Distance Education's Role in University Disaster Planning

By Watkins, Ryan | Distance Learning, November 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Distance Education's Role in University Disaster Planning


Watkins, Ryan, Distance Learning


For many of us, watching the recent television coverage of the devastating hurricanes along the Gulf Coast has once again shaken our perceptions of security and motivated us to review our personal emergency preparedness plans. From evacuation strategies to long-term access to financial resources, the plight of residents from the hurricane-stricken areas illustrated the potential weaknesses in many of our plans.

Likewise, for colleges and universities the events that followed these natural disasters demonstrated the important role that disaster preparation must take in the strategic plans of institutions. Although hurricanes may not be a likely threat for all colleges and universities, from tornadoes and earthquakes to industrial accidents and terrorism, institutions must plan for a variety of emergency scenarios that could impact students, staff, and faculty.

Among the most visible examples of challenges faced by the colleges and universities along the Gulf Coast are those of Xavier, Loyola, and Tulane Universities, for which Hurricane Katrina came at a time when students were just returning to campus. But other institutions, including universities, colleges, and community colleges in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Florida have also struggled to provide for the security of their students and employees, as well as maintain a continuity of services that will provide for the long-term financial stability of the institution.

Revenue from student tuition is the lifeblood of most any college, and for schools stricken by disasters the future often depends on maintaining student enrollments and tuition payments. Fortunately, with today's technologies, no longer are colleges tied to campus facilities to offer learning opportunities to students who are displaced by emergencies or disasters. In meeting these demands, online courses and programs are commonly poised to provide essential services for institutions looking to maintain their continuity of services during and after disasters.

While effective emergency preparedness plans integrate a variety of pre-, during-, and postdisaster elements, there is an emerging role that distance education can play in the development of systemic disaster plans. Many distance education programs offer institutions valuable communications infrastructures that are accessible by students, faculty, and many staff members at most any location. Consequently, distance education resources can be utilized to provide stable and consistent learning platforms even when campus-based services are suspended. From a 3-day closer of a campus to the many months that are required to mend from a large-scale disaster, educational technologies are often flexible enough to assist institutions in responding to various emergency scenarios.

Since many distance education programs operate on Web-based delivery systems (such as, Blackboard, WebCT, or eCollege) that are typically not maintained on-campus, their access and operational requirements are less likely to be impacted by the ravages of a disaster. This can provide institutions with a stable environment in which to provide students, faculty, and staff with essential two-way communication channels throughout a disaster and the subsequent recovery efforts. Even following largescale disasters, access to the Internet has now become a mainstay of relief efforts provided by government and charity organizations.

In addition, the flexibility of distance education resources to provide meaningful learning opportunities to students who are located (or re-located) to most any location offers colleges and universities the opportunity to provide continuing services to students. As a result, with some preparation colleges and universities could be better able to maintain student enrollments and provide superb learning opportunities to students in most any academic field.

The following are suggestions for integrating distance education with institutional emergency preparedness planning:

OFFSITE TECHNOLOGY INFRASTRUCTURE

The technology infrastructure that maintains the communications and e-learning applications of the institution should be housed in off-campus facilities that are not likely to be impacted by emergencies or disasters at primary campus locations.

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