Are We Ready for Swine Flu?

I heard on the mainstream media news tonight that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Sunday declared a “public health emergency” for the current swine flu outbreak, which while mild so far in the United States, has taken 86 lives in Mexico.  Secretary Napolitano liked the current emergency call to preps for a pending hurricane.

Health officials’ advice is to follow common-sense precautions: Wash your hands, stay home if you’re sick and listen to your local health authorities.

Mirrored I am sure by my colleagues in ed tech, I have been wondering about that fourth piece of advice not mentioned above – practice online teaching and learning so that one can shift online if a state of emergency is declared.

There is nothing new to this train of thought.  Ask Valley CIty State University.  As reported by Inside Higher Ed:

Valley City … announced it would move all instruction online for the remainder of the semester, as the Sheyenne River rose to record levels and officials called for an evacuation of the city’s flood plain (where much of the university is located). According to Mayor Mary Lee Nielson’s statement, the river’s elevation had never before exceeded 20 feet; a crest at 22 feet or higher is expected and, “additionally, the Corps of Engineers also predicts that we will likely remain at this elevated level for up to two weeks, adding additional strain to our dike system.”

“There are simply too many unknowns at this time, and with a two-week expected evacuation we do not have the ability to expect students back on campus. It has been agreed that we will continue with classes and finish the semester in whatever manner possible utilizing technology,” Shirley wrote in a Wednesday message to Valley City State’s 1,000 students. Classes are to resume next week and Shirley urged faculty “to be as flexible and creative as possible,” adding: “We all realize there will be decisions that need to be made on a class-by-class basis, and recognize some classes are more suited to online delivery than others.”

I wonder what my institution would do if faced with an emergency of the scale Valley City faced – one requiring the complete shut down of the physical plant?  I am sure that my institution is like many nationally, in that we have many faculty who are using Blackboard to web enhance their classes.  We also have a minority of faculty who either teach fully online or use a hybrid approach for teaching.  Would we be ready to move online like Valley City did?

The news about the swine flu came out of no where and in the space of a few days has moved to a public health emergency level.  A few years back, avian flu was the concern and institutions drafted contingency plans for dealing with this flu.  I would hazard a guess that few institutions actively trained faculty and students to implement these contingencies.

If one believes that emergencies such as the high water issues faced by Valley City or the potential shut-down of institutions due to influenza are more than concepts, then prudence would suggest that we prepare for them.  One possible way would be for institutions to require all faculty to routinely “teach” one week of their semester online.  The week would be at their choice.  Some may say that this violates their academic freedom, but one week would not impose too harsh a requirement on faculty or students.  I have never heard anyone suggest that moving out of a building when the fire alarm rings violates their academic freedom.  Rather than impede academic freedom, moving online for a week each semester would instead facilitate campus safety for faculty and students.  Faculty would have an exercise in meeting learning objectives online, and students would likewise be held accountable for attending and meeting those objectives online.  More importantly, all would have a conceptual framework around online learning that could be rapidly implemented if safety needs required it.

A radical thought?  I wonder … and I wonder what you – my colleagues – think?

{Photo Credit: Eneas}

10 thoughts on “Are We Ready for Swine Flu?

  1. Thoughtful post on a serious matter. However, as you know from experience, effective online teaching requires a major change in practice that does not happen overnight. Perhaps the contemplation of such emergencies might be one motivating factor encouraging institutions to help faculty develop required skills, meaningful learning opportunities and formative assessment techniques before they “require all faculty to routinely “teach” one week of their semester online.”

  2. Great post, Britt. I hadn’t thought through the implications of the Valley City State University story. This reminds me of a talk I heard recently (via podcast) by someone at Virginia Tech about their response to the shootings there. It made me wonder if my teaching center might want to prepare a short summary of strategies for teaching in times of crisis that we could distribute (via Web, email, podcast, off-campus servers, etc.) if our campus faced an emergency of some sort.

    Might those of us who support faculty on our campuses prepare some kind of beginner’s guide to teaching online, something specific to our campus resources, that we could distribute quickly if our campuses needed to shift to online teaching overnight?

    Bud makes a good point that effective online teaching can’t be learned overnight. But what about naive online teaching, if that’s the alternative to no teaching at all? My point is that those of us who support faculty might want to think about what we could prepare ahead of time in case of emergency.

  3. Britt — I love the idea of a weeklong “drill” once a year. There are so many situations that would benefit from a more flexible model that incorporates online learning — illness epidemics, flooding, hurricanes, snow storms and ice storms…

    Not only are we not prepared for this, in too many cases we aren’t willing to make the necessary investments to prepare for this. My more complete thoughts on this are posted on my blog.

  4. I think this is a serious matter in which many schools or educations systems do not take into account until disaster hits. Swine Flu, Flooding etc. Yes there may be some work that involves the conversion of in class courses to online, but there are content creators that are trained to specifically write successful online training courses and convert classroom courses to distant learning courses. As of now the Government is gifting grants to certain organizations to implement distant learning or online training programs into the education system. More and more valuable resources are popping up on the web that contains online courses and certifications. A resource to check out is This provides the perfect example of an online marketplace enabling the development of learning online.

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