Prepare for the Unexpected

Prepare for the UnexpectedOn Tuesday February 10th, my institution, the College of Charleston, experienced a safety and communication crisis when a bomb threat was made.  Classes in six buildings were officially cancelled and many faculty, staff, and students were prohibited from accessing their offices, classrooms, and dorms.  This unexpected disruption caused many professors and students to lose valuable class time.

As the daughter of a Boy Scout and a Girl Scout myself, I try to live by the mantra: be prepared.  As an instructional technologist, I’ve learned ways to use technology to “prepare for the worst” and want to share that knowledge so you will be ready for the next interruption, whether it’s due to extreme weather, campus crisis, or family emergency.

1.  Think ahead.  Before the semester begins, decide how you will manage if classes are cancelled.  According to my colleague, Instructional Technologist Kaitlin Woodlief, “your best preparation is to learn the tools now before you’re put into a situation where you have to use them.”  This doesn’t mean you must become an expert on Adobe Captivate to make professional-quality video lectures.  Instead, familiarize yourself with one tool so you feel comfortable enough producing something simple that will transmit content.

VoiceThread iconGiven Tuesday’s events, I had to figure out a way to prevent my students from getting too far behind.  I uploaded the Powerpoint I intended to use in class into Voicethread and narrated my slides using already created lecture notes.  I didn’t need to create new content; I just had to put that content into a different format.  And because I had already familiarized myself with Voicethread, the process was simple.  There are numerous tools that will allow you to deliver content online in case of a college closure or class cancellation, including your institution’s Learning Management System (LMS), Slide Share, Jing, Screencast-O-Matic, EdPuzzle, Animoto, and Google Drive.

If you are pressed for time and can’t create your own video lectures, consider using third-party resources, such as Khan Academy, TED Talks (including TED-Ed), and education-related You Tube videos.

2.  Include a syllabus policy.  As you prepare your classes, craft a policy that establishes expectations and procedures in case an emergency occurs.  For example, Penn State [PDF] encourages faculty to include the following language in their syllabi:

In the event of a campus closure, course requirements, classes, deadlines and grading schemes are subject to changes that may include alternative delivery methods, alternative methods of interaction with the instructor, class materials, and/or classmates, a revised attendance policy, and a revised semester calendar and/or grading scheme. Information about course changes will be communicated through [e-mail, etc….]

It’s essential to include such a statement so students are aware of expectations at the beginning of the semester, preventing them from claiming they “had no idea” they were supposed to complete class work.  Also, if an emergency does arise, you won’t have to scramble quite as much to communicate such expectations and procedures to your students.

3.  Determine communication protocols.  If an emergency closes your institution or you have to cancel class at the last-minute, how will you communicate with your students?  There are numerous options, including email and posting a notification inside your LMS.  This semester, I’m using both Twitter and Celly to communicate with students.  I don’t know about you, but I’ve found students don’t routinely read their emails, so I decided to meet them where they are and use text messaging and social media.

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 4.58.07 PMThe numerous ways I use Twitter in the classroom is a blog post for another day, but on Tuesday, I tweeted numerous times to inform students that the “Cougar Alert” was not a test, that they needed to pay attention to their email, and that class was cancelled.  I also used Celly to communicate the same information.  Celly provides a way to send SMS text messages without exchanging phone numbers (you can also use the mobile app or website if you don’t text).  I’ve found students to be much more responsive to these text messages than email.

For more serious emergencies, when campus is closed for a longer period of time, you may want to communicate with your students synchronously.  Skype and Google Hangouts provide simple and free options for hosting virtual, synchronous meetings and most Learning Management Systems include discussion boards that can be used for conversation and collaboration.  Social media can also be used for communication, including Twitter, Facebook groups, or education-specific platforms like Edmodo.

Anticipating disruptions and making plans can prevent students and faculty from losing valuable contact hours.  As my colleague, Instructional Technologist Chris Meshanko says, while we always hope for the best, we must plan for the worst.

If you’ve had to cancel classes for an extended period, which tools did you use to keep your classes on track?

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About pastprof

Recovering academic. Starting a new adventure as a college instructional technologist. Ph.D. in Communication & Information. Reside in the lovely Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
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