Every Learner Everywhere

When Emergencies Become Normal: How UC Santa Cruz Sustains Academic Continuity Through Frequent Disruption

University of California, Santa Cruz has a lot of practice maintaining academic continuity through disruption. When Every Learner Everywhere reached out to online learning leaders there to ask about the impact of the “atmospheric river” of January 2023 and devastating floods that resulted, they pointed out that it was only the most recent disruption going back at least 13 consecutive quarters.

“It was strike, COVID, fire, strike, floods and power outages,” says Jody Greene, Special Advisor to the Provost for Educational Equity and Academic Success, counting off the events that have brought continuity plans into action. “We were trying to do remote instruction during COVID when . . . . no, power outages came first. Then this past summer, we had a heat event. We’ve basically had everything.”

They say they can think of another possible disruption, but they hesitate to say it aloud. One doubts if it was the unprecedented snowfall that cut highway access around the campus a couple of weeks after our conversation.

Most of the disruptions Greene referenced are extreme weather events — drought, wildfires, landslides, and flooding. Those, they say, “are not discrete. They’re actually the same climate change event just unfolding in slow time.”

Other disruptions impacting the institution recently have been unionized labor actions — a wildcat strike by UC Santa Cruz graduate students in February 2020 and a six-week system-wide strike in fall of 2022. In both cases, some faculty relied on remote teaching and learning resources to keep running their courses.

The 2020 strike in particular turned out to be an important experience to draw on; a month after it was resolved, all in-person classes were suspended in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Growing capacity for continuity

As at other institutions, disruptions to the people who work and study at UC Santa Cruz can differ from the impact on the campus itself. On one hand, the January 2023 flooding never closed the campus, but flexibility needed to be extended to faculty, staff, and students who were unable to get there. Students and employees commuting from the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains, in particular, can be impacted by extreme weather that spares the campus.

On the other hand, a wildfire in August 2020 not only closed the campus but forced an evacuation. In any case, the institution has developed the experience and the infrastructure to rely on online teaching and learning so classes are not suspended entirely.

Michael Tassio, Director for Digital Learning and Engagement, says, “We make a careful distinction between emergency remote instruction and online learning. Our online courses have a great deal of attention put into the design. In an emergency, we put our care and attention into designing courses to have more flexibility, because some students don’t have power, they are unable to connect to the internet, or they can’t access campus. There are a variety of reasons more flexibility is needed in response to emergencies.”

One effect of so many shifts to emergency remote instruction is that faculty depend on his office less and less with each event. During the recent flooding, Tassio says, “It was clear people had learned during the pandemic. People didn’t have to refresh their memory of how to put a class into an alternate modality.”

Greene adds that videoconference tools like Zoom are a common resource, “But that is never the only thing we recommend to people, because teaching hybrid is really hard. We have a whole library of alternative ways to offer your class to people who cannot get there in person.”

Those include video capture tools, for example. And the institution regularly maintains its Keep Teaching page for faculty needing it during emergency remote instruction.

Faculty development for continuity

Successfully handling emergency remote instruction depends on the fact that there are no absolute lines between faculty development in general and for online learning in particular.

“Honestly, it doesn’t matter if it’s an online or an in-person course,” Tassio says. “When we start talking about course design, everything changes, because we use the high-impact research-based practices we know work. Largely, our work is in the design space. It’s not about the modality.”

For example, he often urges faculty to reconsider how they use high-stakes assessments, and “COVID gave us an opportunity to redesign courses to use models that focus more on low-stakes assessments that build on each other throughout the quarter.”

Another area he counsels faculty to consider is how individual work can affect engagement: “COVID showed faculty that student work in breakout rooms works really well, so that became an opportunity to engage students who don’t do as well on the individualistic work but who have strengths in collaborating. That gave us a route to using digital tools to elevate those skills and give students an opportunity they may not have had otherwise.”

Student engagement informs how UC Santa Cruz selects digital learning tools, whether for face-to-face or distance learning modalities. “When we think about tools we bring to campus, we’re really thinking about how students work with one another,” Tassio says. “How can collaboration be built in? We’re less excited about the textbook they work on by themselves in their online course.”

