching remotely.”

“I used Blackboard to update my classes with new due dates for assignments and the midterms. However, I also posted online all the work that was supposed to have been submitted in class during the week after the hurricane. Most of the students completed these new online assignments, all submitted on private blogs.”

“It provided information, it allowed us to be reassured (or to share concerns) about our colleagues, and it gave our students who could access it the chance to hear from us.”

 

What advantages or limitations have you encountered? 

“The use of Blackboard to compensate for the missed time was invaluable as it avoided physical stress of adding to already full schedules. It also allowed the missed lessons to be eased into the schedule over a period of time rather than on one assigned day.”

“…The reason it worked in CLIP was that teachers were expected to have been trained in the use of BB and had to use it at least minimally to post their syllabus and at least one class plan in case they were out sick. This was a good prerequisite that helped with the smooth use of BB to make up for loss of class time. The other challenge was that two students who are from other CUNY colleges and are in CLIP could not access BB and were to be communicated by email, which added another burden for the instructor.”

“For my non-hybrid students, the use of the blogs was new, and as such there was some technical confusion. However, students emailed me and I quickly resolved the issues, generally by repeating the instructions I had posted online.”

 

What would you recommend to other faculty to guarantee academic continuity in case of future disasters like Hurricane Sandy?

“I would recommend that all classes have some basic information on their Blackboard site, like the syllabus. This, in conjunction with the ability to communicate regularly with your classes via announcements and group emails, will ensure a certain amount of continuity during crises like the hurricane.”

“I do think in future, especially in teacher-ed because many of us had to do it when we were teachers in elementary or high schools, we should consider having emergency plans (lesson plans with assignments and assessments) that include information, resources, tasks, and assessments that students can resort to should the college be closed again for several days. This “substitute folder” (to borrow a teaching phrase) can use the last topic or two in the syllabi or provide an ancillary topic that still addresses SLOs; its implementation could satisfy course requirements.”

“Teachers need training. They need to rehearse using BB in the course of their regular semester so that they feel comfortable using this platform in a dynamic and very productive way whether there is or there is no emergency. Students also need to be trained and comfortable using BB.”

The use of the technology appeared to have helped these faculty members to overcome the disruptions of Hurricane Sandy; and although many challenges needed to be addressed, these showed to be manageable. The urgency to develop an academic continuity plan is clear, and the first step for this plan can start by simply using one of the technology resources already available in most Universities, a learning management system (Blackboard in the case of CUNY) to make essential information available to students like the syllabus, and important dates and announcements.

The Office of Educational Technology (EdTech) has started and will continue with the campaign to encourage faculty to use Blackboard and post their syllabus as a first step. Additionally, EdTech has created a course template with essential resources (University grading, plagiarism and attendance policies; links to all student support services offered by the college; instructions in every section for the instructors, etc.), which is applied to all course shells in Blackboard. Faculty members only need to make their courses available for students to benefit from these resources. I invite you to visit the EdTech’s website to find more resources, and training dates:
https://commons.hostos.cuny.edu/edtech

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