February 17, 2018

Your Campus Just Shut Down. Now What? | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

I recently attended a presentation by a representative from WIMBA, the company that sells collaborative online learning software to colleges and universities. WIMBA Classroom is a product that allows faculty to conduct synchronous learning activities with an online class; it is commonly integrated into course management systems. In the past I’ve used it to conduct virtual presentations or bring guest speakers into my online LIS courses. It can also be used for any basic online meeting.

The WIMBA representative was introducing a new add-on to the existing product, an instant messaging-like utility that would give faculty enhanced capabilities to communicate with online students. But we weren’t really that concerned about reaching our existing online learners. We were contemplating how our entire institution would continue to perform its educational mission in the event of a massive, campus-wide shutdown. Many institutions have developed emergency plans for pandemics, and with the current concerns about H1N1 we were revisiting how our faculty would keep classes intact should it become impossible to come to campus for a week or more.

Are you ready?
Think about it. It could be H1N1 or some other disaster or pandemic, but students still need to take their courses, learn and earn degrees. As they say, “the show must go on.” As difficult as it could be to imagine, we must force ourselves to seriously consider how our institutions could achieve some degree of “business as usual” in the midst of a crisis.

The good news is that many of our institutions now have the technology to mount a credible effort to operate in an online environment. A tool like WIMBA, or whatever your institution uses to support online learning, could allow faculty to connect with students and teach courses remotely. A big question, of course, is whether faculty could be adequately trained to quickly shift to online teaching, and could students unaccustomed to online learning adapt to an emergency learning system.

Keeping the library up and running
As I listened to the discussion among colleagues who’d gathered to see the demonstration, it was interesting to hear the different opinions on our state of readiness and ability to pull off something like this. I sat there thinking that if the worst happened, the library would be ready to deliver at least a minimum of service. After all, we already have the infrastructure to allow remote access to a significant number of electronic resources.

But is that all our community of users might want? What about answering reference questions and providing one-on-one consultations? How would instruction sessions be delivered from a remote location? I pondered how we would provide access to rare books—and for that matter how could we possibly even circulate a plain old book? There are any number of service needs that could go unmet during a total campus shutdown. Many of our libraries have disaster plan that dictate a short-term effort to recover from a fire or flood, but I doubt we academic librarians have thought through continuity of service, how we would meet those most basic needs involved in supporting the ongoing coursework of students or the research needs of faculty if our entire campus shutdown for some extended period of time.

What we could do
Besides providing access to databases, ebooks, and other online content what could the academic library do to support students during a campus shutdown? The phone, email, and IM reference services many libraries already offer would become even more valued in a campus shutdown, serving to keep open the lines of communication between the user community and the library workers. I do suspect that most libraries would need to commit more staff to monitor these services and keep them running around the clock as much as is feasible.

Providing access to the physical collection could be a real challenge if the library facility was locked down, but it’s quite likely that other libraries elsewhere would be in operation. Interlibrary loan activity could probably be maintained at a reduced level from off-site ensuring that some users could still have books delivered to their homes instead of the library.

And while it would involve some delicate coordination with faculty, librarians could use tools like WIMBA Classroom to deliver virtual instruction sessions. Of course, that depends on making sure that those who teach know how to access and use these online learning tools effectively. Taking advantage of online learning tools could make a difference.

Next steps
By no means do I intend for this column to create panic, nor do I believe we are about to experience some catastrophic pandemic. In fact, despite some early fall semester reports of students falling ill with H1N1, even significant numbers at some colleges and universities, to date no academic institution has completely shut down—and even those K-12 schools that have done so after an H1N1 scare are back in business quite quickly.

But I do think it is worth our time to sit down with colleagues and ask ourselves these questions, perhaps adding to our existing disaster plans some language addressing this type of continuity planning for how we would best serve our communities if our library building, our books and our learning commons were all intact, but we simply could not get to them physically. But you know how things tend to go in higher education—and maybe life in general. These matters tend to go ignored until something unfortunate happens, and when we realize just how unprepared we were we commit ourselves to being ready for the next time. That, I suppose, is what we call human nature.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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