Harvey, Digital Learning and Institutional Resilience

A hypothesis about a surprising digital dividend.

September 5, 2017

How could the news about Harvey possibly be anything but terrible?  At this writing, the death toll from Harvey now stands at 60.  The cost estimates for economic impact of Harvey run between $70 and $108 billion, and will no doubt go much higher.  

From a higher ed perspective (and is there really any other perspective that matters?), Harvey seems like a catastrophe.  An 8/31 Washington Post headline read Harvey’s Devastation Reaches Deep into Texas as Universities Face Students Unable to Start Class.  On 8/28, IHE reported that the hurricane prompted "evacuations, as well as delays in move-in days and starts of academic years for colleges along the Gulf Coast and in Houston area.”.

Among all the bad news about Harvey, what if there is a different story to be told?

What if the real story of Harvey is that colleges and universities are today more resilient than at any time in the past? And what if the reason for that improving institutional resiliency is digital learning?

Why should digital learning make it more likely that a college or university will be able to keep going in the face of an extreme weather event?

During the past decade a number of things have happened all at once.  First, the learning management system (LMS) became ubiquitous. We might not give much thought to the campus LMS (Phil Hill calls the LMS the minivan of education), but the LMS provides a digital space in which professors and students can interact.  Today, most residential courses within learning management systems are limited to faculty posting up course materials and assignments.

These platforms, however, have many more capabilities.  An LMS can be a place where (digital) lectures are posted, course discussions occur (in discussion boards and blogs), and quizzes and exams are held. Planned residential courses can morph into ad hoc online courses.

Of course, anyone who teaches (or takes) online courses already knows all this. Online education is built on the same infrastructure as residential education. That residential course that only uses the LMS to post readings and maybe the syllabus is the exact same technology that is used to teach a fully online course. There is no “special” LMS for online learning. It is all one LMS.

An even more promising trend related institutional resilience is how online learning has become the new normal. Last year, the number of students taking online courses grew to 5.8 million in the US. Fully 28 percent of postsecondary students are enrolled in at least one online course.  

All this means that our schools, professors, and students have lots of experience with online learning.  In the face of a weather emergency such as Harvey, the online learning units of our nation’s colleges and universities could ramp up their online offerings.  How quickly schools could transition from residential to online courses is something we don’t know.  What is clear, at least to me, is that our institutions have capabilities around online learning that are greater than any time in the past.

Beyond the ubiquity of the LMS and the growth of online learning, there are other factors in the evolution of digital learning that should help with institutional resilience.  A few years ago colleges and universities were largely in the business of running our own digital learning platforms.  The LMS sat on a server in a data center on campus.  Today, most of us consume our learning management system (and most other applications) from the cloud.  Cloud providers build their web applications for resilience, co-locating their data centers around the country (or the world).  A hurricane might wipe out one data center, but hopefully not all.

A final piece of the institutional resilience puzzle is the smartphone. Most students and most professors (although there are a few holdouts) carry around a computer in their pockets.  These Android and Apple phones can access the internet by both WiFi and cellular data.  This dual connectivity provides a layer of resilience for online learning. Nothing can keep online learning going if all the power is out, but if students and professors can get to power and data then they can keep learning and keep teaching.

If this hypothesis is true, that digital learning has indeed made our institutions more resilient, then perhaps we should think about ways that we can build on this unplanned and unexpected dividend.  From everything that I read it seems clear that extreme weather events will get more frequent, and more extreme, in the future.

Wouldn’t it make sense to proactively plan to leverage our online learning infrastructure to keep residential learning going? 

Could we invest some of the funds that we should be spending on business continuity in online education?

Should we be practicing how to respond to keep teaching and learning if our campuses become impossible to reach?

What has been your experiences with extreme weather and online learning?


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