eLearning Lessons From Mother Nature: Online Learning In Emergencies

Online Learning In Emergencies E-Learning Lessons From Mother Nature
Summary: Over 100 inches of snow in 5 weeks, sub-zero temperatures, impassable roads and sidewalks. A metropolitan area buried under a blanket of snow (“Imagine Pompeii,” lamented one local writer, “But with snow, not lava.”). And of course, no school (I'll leave aside for now the crazed parents...).

Online Learning In Emergencies

As Boston’s historic winter of snow shut down schools over a series of weeks, many politicians and parents (not kids!) called for classes to be held online. The reaction of K-12 colleagues who teach in local school districts:“Huh? How?” The reaction of my university colleagues who did in fact hastily scramble to hold classes online: “Disastrous.”

“Going online” or “holding classes online” seems deceptively simple, but it is quite involved, especially for large systems like school districts or universities—and it is something that can’t happen spontaneously. In Boston we get snow; for other locales it’s hurricanes, tornadoes, and/or floods. Regardless of the nature of the weather emergency, New England’s winter of discontent is a reminder that as school districts and universities plan for weather (and other) emergencies, they must also plan how online learning can respond to such emergencies.

So, what are some steps districts, schools and universities might take?

  1. Develop a district/university/school wide e-learning policy.
    An online learning policy is really a must. What role will online learning play in your district? Do students and teachers and parents have passwords? Where and how can students and teachers access materials? Will the district have its own Learning Management System (LMS) or are their acceptable/suggested external websites that students should use (e.g., Khan Academy)? Will all students have single-sign on passwords to an LMS (and anything that connects to it)? At what age/grade level will students be allowed to go online (all levels? middle school?)?
  2. Integrate technology into your district or university’s emergency response plan.
    Most universities and school districts have emergency response plans and systems. But many have not integrated educational technology (including online learning) into that plan. A fundamental place to start is to ask what the role of technology in a weather (or any) emergency should be. This integration might include training (so teachers can teach online) and students understand their way around an LMS or portal or school Internet, so they know their passwords, so they have curriculum that is accessible online, and so they are familiar with related policies and procedures.
  3. Conduct a home technology inventory.
    What devices do students and their families have and own? What percentage of families have Internet access or cellular network access and smartphones? This needn't be onerous and be carried out on the first few days of school by home room teachers. Knowing what kids own and know how to use--i.e., assessing home infrastructure--is a requisite for planning for online learning.
  4. Address student access to home computers.
    This is a tough one. While many 1:1 programs allow students to take computers home, other 1:1 programs may not, and many districts still lack 1:1 programs. Many students, particularly from low-income environments, may not have access to a home computer or one that works well. While school districts may not be able to ensure home access to technology in many cases, they may want to think creatively—laptop leasing programs, forming partnerships with businesses, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) or local electronics stores to provide discounted laptops for students who lack technology at home. If a weather-related emergency is forecast, can laptops (if available) be distributed to clusters of students based on some kind of residential proximity so students can share computers?
  5. Address issues around broadband access.
    Another tricky one. Like home access to computers for every student, online learning as an emergency response can only work if students have home Internet access (and ideally, home broadband access). This is really an area that needs careful attention, creative thinking, and partnerships. As examples, schools could provide students who lack home Internet access with USB modems that can be connected to a laptop in order to access a mobile Internet provider (I use these a lot when I travel in Africa and Asia and have to say they are not ideal). Districts and schools might explore public-private partnerships that could allow for agreements or cooperation in terms of basic Internet infrastructure development. They could petition major users of Internet services to subsidize home Internet access for low-income areas or underwrite mobile Internet connectivity for households or Census tracts in a community as a kind of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activity. [Even in the best of cases, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are also impacted by bad weather, too. During our five week snow frenzy, many households (including mine) experienced very compromised Internet access, including days when the Internet went down.]
  6. Use easily available technology.
    If home Internet access and home computers are issues in your district, look at providing technology-based instruction via some either means. For instance, consider other technologies like educational TV or educational programming through local community cable channels, or community radio stations, or the telephone. More low-income homes have television (or cell phones) than Internet connectivity and computers. The point is not to necessarily use online instruction, but rather to provide instruction during an emergency, via the technologies that the majority of households already have and know how to use.
  7. Move to a blended learning approach.
    The New England winter of 2015 argues for a blended-learning approach where students take some classes in school and some online. A fully blended approach would (ideally) mean that school districts have addressed issues of broadband and home access, that students have access to digital curriculum and resources, and that they understand how to learn online and more importantly learn online out of school.

Online Learning In Emergencies Mary headed towards BVM

Nature always wins. In our five weeks of Snowmageddon, as it was called, many homes lost electricity which obviously means that even the best laid elearning plans can be felled. But we must always plan on unplanned events. If we want to capitalize on the very real potential of online learning to connect students to content, to teachers, and to each other during times when physical access to school is impossible, careful forethought and planning are musts.