Setting up Emergency Remote Teaching

In the summer of 2019/2020, based as I was in Canberra, I experienced a series of campus based emergencies from the bushfires and a subsequent icestorm extreme weather event. So at the ANU, where I was based, we started the 2020 season with a certain level of emergency experience.

The whole of 2020 demonstrated that all educators need to have an “In case of emergency, break class” game plan in their teaching designs.  Irrespectively of whether you’ve set for an online-by-design experience, Emergency Remote Teaching kicks into effect when an emergency kicks the game plan out the window. 

Here are a series of considerations with regards to Emergency Remote Teaching

  • Any Emergency Teaching occurs in parallel to an emergency.  Trauma is not a design feature. The emergency driving us to use remote teaching is going to result in student and staff experiences of trauma, and these need to be mitigated as best possible. The course will not by 100% comparable to a designed online experience conducted under non-emergency conditions.
  • People first, technology second: Empathy beats technology every time when it comes to finding a solution to an Emergency Pivot. If in doubt, embrace the doubt. Is it uncertain times? Communicate the uncertainty to your students, peers and staff. The word unprecedented exists for a reason, and when it’s in high circulation, be kind to yourself and others.
  • Future Emergency Remote Teaching will incur some now predictable challenges: Staff and student privacy will remain an issue as we are broadcasting from home settings. Accessibility of content as we move to digital platforms will be impacted by the digital divide as home access to internet may not match equivalent presumed access through the university. Depending on the nature of the emergency, bandwidth may be restricted, power may be intermittent, and access to the Emergency Remote Teaching may not be guarantee-able for you, your staff and/or a portion of your students.
  • Emergency Remote Teaching is not the same as online learning.

Learning from Experience

A central design principle for Emergency Remote Teaching is to operate to the principle of Good Practice ahead of Best Practice.  The circumstances will be non-ideal, the conditions will be uncertain, and any pivot actions will be made under pressure with the absence of projections and data and reviewed in more relaxed conditions with the benefit of evidence and hindsight. 

From the AHE workshops, including insights from Hong Kong Universities, COVID-19 lockdowns, and our experience with the bushfire, ice storms and the campus lock out, there are four steps recommended: 

Step 1: Establish the Minimum Viable Learning Outcome

Assume that if the worst-case scenario worsens, which are the learning outcomes that students could attain that could be measured through an assessment task? What constitutes the barest minimum outcome that would indicate competency in the subject from a student?

Several questions that can help triage an emergency pivot to remote teaching include

  • Can this learning outcome be assessed remotely? If it can’t, does it need to be assessed?
  • Will a similar learning outcome be assessed in a complimentary program?

Treating the semester as a holistic event is important for determining if it is your subject’s role to cover this learning outcome in the program, or if you can spare the requirement in the emergency conditions.  Once having established the key areas to cover following the pivot, move to Emergency Remote Teaching

Step 2: Activate the Pivot to Emergency Remote Teaching:

The presence of a crisis or lockdown period does not create additional free time.

Flexibility is needed to compensate for the uncertain circumstances – deadlines may need to be extended, revised or scrapped depending on the broader social circumstances, and the specific personal context for the student.  Similarly, special consideration is an additional level atop the flexibility, as circumstances that will have students using Education Access Plans, disability services and student support facilities will most likely be significantly worsened by the crisis. 

Students, staff, and support teams may also face a motivation challenge due to the external forces creating the crisis situation. It’s hard to prioritise marking when the world’s ending again. A crisis impacts on your capacity to assess your own resource state, your own time to complete tasks and your reserves of concentration, focus and general well being.

For pivoting to emergency response, the following good practice advices comes from UK, Europe and Hong Kong Universities:

  • Pivot by using existing resources within the Learning Management Site: Use what is familiar to the students through the university, and if it can be done through your local LMS, then your University can support the students directly. If it can’t be achieved through the University provided systems, ask if it’s really necessary to be done during this crisis?
  • Reduce cognitive bandwidth requirements.  The pivot during a crisis means a crisis is occurring, and will occupy the thoughts of your students. Reduce the need to learn new technologies, new techniques or additional skill sets where possible. Some pivots require changes in skill sets (eg Zoom meetings), however all new skill sets take up cognitive bandwidth that was previously available for assessable activity.
  • Reduce assessment where possible, consolidate tasks within an assessment item if attainable, and considering the Minimum Viable Learning Outcome approach to ascertain what must be assessed, and what can be postponed for later consideration. Apply flexibility to deadlines and empathy to students – establish a ‘final point of submission’ due date to allow people to recover from circumstance and still complete as much coursework as possible.
  • Enable asynchronous learning and assessment to compensate for potential network instability, future challenges (eg unavailability of campus or class) and the instability of current conditions.  When conditions are positive for your own preparations, prepare as far in advance as you can to establish a backup plan for the subject if your conditions change.
  • Reduce network bandwidth requirements.  Provide lower resolution videos if possible or establish downloadable content ahead of relying on streaming services. Assume users will need to access content via mobile phone, low grade WIFI, or limited opportunity.  Prioritise text over audio, audio over video, pre-recorded video over live events.

Step 3: Document any changes invoked due to the Emergency Remote Teaching Conditions

Any changes made during an Emergency Pivot need to be documented at the point of pivot, to ensure that a post-crisis review of the subject will still allow for what was achieved to be accredited.  During the crisis, the desire to write down and justify change will be limited, compared to the desire to make changes and implement them.   Committing the decision making to writing is useful for post-crisis review, including any assumptions held at the time regarding duration of crisis, likely impacts on students, and pivots in assessment.

When documenting the changes, the aim is to consider, and document against, a range of possible outcomes including:

  • Providing additional choice: Can we provide options and alternatives to replace a single task to meet the crisis conditions facing the students?
  • Providing agency to students: Does the student body have the opportunity or expertise to provide suggestions? Can we act on those changes to create buy-in from the impacted parties?
  • Active Adjustments: What changes did we need to make to be able compensate for loss of face-to-face engagement?
  • No Detriment Change: Can we establish if our changes could lead to detrimental impacts on the students, and if so, can we adjust to ensure that the Emergency Remote Teaching pivot does not jeopardise the student’s success later in the programme or potential career path?
  • Workload Impact: What can be done to reduce procedural labour for students? What can be enabled by default to reduce paperwork, applications for special consideration, necessary extensions. Can we establish a Crisis Impact Education Access Plan (EAP) for the whole of the subject to recognise the impact of the crisis, and the compensatory changes needed?
  • Student centre empathy: What level of institutional humanity can be exhibit during the crisis, because of the crisis, and going forward from the crisis resolution? 
  • Point of Review: When making the changes, can we establish sunset clauses such as situational points where the changes will revert to pre-crisis, or review points where changes may be integrated into future offerings?

Step 4: Post-Crisis Recovery and Review

Following the recovery period, any post-crisis review should focus on the following principles of:

  • Did the actions reduce immediate risk of harm? Leave no one (further) behind rule: Did the course pivot essential do no further harm to the cohort in what requirements were made of them for the
  • Honesty and transparency in communication, including communicating uncertainty and corrections: On review, given the benefit of hindsight now in the review, did we convey the limits and assumptions of our decision making with clarity?