The blurred distinction between faculty development for in-person and online formats is informing a reorganization at UC Santa Cruz. During most of the disruptions described earlier, Tassio and Greene were responsible for Online Education and The Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning, respectively. During the spring of 2023, the institution has been in the process of merging those two units into an integrated teaching and learning center.

“As Michael says, all instruction will be technologically enhanced going forward,” Greene explains. “It doesn’t make sense to have a teaching center that doesn’t have instructional technology expertise and a separate shop where the instructional technology lives.” You need an integrated model of a teaching center, they say, “where every course can be designed and every course can have instructional technology designed into it as its learning goals merit.”

Equity-focused continuity

Likewise, there are no bright lines between faculty development and equity efforts.

“We need to think about equity and accessibility as design issues and not as after-the-fact response strategies,” Greene says. “All students will have an access challenge at some point in the quarter. We’re not just talking about poor students or disabled students. It’s a family difficulty, a work schedule change. We start from the presumption that everything is not going to go swimmingly for everyone at all times, and that helps us use design to give alternatives to accommodate those who have access challenges for any reason.”

They add that equity-driven changes in the classroom were happening slowly before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, “so on some level COVID did us a big favor by centering these issues. Instructors were required to engage in help-seeking behavior, because they couldn’t keep teaching without help. It really accelerated a trend and beneficially.”

Planning ahead for continuity

Asked what peer institutions can learn from the experience UC Santa Cruz has with disruption and academic continuity, Greene and Tassio emphasize understanding the impacts across the institution and including more people in decision making.

For example, many courses at UC Santa Cruz depend on graduate student support, so a shift to online learning often involves multiple instructors, many of whom may have their own access issues.

Likewise, faculty are also being disrupted by emergencies, “and my observation is that in most places, they’re not really taken into account as though they themselves are people having radical life experiences,” Greene says.

“When we emptied out faculty housing in the summer of 2020, it raised attention for people that these folks are having an experience, too,” Greene continues. “Make sure that you include your staff and faculty in your compassion-based planning. Compassion often ends with the students, and that’s not going to serve sustainability going forward.”

Secondly, they advise peer institutions to ensure the center for teaching and learning is included in emergency planning: “I talk to other teaching center directors who were not in any of the meetings about the pandemic impacts and whether the semester would be starting online or not. It astonished me that these decisions were being made without the people who would actually have to execute them. If they’re not in the room, you’re going to have breaks in the chain back to faculty.”

Lastly, they emphasize faculty autonomy. “We take their skill seriously, even as we recognize that there hasn’t been much professionalization for teaching,” they say. “We would never say to everyone, ‘We’re going to Zoom on Monday.’ We say to them, ‘Here are a range of ways. Use the one that fits best with the learning goals of your course and that fits best with your situation.’”

Infrastructure for continuity

Prior to the pandemic, The Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning at UC Santa Cruz had three staff, and Online Education had two. Partly because of the needs created by so much academic disruption, the office emerging from the reorganization has grown to more than 15 staff, “because we convinced the campus that a small investment in our support systems would mean that people had a massively different experience,” Greene says.

As a result, Tassio says, the campus culture has evolved to seek and expect support for digital learning, and his team has the infrastructure in place to provide it. Inquiries are less about reacting to an emergency and more about effective course design. Consultations happen almost constantly via Google Chat and Slack channels, and as knowledge is built, it is documented and developed into reference materials.

One innovation has been to share the address of a Zoom room that is kept open during business hours for drop-in questions. “Literally, we are right there when you need help,” he says.

After 13 quarters in a row of academic disruption, UC Santa Cruz can’t afford to assume the next quarter will be “normal” and that the Keep Teaching page can be mothballed. Don’t they have to anticipate the unanticipated and assume the next term will bring a new surprise that will push the institution to emergency remote learning again?

“If there is, our response will be, ‘We’ve got this,’” Tassio says. “We know what to do at this point.”

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