Every Learner Everywhere

The Role of Digital Learning in Academic Disruption: Lessons from UCF’s Experience With Hurricanes

Being in a region prone to hurricanes, the University of Central Florida is used to dealing with academic disruption and has well-documented emergency plans. If there’s any advantage to hurricanes, it’s that they typically give plenty of advance notice that UCF needs to set up its experienced 24/7 Emergency Operations Center.

“It’s like being stalked by a turtle,” says Thomas Cavanagh, Vice Provost for Digital Learning at UCF. “You watch it for a week and a half as it gets closer and scarier, so you can prepare.”

Hurricane Ian in September 2022 was one such slow-moving disaster that disrupted academic operations at UCF. It caused catastrophic wind and flooding damage in surrounding communities, and it was one of the deadliest on record, killing over 150 people in the state.

The UCF campus itself had almost no damage from the storm, so, in theory, as soon as the power and internet service were restored, classrooms and other facilities were available to function as normal. And, since online courses are stored in a datacenter far from Florida, UCF could also, in theory, immediately resume instruction.

Even so, classes at UCF were suspended for a week, which illustrates how off-campus disasters can cause on-campus — and online — disruption.

The primary reason is that employees and students were scattered far from campus and dealing with various degrees of displacement and ongoing emergency. Many employees lost their homes, and private off-campus apartment buildings flooded, displacing 600 students.

Another issue is that many students had returned to their family homes in other parts of the state that were more severely impacted. “At the time, we didn’t know how many students [from the Gulf Coast] were down there to be with their parents,” Cavanagh says.

The takeaway from that experience for other campuses, says Cavanagh, is that when it comes to academic disruption, the campus and the institution aren’t synonymous. The former can be mostly fine, while the latter can be severely disrupted.

“If you have people with connections back to the main campus being impacted,” he says, “it’s more consistent to say, ‘We’re shut down. People need to take care of health and safety and we’ll deal with all the rest of it when it’s safe.’ Our general rule is, if the university is closed, it’s closed online. It would be wildly inconsistent between everybody who uses the systems, because some are without power or they don’t have internet.”

The role of digital learning in recovery

When online classes at UCF are suspended during emergency periods, the resources of the Division of Digital Learning do play one important role.

“The LMS is like the campus watering hole,” Cavanagh says. “At some point all the residents come there, so it’s a great place to put key messages. We amplify official university messaging, either through the mobile app or the LMS, to make sure everybody is seeing what they’re supposed to be seeing. In an emergency, [digital learning tools] become really useful for communication.”

The recovery phase after the emergency is where UCF leans on remote learning, he says. Once everyone is safe and available to return to teaching and learning, online might be the best means for doing that.

For example, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, UCF, like many institutions, shifted on short notice to mostly online learning. As part of the ongoing institutional emergency preparedness, the Division of Digital Learning is working to document lessons learned and processes developed during the COVID-19 disruption so a large-scale shift to online learning can be part of the recovery phase in the future.

Even when digital learning isn’t used for entire courses, it is helpful in the recovery phase in other ways. For example, legislation or accreditation requirements might require a specific number of hours of instruction that are difficult to make up in the physical classrooms. The digital learning infrastructure can be extended in creative ways so face-to-face classes can use it for make-up activities. UCF relied on that capacity after Hurricane Irma in September 2017, which suspended classes for 21 days.

Academic disruption at the individual level

As Cavanagh pointed out above, students and employees can be impacted by a disaster that misses the campus. An emerging phenomenon is that, in the age of large-scale remote online learning, individual students can be dealing with crises very remote from campus.

The UCF Division of Digital Learning has students around the globe and that means “we have to monitor things that happen elsewhere that don’t impact us locally,” Cavanagh says. “We’ve had students impacted by wildfires in other states or hurricanes in Puerto Rico. We had a student who was in Kyiv getting bombed in the middle of the war. We reach out to their faculty and ask them for extensions or whatever. You name it, we try to keep on top of it.”

Put another way, if an institution has a large enough online learning program, somebody somewhere is likely experiencing an emergency that disrupts their teaching or learning. Colleges and universities will increasingly need to plan for supporting those employees and students effectively.

Disruption and the digital divide

Whether a disruption is something the whole campus is experiencing or unique to a single student, Cavanagh says the Division of Digital Learning is often the first point of contact. That means they can play a role in getting the student other essential resources.

During the early days of the COVID-19 disruption, for example, like most institutions, UCF had a significant number of students trying to learn online without laptops and reliable telecom services.

“A student who has digital divide issues, oftentimes that’s not the only issue they have,” Cavanagh says. “They might have food insecurity or housing insecurity. Their financial aid is running out. Students would present to us first because they had a technical problem, but that wasn’t their only problem.”

As a result, he says his team in the Division of Digital Learning is a primary referrer to academic, mental health, and other student support services. They work closely with an umbrella program called UCF Cares. It’s important for the digital learning office to be sensitive to the issues students are dealing with apart from information technology, and to be educated about the resources on campus so they can make referrals effectively.

Expect the unexpected

Cavanagh says the COVID-19 emergency accelerated learning about preparing for academic continuity during disruption: It highlighted the nuances of how students experience the digital divide; it showed the importance of designing online teaching and learning for mobile devices; it showed how every individual student has unique experiences that need to be considered; and it prompted the development of new resources like Keep Teaching pages.

“There are going to be things that surprise you,” he says. “If it was just hurricanes, I think we understand how to prepare for them, because we have a lot of practice with that. But having COVID come through, we had to repurpose those plans in ways and on a timeline we had just never dealt with before.”

The way he thinks of academic continuity now, he says, is like a Venn diagram with two circles. One plans for the disruption the institution can anticipate, hurricanes in the case of UCF. The other plans for what it can’t anticipate, like shifting 70,000 students to online learning on a week’s notice. There will be some overlap in the two circles, but the institution doesn’t benefit from that overlap if it doesn’t envision disruption, plan for it, and document.

This article is included in Leveraging Digital Learning in Times of Academic Disruption: A Guide for Academic Leaders, which presents results from an analysis of 100 academic continuity plans at U.S. colleges and universities. The results form the basis for recommended academic continuity plan best practices, tools, and templates academic leaders can use to maintain a plan that can be used in both short-term and long-term circumstances.

Download Leveraging Digital Learning in Times of Academic Disruption

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