Preparing for the Future with Disruption-Resistant Online Programs

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Key Takeaways

  • The emergencies that interfere with academic continuity have tended to be local and brief, yet online courses serve an increasingly global audience in a world with more complicated and dispersed emergencies.
  • Although disruptive circumstances will occur at different times of the semester and will vary in type, location, magnitude, and duration, many university emergency plans are semester-centric, location-centric, and disaster-centric.
  • While unrealistic to presume that all online courses can be “disruption proofed,” IT practitioners and faculty can work together to more clearly define approaches to disruption-resistant online courses and ensure their smooth delivery in the face of future disasters.

In years past, academic disruptions occurred chiefly as a result of short-lived and local weather events such as the occasional “snow day” welcomed by students as a respite from classes, or a local power outage. Today, academic institutions find that they need the ability to adjust to more than local interruptive events as they grapple with previously unimagined threats to educational continuity: destructive computer viruses; loss of web-based course content as a result of server failures; Category 5 hurricanes followed by destructive flooding; terrorist-sponsored domestic and international events; earthquakes; and global pandemics.

Distance education increasingly serves a global audience. Online students, instructors, and IT practitioners based in far-flung geographic locations may experience disruptive circumstances that differ in onset, type, magnitude, and duration. Surprisingly, many university emergency plans remain semester-centric, location-centric, or disaster-centric, and it is unusual for course syllabi to articulate emergency plans. As education continues to reach more widely around the world through online delivery, it behooves universities to make their courses “disruption resistant.”

Conceptualizing Disruptive Circumstances

Before “disruption proofing” a course, it is useful to conceptualize potential disruptive circumstances.

Disruption Type

Much of disaster planning literature focuses on specific types of disruptions. For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security provides information about biological threats (pandemic flu, biological attack), chemical threats, explosions, nuclear blast, radiation threat, and natural disasters.1 It can be challenging for faculty to learn of and fully grasp the circumstances that affect their distant students, when their university websites only post notifications of local emergencies. Students and administrators may experience similar challenges when difficult events affect their distant faculty.

Stages of Disruptive Circumstances

The impact of a disruptive event often changes over time. It can thus be informative to consider a disruptive event in stages — pre-event status, event, post-event, and recovery — and take care not to assume that the impact on academics will be less in the pre-event or recovery stages. The time before an expected event might require the students or faculty to secure their homes, pack belongings, and travel away from the geographic locus of the disruption. The recovery stage might be characterized by a loss of academic resources and the supporting infrastructure (computing resources, electricity, shelter), the pressures of “catching up” while moving forward with ongoing responsibilities, and the process of adapting to trauma, loss, and change.

Effect on the Academic Life Cycle

A third way to conceptualize disruptive circumstances is to consider the potential effect(s) of the disruption on the academic life cycle. Applications, admissions, financial aid applications, advising, registration, coursework (requiring participation, assignments, and assessments), and graduation all occur at prescribed or predictable times in the semester and academic year. There are vulnerable times in the academic life cycle. A disruption that occurs when students need to take midterm examinations or register for the upcoming semester might cause both inconvenience and lost income across two academic semesters. Even brief but ill-timed disruptions in campus computing can cause widespread challenges.2

Effects on Academic Stakeholders

Primary academic stakeholders include faculty, IT practitioners, students, administrative staff, department chairs, and university staff. With distance education an increasingly global endeavor, it is important to recognize that online students, instructors, and IT practitioners based in far-flung geographic locations may experience the same event in different ways. While the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were concentrated in several U.S. locations, their impact affected educational activities across the United States and abroad.

Disruptive events with different causes might also occur simultaneously, complicating the responses to them. Consider the following scenario:

A major blizzard in the northeast United States hinders many IT practitioners from physically traveling to campus to maintain the university website, course management servers, and help desk. Students living near the main campus are unable to take their proctored final exams as scheduled. Faculty in the region have difficulty communicating with those students who have lost electrical power. Across the country, a student based in the Pacific Northwest has lost power and Internet connectivity for several days due to high winds. That same week, a military emergency abroad causes several students in the active military to interrupt their studies. One faculty member contracts the H1N1 flu and becomes too ill even to work online; a week later, that person needs to care for family members who have become ill.

