Dodging Swine Online

September 18, 2009

In its yet-to-be-unveiled online guide for preparing for a swine flu outbreak, the Virginia Community College System offers the usual advice: cover your mouth and wash your hands. But it also links to sites that show professors and students how to use Blackboard.

While distance education is growing in popularity, learning how to use course-management tools might not be an intuitive part of preparing for a flu pandemic. But for many colleges and universities, it is as much part of the emergency plan as hand sanitizer.

“After Katrina, we’ve seen an uptick in disaster preparedness,” says Barbara Ross, chief operating officer at the software company Wimba. Ross says her company’s collaborative learning software, which allows instructors to share mixed-media course materials in an online classroom, can be used to keep a class on track if students or their instructors become bedridden — a fact that she has pointed out to prospective clients

Wimba is not the only company touting its potential applications in an H1N1 outbreak. FairChoice Health, a campus health management firm, notified the press of its disease-monitoring technology, while Boston law firm Prince Lobel Glovsky & Tye sent out a press release about its work with colleges on the legal aspects of quarantines.

Ross said that, without prompting, many of Wimba’s existing clients had already factored its product into their disaster plans. Ditto Blackboard. Even Microsoft, whose Office Live Workspace software is not as widely synonymous with course-management in higher education, responded to a call for help from the U.S. Department of Education by offering online tutorials aimed at professors as well as schoolteachers.

“Distance education is a big piece of our planning,” says Bob Hails, director of distance learning at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. While the Pennsylvania system is not requiring its professors to become fluent in online course management technology, Hails says as part of its H1N1 preparation it has been inventorying professors and “getting them to say, ‘Yeah, in a pinch I can do that with my course’ -- and putting ones who don’t think they can do it in a different column as well.”

Of course, turning a classroom-based course into a Web-based one is not something that happens overnight. “It’s easy to say, ‘Well, we’ll just move things online,’” Hails says. “It’s not that easy.” Some professors might well be unable to effectively deliver certain courses online in short order, he says. Still, the point is not necessarily to design the perfect online class. “It’s not going to win awards for outstanding courses by any stretch,” he says, “but it’s going to help us get by during that one or two week period when we can’t meet face-to-face."

The Pennsylvania system is certainly not alone. Other institutions, such as the University of Michigan, have been pushing professors to think about how technology might allow them to continue teaching if a number of their students -- or they themselves -- have to be absent from class for an extended period of time.

Professors looking for a stopgap solution will probably turn to software they find easiest to use, said Jerry Rostad, director of advanced learning technologies for the North Dakota University System. When one of that system’s campuses, Valley City State University, flooded last spring and sent its students home, many classes members finished out the term using Wimba Pronto, a virtual meeting space that allowed instructors to deliver recorded lectures and slide presentations, and answer student queries via live chat.

Hails said fact that many universities are encouraging their faculty members to familiarize themselves with available online teaching tools in anticipation of a swine flu outbreak might actually provide the push some reluctant professors might need to start using those tools. “They need a chance to get their toe in the water,” he said, “and for them maybe this would be a good way to get them some experience and not overwhelm them with things.”

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