Three savvy universities are leveraging technology to inoculate their campus operations against potential pandemic.
Just What the Doctor Ordered
- By Dian Schaffhauser
AS INFLUENZA ACTIVITY throughout the United States continues its gradual rise, H1N1 in particular has been the
risk-management topic of the season for most colleges and universities. Among the questions
being asked: Can we continue operations in the event of a campus closure? What
if a faculty member is too sick to teach? What if students refuse to come to class for fear
of flu exposure? While swine flu may not become the pandemic it initially was projected
to be, many institutions are leveraging technology-- including systems already in
place-- to keep campus operations going in the event of a flu closure or other emergency.
Pandemic-Planning Test Run
When a residential student at Jackson State University (MS) was diagnosed with the
H1N1 virus last fall, Curtis Johnson, director of the Office of Accountability and Coordination,
saw a ready chance to test out the university's pandemic preparations.
The student was moved to an on-campus hotel that will be used in the event of a pandemic
for housing sick people whose homes are outside the area. Campus physicians and
the health center were on call for medical care. For meals, the student could review the
online menu for the day and send an e-mail to a designated person who then arranged for
meal delivery. Meals were charged against the student's meal plan.
It doesn't stop there. The university, which has about 8,300 students (most commuters),
a staff of 1,200, and a faculty of 450, also has identified the least populated
residence hall as a backup facility, should the hotel fill up. If sick students lack computers
but feel well enough to get online, the university is ready to supply laptops.
Many of Johnson's staff-- which includes campus operators, the events manager,
customer-care people, and emergency-management personnel-- have had their PCs
outfitted with webcams to enable face-to-face conversations with others should physical
interactions not be possible.
Johnson and campus leaders began planning shortly before the start of the school year.
Although HIN1 was only in a few states at the time, it appeared to be "on the rise," he
explains. "I convened teams to talk about how prepared we were. I asked, where is each
unit in its preparations for H1N1? I asked the teams to submit to me what would happen
in their units if they're exposed to the virus."
THE PENN STATE College of Medicine (on the campus of the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, shown above) is recording 700 lectures a year-- every course that's offered to medical students.
Johnson put out a request to the academic
provosts asking that they plan for
extra class sessions at night or on the
weekend, to help recovered students
catch up. If a large number of faculty
members become sick, but not so ill
they can't teach, Jackson State is ready
to move classes online through the university's
Blackboard Learning System
CE (formerly WebCT) implementation.
And if they're too sick to teach, adjunct
professors are ready to step in as temporary
Students at Finger Lakes Community College are making connections in Second Life and on Facebook.
In the event that staff must work from
alternative locations, Johnson made reciprocal
arrangements with universities in
Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and
Alabama to provide office space. In the
works is a 12-seat call center on campus
to handle incoming calls should a major
outbreak or some other emergency occur.
Should a student suspect his or her
roommate is ill but not doing anything
about it, the university has implemented
Red Flag, an incident-reporting system
from RiskAware that allows for anonymous
And the preparations continue. As
recently as September 2009, the university
adopted the Everbridge Aware emergency
notification system. Like most
such services, this one provides for webbased
alert initiation; sends messages in
a multitude of formats, including e-mail,
instant messaging, text messaging, and
fax; allows for pre-recorded messages
and notifications to groups of participants;
and gives near real-time feedback
on broadcast results. But Johnson chose
the system particularly for its polling
capabilities. "For example," he explains,
"if I send out a campuswide alert--
'Press one if you're experiencing flu-like
symptoms; press two if you're not'-- then
the system will tabulate that for me when
Eventually, he says, the notifications
will be integrated with other on-campus
mechanisms, including alarm systems,
call boxes, loudspeakers, and electronic
messaging and digital signage.
Those alerts also will go to nearby
residents, if Johnson has his way. Plans
include outfitting each neighborhood
association in the vicinity of the campus
with a computer and encouraging them
to get members to sign up for the alerts.
"If we have a pandemic, I'm going to
make sure that the community knows,"
he insists. "I don't want any guessing
going on out there. You want to guide
SINCE THE BLACKBOARD CMS is a core component of George Washington U's academic-continuity preparedness plan, the school has ramped up faculty and staff training on the platform.
For Johnson, in his role as chief
accountability officer, technology provides
the critical link between intention
and realization of emergency planning
around events like an H1N1 outbreak.
"Those of us in institutions of higher
learning must understand the importance
of having a good technological
infrastructure and people who are knowledgeable
about technology," Johnson
advises. "People must understand there
are many, many ways to infuse technology
into the challenges you have."
Medical Lectures on Tap
To help with pandemic planning at the
Penn State College of Medicine, Russell
Scaduto, Jr., an associate professor
of cellular and molecular physiology as
well as director for the college's education
technology office, recently polled
the members of an IT student committee.