For the individuals affected, disruptive events can be emotionally and physically stressful. Stakeholders who share the risk as part of the affected community might be called upon to exert leadership within both their families and their classes, all the while managing their own psychological and physical reactions to the emergency circumstances.

Impact on Access to Resources

A final way to conceptualize a disruptive event relates to its impact on the stakeholders’ access to resources — “bricks and clicks.” It is important to anticipate that critical course-based resources extend beyond the physical plant, available bandwidth, computing networks, and laptops to assets such as instructors’ online content, test banks, grade books, online libraries, textbooks, and students’ previously completed coursework. The time available to devote to the academic enterprise is also a valuable resource and might decline during difficult circumstances. These effects can be considered in terms of the length of time the resources are not available to the student or faculty member, as well as the survival and utility of the resources.

Creating Disruption-Resistant Online Courses

Not all courses can be rendered disruption resistant. However, with advance planning, accurate forecasting, creative strategies, and agile responses to adversity, many online classes can maintain partial if not full academic continuity during challenging times.

Axiom 1: Disruption-Resistant Courses Best Exist within Disaster-Resistant Universities

Suppose an instructor included an emergency response plan in the course syllabus, instructing students to shift to alternative assignments if specific types of circumstances occur (for example, a campus-based emergency damages the course management servers and renders the campus an unsafe environment, or communication between the instructor and students is interrupted for an extended period of time). The online course instructor and her students indeed have to resort to their emergency response plan and work diligently and creatively to maintain academic continuity during an emergency affecting their university. Several weeks later, however, the university administration announces it will not support the continuation of the semester’s classes because of the continuing emergency. As a result, the work done by students in this resilient distance education class might not qualify for a grade and earned credits. Sadly, such efforts are misspent when the university does not similarly commit to maintaining academic continuity. That is why disruption-resistant courses best exist within like-minded universities.

As part of the planning for a flu pandemic, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advanced the notion of “disaster-resistant universities” and issued a guide to their creation.4 Disaster-resistant universities are committed to maintaining academic continuity and engage in ongoing planning. A best-practice example appears on the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) website: “UMUC Classroom Interruption Planning Guide — For Managing Unplanned Classroom Closings.” The UMUC guide offers practical suggestions for the academic community to implement before, during, and after an interruption, as well as alternative tools and technologies (for example, alternative audio/conferencing technologies, alternative e-mail accounts, and instant messaging/chat/VOIP technologies).

Disruption-resistant online universities:

  • Provide a course management system (CMS) and other technologies to support continuity and train university IT practitioners, faculty, and students in their use.
  • Plan to maintain the integrity of the IT infrastructure and offer alternative technologies in case of a disruption to IT services. Faculty and IT practitioners consider how a course might continue following a disruption to CMS access by using low-tech, no-tech, or high-tech means.
  • Communicate in a timely manner with the academic community before, during, and after a disruption.
  • Enable segments of the academic community (especially faculty, students, and IT practitioners) to communicate in a transparent and rapid fashion on a 24 × 7 basis.
  • Are willing to extend the semester’s timeframe as needed.
  • Support the concept of a flexible workforce, with personnel designated ahead of time to substitute for one another if difficult circumstances occur.

Axiom 2: Disruption-Resistant Courses Are Hard-Wired for Continuity

Disruption-resistant courses contain elements that promote course continuity in adverse conditions. Most importantly, there is an expressed faculty commitment to academic continuity. Early in the course, the faculty member indicates the expectations for academic continuity and articulates (via a class announcement, statement in the syllabus, podcast, online chat, etc.) a plan for how potential disruptions might be handled. For example:

“If we lose connectivity, instead of completing the online quizzes and discussion entries, read the weekly textbook assignment and complete the end of chapter exercises. Group assignments can be converted to individual assignments without penalty. Research for assignments can be done via Internet sources outside the university’s electronic library system, and/or previously downloaded posted resources. Additional adjustments will be made in the course requirements according to the type and length of the disruption.”

