Teaching the Quarantined

Bracing for a season of H1N1, University of Michigan encourages faculty to use distance learning models to reach sick students.
August 19, 2009

H1N1 flu may have two surprising symptoms: innovation and empathy. At least that’s the hope of University of Michigan officials, who are encouraging faculty to make broader use of technology to help sick students keep up with class work.

As faculty create syllabuses for the coming semester, Michigan officials want them to consider the possibility of an outbreak infecting large numbers of students in the coming months. That means finding ways to work with students who may be absent for days by putting greater emphasis on distance learning tools like listservs, e-mail and Web-based teaching platforms. To that end, the university’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching has laid out a series of guidelines to help faculty prepare for what could be a challenging year of illness.

“[The guidelines] may or may not be helpful, but what we’re trying to do is encourage them to think about it in advance of the school year so it doesn’t take them by surprise,” said Constance Cook, vice provost for academic affairs and executive director of the learning and teaching center. “Then we rely on their good judgment to make accommodations that make sense for them.”

The guidelines reflect growing concerns that the fall semester will be a season of H1N1, commonly called swine flu, on college campuses. Michigan is also working to address the somewhat counter-intuitive medical advice being provided by the Centers for Disease Control, which suggests those with the flu stay home an extra day, even if they feel well enough to work. To avoid spreading the flu, the CDC has advised people with influenza-like illness stay isolated until at least 24 hours after they are free of fever without the aid of fever-reducing medications. As such, there may be students who feel able to do work but who really shouldn’t be in class.

“You might feel just fine and be eager to catch up on work, but not be able to leave your room,” Cook said.

The tools Michigan faculty have been directed to use are not new. Many faculty already post PowerPoint slides online or engage in Web-based discussions. There is some expectation, however, that more faculty will gravitate toward distance-learning style instruction if flu becomes widespread on campus.

“If the circumstances actually come to a head where a lot of students can’t make it to class then I could picture people who had been reluctant and not using these kinds of techniques and tools will be more receptive, and might have a very fast ramp-up getting familiar with them,” said Ed Durfee, a professor of computer science and engineering who regularly posts his PowerPoint slides online.

Absences To Present Challenge for Profs

Michigan isn’t mandating that faculty do anything differently this year with regard to illness, but it may well behoove them to lay down some policies about absences due to illness. Robert Winfield, director of health service and chief health officer at the University of Michigan, said campus clinics aren’t going to be writing excuses for students with H1N1. In fact, they don’t want to set up any system that would encourage students who are not in high risk categories or seriously ill to come to the clinic and clog up the system, Winfield said. As such, professors are going to have to use their own discretion about excusing absences for students who may be asymptomatic but are following the CDC’s isolation guidelines.

“We’re saying we’re not going to be giving letters of excuse, and then the question comes for the faculty ‘How do I know if they’re really ill or if they just slept late?' ” Winfield said.

The use of distance learning tools may be part of the answer, Winfield said. If students are in a position where they can remain at home but still complete assignments, it could alleviate pressure on clinics that might otherwise be called upon to vouch for a students' illness with notes. That said, not every class – or every professor – is set up to run a course online.

“Distance learning to me is an option that’s very good if a professor has material that can be used for distance learning,” Winfield said. “But if you’re taking a class in dance I don’t know how they’re going to do it. If you’ve got a class like a lab in chemistry, a professor is going to have to figure out how to create a make-up opportunity.”

While some faculty may be more resistant to showing students leniency, Winfield says contagion may prove the mother of empathy.

“I think it’s going to be professor by professor,” he said. “I suspect the more professors who have the illness, the more sympathy they’ll have.”


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