He asked them: "In case of a pandemic,
if you feel somewhat sick and
don't want to come in, what should we
do to keep you actively engaged?"
Their responses: Give us access to
e-mail, access to course materials
through the college's Angel Learning
Management Suite, and access to lectures
through Mediasite, a lecture capture
system from Sonic Foundry.
Mediasite-- which captures video,
audio, and computer screens and makes
them available for playback on a PC or
mobile device-- has been in use at the
university for about five years and in
the medical curriculum for about three
years. During that time, the medical college
has built up a repository of more than 4,000 recorded hours of materials,
including seminars, lectures, and medical
Now the college records about 700 lectures
a year-- every course that's offered
to medical students. That process has
been facilitated by automation behind
the scenes. Lecture capture is initiated
without the faculty member having to
turn anything on. "It's all on a schedule,"
Scaduto says. "We know that at 1 pm Dr.
Smith is giving a lecture. [Mediasite]
turns on on the hour, then shuts off five
minutes before the hour. So it's a 55-
minute recording. Then it's automatically
published. The only thing we have to
be absolutely sure of is that the professor
is using a microphone."
Even in that event, if the professor
forgets to pick up the microphone or
fails to wear a lavalier mic, students
remind the faculty member to do so.
Without audio, Scaduto points out, the
recording of the lecture is useless. And
failure isn't an option. "Our tolerance
for error is no tolerance," he says.
If a Jackson State University student suspects his or her roommate is ill, an incident-reporting system allows for an anonymous tip-off.
Scaduto also notes, "We have a very
small group of people who never show
up [to class]. But we've always had that,"
he explains, adding that a couple of years
ago, the student who was number one in
one particular class never went to any
lectures in person. What's of greater
interest to Scaduto is another group of
students that's beginning to surface:
those who, if they don't like going to a
class, know the lecture is going to be
there in Mediasite. "It's put a burden on
us to make sure we have zero failures. We
have to make sure these work."
The Mediasite installation already has
proven itself in a health-related emergency,
though one unrelated to H1N1. As
Scaduto explains, during the last school
year a professor became seriously ill
about a week before he was scheduled to
deliver lectures to about 150 first-year
medical students. With the faculty member's
permission, the lectures he had
delivered in the previous year's class were
made available for the current year. "Then
what we did was put another faculty
member in the room. He mentored those
lectures," Scaduto recalls. "He was there
to try to answer questions. If he didn't
know an answer, he'd find it out." The lectures
also were available online before
and after the scheduled class.
Managing the Pandemic Risk
ANTHONY HERNANDEZ, managing director with
Smart Business Advisory and Consulting, which consults with colleges
and universities on risk management, offers four
tips for how to approach business-continuity
planning around a pandemic scenario or any
other cataclysmic event that could beset your
- Cross your functions. Hernandez sees
business-continuity planning being led primarily
by people in IT and facilities planning. And while
it may begin there, it shouldn't end there. Make
sure to include administration, advancement,
finance, and other departments. "Ideally somebody
from the president's office or somebody
very senior can be the champion and delegate.
It can't become the responsibility of one department
if the entire university needs to be considered
as part of the planning," asserts Hernandez.
- Don't reinvent the wheel. The institutions
Hernandez consults with are all at different
stages of the planning process-- and some, he
says, are "pretty far along." He recommends looking
to peer institutions for advice and guidance.
- Don't become mired in technology. Hernandez says many clients have the mindset
that because an important function is handled
through an application or some automated
process, downtime must be minimal. Yet going
down the path of automation-- which often
requires fault-tolerant systems-- can get quite
pricey. "You'd be amazed," he says, "at how easy
business continuity becomes if you remove that
constraint." He encourages institutions to ask
themselves: "Could we perform this function at
the university without technology for a certain
amount of time-- a week or two-- using manual
forms and a paper process?"
- Assume not all risk is equal. Like much of
institutional planning, risk management should
prioritize risks. As Hernandez explains, "Most
people think about [risk management] in terms
of technology. But it's not [about] your most
important technology. It's about figuring out what
your most important business processes are, and
then what technologies support those."
But the college's concerns for pandemic
preparation don't stop at making
sure Mediasite is up and running. The
IT organization has increased the institution's
bandwidth capability, in the
event that more people need to work
from home. "The bandwidth utilization
for Mediasite is fairly low," Scaduto
says. "It's probably around 200 to 250
kilobits per second-- it's not a lot. But if
you multiply that times 150 [students], it
could get pretty high. That's assuming
that everybody is watching [a recording]
at the same time, which is unusual."
All of the pandemic planning that
encompasses technologies such as lecture
capture is built around the assumption
that students who have the flu will
get online and do work from home.
"We're telling people here, if you feel
sick and you think you're sick, stay
home. Don't come [to school] because
you're endangering others. Under those
conditions, people would at least keep
up with e-mail and watch a lecture now
and then," Scaduto insists. "Because
catching up is hard."