At the beginning of the semester, students and faculty communicate about the plan in a collaborative manner. They identify low-tech or more easily accessible alternative technology applications (e-mail, Skype, Facebook, fax, telephone, online social groups) they might employ if the CMS becomes unavailable. Stakeholders (students, faculty, IT practitioners, library staff) are poised to adopt alternative means of communication such as online social media4 that will serve them in any location. Faculty establish introductory student forums (to learn about their locations and individual circumstances) and a discussion forum or class blog (to share the details of local disruptive circumstances). If the course management site is not available, students are instructed to visit a dedicated Facebook or Ning page.

Successful disruption-resistant courses hard-wire content delivery for continuity:

  • Course content is downloadable or purchasable, so students can continue to study if separated from adequate bandwidth, their computers, or even electricity. The faculty member instructs the class which materials they should download and/or retain as hard copies for backup purposes.
  • Faculty and students both maintain critical resources and products (syllabus, completed assignments, contact information, and in the instructor’s case, grade book) in hard copy, offline.
  • Course content is front-loaded and permanently displayed in the CMS (versus released and removed on a rigid time schedule).
  • As circumstances dictate, content delivery can diminish the use of synchronous methods (such as online lectures and chats) and shift to an entirely asynchronous approach.

Finally, assignment deadlines and penalties are flexible to the extent possible in a disruption-resistant course.

Axiom 3: It’s All About Location, Location, Location

When academic stakeholders inhabit a common geographic region and experience the same disruptive event, they will likely process the experience through a common prism. Thus, it might be easier for a faculty member to develop trust and empathy for local students (who endured the same ice storm, flu infection, or electrical outages) than to fully appreciate the challenges faced by a student in a distant country who experienced a different set of challenges. Moreover, students who share a common circumstance such as infection by the H1N1 virus might be more understanding when their instructor, similarly stricken, is a week or two late in grading their work.

A future challenge for university administrative staff, faculty, and IT practitioners is to shift their focus from local, monochromatic disruptive events and adopt a perspective that envisions the disruptive, polychromatic events that variously affect students, faculty, and staff worldwide. Universities that serve online scholars worldwide might expand their website coverage of campus-based emergencies to global adverse events, for example. Course management systems could evolve to feature course-centric, self-managed global representations that provide:

  • Locations, current date, time, and weather for students and faculty members.
  • Local news feeds and highlighted regions of declared emergencies to facilitate class-wide situational awareness.
  • Areas to post comments, photos, and links (for example, to YouTube postings) detailing local challenges and conditions.

Finally, institutions and their faculty should rethink what constitutes equitable accommodations for students who experience disruptive events at both distant and local locations. Only then will their universities and courses be truly disruption resistant.


In the future, online courses will serve an increasingly global student audience and will be taught by faculty without geographic boundaries. While it is unlikely that universities can anticipate every type of disaster, disruption, or difficult circumstance that might interrupt or terminate an academic semester, we can strive to build disaster-resistant courses. IT practitioners with a global perspective will be key to envisioning new strategies to “connect the dots” during all phases of a disruptive event so that students and faculty worldwide can remain well informed and productive.


This work was supported in part by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR), Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center (RERC) on Telerehabilitation, Grant #H133E090002.

  1. See the web page Ready, sponsored by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Citizen Corps, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
  2. Ellen R. Cohn, George Klinzing, Irene Hanson Frieze, Susan M. Sereika, Clement A. Stone, and Clara M. Vana, “Academic Computing Vulnerabilities: Another View of the Roof,” EDUCAUSE Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 1 (2004), pp. 57–61.
  3. See Building a Disaster-Resistant University, FEMA; “Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication by Leaders for Leaders,” part of the course Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Disaster Preparedness and Response for Schools and Universities, National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, National Institute of Building Sciences.
  4. Leysia Palen, “Online Social Media in Crisis Events,” EDUCAUSE Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 3 (2008), pp. 76–78.