Should every institution develop some capacity for online learning?
What about small residential colleges, places that differentiate around an in-person residential learning experience?
I’ve argued that small-scale online and low-residency programs are a way to build on institutional strengths, grow the knowledge and skills of our educators, and reach new groups of students. Online learning can also be a catalyst for organizational change, as the impact of traditional and open online learning programs on improving residential teaching and learning has been consistently under-appreciated.
Need another reason to invest in online learning? How about institutional resilience.
Will your institution be able to keep going if a black swan lands on your campus?
Will classes continue in the face an infectious outbreak (remember SARS and the avian flu) that forces students and professors to stay home?
Can you imagine a circumstance where in-person classes might be disrupted for a significant period of time? I’m thinking the usual suspects in natural disasters and extreme weather events. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, or a really wicked blizzard.
Do campuses ever experience extended power outages? What other events can you imagine that would interfere with classes being taught in classrooms?
Think of online learning as a strategy to ensure resiliency. Courses that can occur at a distance - even if that distance is as close as the dorm room - are always methods of business continuity.
The good news is that every school has the technological foundations in place to run online courses. We use the same learning management systems (LMS), digital articles and databases, and collaborative group tools (Google Docs) for online learning as we already use for residential classes.
Carving out some sort of space to experiment with online learning - be it open online courses or small distant learning programs - will put your school at a significant advantage should normal residential teaching operations ever be threatened.
The people working on online courses or programs should be in dialog with the people in charge of scenario planning for campus low-probability / high-impact events. There is no substitute for running drills and exercises design to simulate actual events. In a real disaster, having a rehearsed set of operations and a methodology for keeping teaching and learning going will prove the difference between a smooth transition and chaos.
The mistake that we all make is to think that we are immune from tragic events. We underestimate the probability that tragedy will befall us in our personal lives, and that underestimation scales to the institutional level. The time to be plan to move teaching and learning operations to a method that does not depend on face-to-face interactions is not when the disaster strikes, but when everything is calm.
Is online learning part of the business continuity plans at your institution?
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