As he points out, "The first year of
medical school is nothing short of hell.
It's very, very intense. It's nonstop. You
can't just take a week off and get away
with it like you could when you were an
undergraduate. So students appreciate
everything you can provide to them to
help them in their environment. We look
at Mediasite as a part of a larger portfolio
that we use for education. It has
become an integral part of the fabric of
Getting Faculty up to Speed
George Washington University (DC)
is operating under three assumptions
regarding its response to H1N1 and seasonal
flu, according to P.B. Garrett,
assistant vice president and deputy CIO
for academic technology. First, continued operation of the university is essential.
Second, the full array of university
support services will be available to students,
faculty, and staff. Third, everybody
is expected to work together in a
collegial manner to continue to hold
classes and to continue research projects
throughout the semester.
"We've put a lot of thought into what
something like this might look like if it
ever happens," she says.
The use of the Blackboard course
management system (CMS) has surfaced
as a key part of that response, since it
provides a platform for faculty and students
to interact and collaborate online.
The use of Blackboard, which started at
GW in 2002, would allow people-- both
students and faculty-- showing flu symptoms
to stay home but still continue participating
in courses at some level. "The
Blackboard platform is a core component
of our academic-continuity preparedness
plan," explains Yordanos Baharu, director
of GW's Instructional Technology
Laboratory. "Which makes sense since
so many use it on a daily basis."
Yet, in any institutional setting,
unless it's mandated (and even then),
getting faculty to use a CMS isn't guaranteed.
Baharu estimates that, in any
given semester, about 70 percent of faculty
members have an active Blackboard
course. That's not a bad participation
rate, but it's not high enough in the case
of a health pandemic. So Baharu and his
staff set about getting more faculty into
the Blackboard fold with a redesigned
Although the IT lab offers workshops
on the use of the CMS every year-- the
latest release in use is Blackboard Learn
version 8-- in response to pandemic
planning in 2009, Baharu and his staff
focused the offerings to be very specific
and ran more of them during a concentrated
period. Also, to make sure the
workshops targeted what faculty wanted
to learn, they put out a self-assessment
survey to gauge faculty training needs.
"Part of what we're doing in training
is getting faculty to think about Plan B.
With this plan, we're confident that we
can mitigate potential disruptions and
provide students and faculty the support
they need to continue teaching with
During the month of September, the
focus was on level-one training for people
who had never used Blackboard
and needed to get to minimum usage
requirements. That introductory training
encompassed two two-hour sessions.
The first focused on teaching how
to post course materials or reading
materials for students. The second session
taught participants how to use the
built-in communication tools to customize
the course; post documents; and
effectively communicate with students,
using the e-mail functionality within
Blackboard or the discussion boards.
Initially, discussion boards were considered
an advanced topic. However, the
self-assessment survey helped the IT lab
reassess the contents of the level-one
workshop by establishing that respondents
considered discussion boards an
important part of introductory training.
Level-two training covered advanced
usage of discussion boards, as well as
accepting electronic submissions of
assignments and homework, using testing
features and the gradebook within Blackboard,
creating blogs and wikis within the
Blackboard environment, and other topics
having to do with other classroom
technologies, such as lecture capture.
At the same time, members of the
staff-- particularly administrative assistants
and graduate assistants-- also
attended training, as Baharu says, "to
broaden the support structure we have
The effort has paid off. The university
estimates that about five percent more
faculty have begun using Blackboard
in their courses since the fall training
Faculty training on George Washington U's Blackboard system not only prepares the campus for a pandemic event, but also ensures continued use of the CMS-- and thus a return on that investment.
"We did have some faculty in the
beginning say, 'I don't need to come to
a Blackboard workshop, because I'm
teaching dance and I don't see how it
could help me,'" recalls CIO Garrett.
Nevertheless, the university convinced
"some of those folks [to] come and learn
about the communication features" to
make their course managements tasks
more convenient, says Garrett. These
tasks included pulling student e-mail
addresses from the SunGard Higher
Education Banner student information
system in lieu of the manual entry some
faculty had been doing; posting a syllabus
for instantaneous availability to
all students; and canceling a class and
immediately notifying each student.
But it shouldn't take the threat of a pandemic
to get institutions to wring value
out of their technologies, Garrett points
out. "The truth is, these learning management
systems are not inexpensive.
You might get one-time funding for a
pandemic-type event [because] everyone
is concerned. However, the major impact
of H1N1 to a university may be gone
[within a few months]. Yet Blackboard is
considered a mission-critical application
and thus it doesn't go away. You need to
always keep a large percentage of your
faculty trained and adopting and continuing
to use your learning management system,
to get your ROI on your investment."
Baharu echoes Garrett, explaining
that, for the IT lab, the complete utilization
of the school's technological infrastructure
is "not just about the
pandemic. Our plan is set more within
the broader context of business continuity
at the university."
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