Three savvy universities are leveraging technology to inoculate their campus operations against potential pandemic.

Just What the Doctor Ordered

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."

Just What the Doctor Ordered: Business Continuity in Flu Season

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 replacements.

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 reporting.

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 people respond."

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 what's said."

Just What the Doctor Ordered: Business Continuity in Flu Season

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 grand rounds.

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 institution.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?"
  4. 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 that portfolio."

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 training program.

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 Blackboard's system."

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 on campus."

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 initiative.

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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