Every Learner Everywhere

Planning for Any Disruption: Strategies for Building a Comprehensive Academic Continuity Plan

Academic continuity plans are vital for institutions of higher education, but what characterizes an effective plan? A recent report, Planning for Academic Continuity: A Guide for Academic Leaders by Every Learner Everywhere, seeks to answer that question and provide insight into how universities can ensure an equitable, comprehensive academic continuity plan during times of disruption.

Patricia O’Sullivan, lead author and Manager, Content Development and Special Projects at Every Learner, says she noticed some colleges and universities archiving their academic continuity plans as the danger from the Covid-19 pandemic declined, while individual campuses sometimes had to cancel classes because of climate-related emergencies, gun violence, or other unanticipated disruptions.

That prompted her to think about what makes an effective plan ​​that can work in a variety of crises. “Disruptions of all kinds are going to continue to happen, so we wanted to find out the most effective practices to keep students learning during disasters,” she says.

Working with Every Learner Everywhere student interns who co-authored the report, O’Sullivan reviewed and analyzed the academic continuity plans of 100 colleges and universities to discover patterns in goals, procedures, and policies. They particularly looked for how digital learning was used to enable academic continuity in times of disruption. How do colleges and universities plan to sustain teaching and learning when something unexpected makes it impossible or unsafe to meet on campus?

Based on that analysis, Planning for Academic Continuity identifies essential elements of good plans and includes templates and other resources that institutions can use to create or update their own. The report also includes narrative profiles of institutions that have recently used digital learning to sustain teaching and learning during a variety of crises.

Below, O’Sullivan summarizes some of the key findings of the analysis of public academic continuity plans.

Good continuity plans center equity

A crisis plan is incomplete if it will reinforce or create barriers for minoritized and poverty-affected students and employees. The most effective academic continuity plans bake equity into every stage of the emergency response. They consider issues such as digital connectivity, equitable distribution of resources, and varied effects of crises on different populations.

“Equity is one of the gaps we uncovered in our analysis,” O’Sullivan notes. “Many plans we studied did not address equity issues at all or with much depth.”

Good plans center students

Effective academic continuity plans are organized around the student experience. The best way to ensure that is to include students in the planning process. Because a crisis will affect different student populations in unique ways, it’s important to ensure that the perspectives of minoritized, poverty-affected, first-generation, and international students are included. For example, an institution may learn that those students’ home communities are more impacted by a regional disaster, complicating a plan relying on remote learning from home.

“Every Learner’s interns collaborated on this report, and their voices were vital in that process, too,” O’Sullivan explains. “They were the ones who validated the importance of student care and equity in continuity planning.”

Good plans imagine a variety of crises

While Covid-19 prompted or restarted the academic continuity planning process for many institutions, colleges and universities must keep in mind that not all crises are the same. A well-designed, comprehensive academic continuity plan imagines and prepares for a variety of possible disruptions, and builds in flexibility to respond to disruptions that are unanticipated or unimagined.

Jackson State University in Mississippi serves as a recent example of responding to an unanticipated crisis. Just as the university was returning to in-person learning in August 2022 after a full academic year of the Covid-19 pandemic, the entire city of Jackson was hit with an extended disruption to their water service. University officials again had to move classes online at the beginning of the semester.

“In our analysis, we saw some very good academic continuity plans that were solely Covid focused,” O’Sullivan says. “That approach is shortsighted because not every disaster scenario has the same impact on a campus.”

Good plans center digital learning technologies

Effective academic continuity plans acknowledge the centrality of digital tools and focus on training faculty and students in using them. Familiarity creates a big advantage. University-wide learning management systems and consistent course design reduce cognitive load for faculty and students during academic disruptions.

“Digital learning is the solution when we can’t be face to face,” O’Sullivan explains. “Continuity depends on digital learning in a variety of scenarios. It can be something common like an instructor who can’t get to class because their child is sick. Or it can be a scenario in which students studying abroad or international students are temporarily delayed overseas.”

Good plans center communication

A comprehensive academic continuity plan is only effective if stakeholders across campus are familiar with it and understand how to use it. The plan should periodically be reintroduced to the community to raise awareness. Accessibility of the plan to students, faculty, and administrators is also key.

“A standing academic continuity committee that updates and publicizes the plan is vital,” O’Sullivan says. “This group needs to continually revisit and publicize the plan to ensure its success.”

Download Planning for Academic Continuity