Photo Edward J. Evans – Associate Vice President for Information Technology & Chief Information Officer at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi

How Education Can Continue When Nature Strikes


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Oct 05, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, known as the “Island University,” is located in South Texas near the Gulf of Mexico. It is home to 12,202 students who receive a quality education while enjoying white-sand beaches. Most of the calendar year is filled with sunny days, but the university is well prepared for any crisis that may develop.

Edward J. Evans serves as senior associate vice president for Information Technology & chief information officer for Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Evans is in charge of ensuring students, faculty and staff have access to technology during regular operations and during and after an emergency. The university uses a wide array of technology services to inform and facilitate communication within its campus. Blackboard LearnBlackboard Connect and Blackboard Intelligence played a critical role in communicating and engaging with the campus during Hurricane Harvey.

Evans spoke with Blackboard about his experience with Hurricane Harvey and the important role that Blackboard played in the safety of the university’s student and staff population.

Natural disasters and other disruptive events challenge universities to stay connected and engage faculty and students during a crisis. Safety is paramount. For higher learning institutions, the next challenge is to create a continuity of education plan that facilitates an environment that can meet student and faculty needs during and after a crisis.

For schools on the gulf coast, hurricane season is as routine as a fall semester. Students go about their day to day unaware that the university has integrated components of their normal activities into an emergency response and recovery plan.

Blackboard Connect and Blackboard Learn play an important role in the continuity of education plan at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

“People find comfort with plans and being prepared,” says Evans.

The Corpus Christi campus sits on an island off the Gulf Coast and has been designated a StormReady campus by the National Weather Service. This recognition acknowledges the university’s focus on communication, mitigation and community readiness in its emergency preparedness plans.

An adaptable emergency response allowed the university to activate parts of its plan during Hurricane Harvey which hit the Gulf Coast in August of 2017.

Continuity of education is life-saving according to a UN/Unicef Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) report, Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans For Institutions of Higher Education. INEE is a global network of practitioners and policy makers working to ensure all persons receive quality education and a safe learning environment in emergencies and post-crisis recovery. Members of INEE include USAID, UNICEF, World Vision, and other organization across the globe.

INEE created four foundation standards to guide education leaders in disaster preparedness, response and recover planning: Access and Learning Environment, Teaching and Learning, Teachers and other Personnel, and Education Policy.

1. Access and Learning Environment

A continuity plan creates a safe and secure environment that promotes the physical and mental health of all learners, teachers and educational personnel. Out of this environment, a network of access to critically needed health, nutrition, mental and protection services is provided.

2. Teaching and Learning

Appropriate training provides faculty with the knowledge to create a curriculum that is learner-centered, participator, inclusive and utilizes the appropriate evaluation methods.

3. Teachers and Other Personnel

The educational institution provides the appropriate compensation to personnel for the conditions of the work and provides adequate support. Education centers openly and transparently recruit and train faculty and staff.

4. Education Policy

Education authorities implement policies that prioritize continuity and recovery. It takes into account international and national standards, policies, laws and the learning needs of the affected population.

In the United States, a 2011 President Policy Directive guides the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE) national preparedness efforts and focuses around five core mission areas: Prevention, Protection, Mitigation, Response and Recovery.

• Prevention

Universities must implement preventive measures to keep threatening or actual incidents from occurring.

• Protection

Ongoing actions on campus protect people and property from a threat or hazard.

• Mitigation

Plans are implemented to reduce the likelihood of a threat and the education center works to ensure they maintain capabilities to eliminate or reduce the loss of life and property damage.

• Response

During a crisis or threat, a safe and secure environment is established to save lives and facilitate the transition to recovery.

• Recovery

Universities work with those affected and provide the ability to restore the learning environment.

The safety of students and personnel is the underlining mission of both the INEE and DOE in each area of focus.

From the start of the emergency and through the recovery, access to education creates a safe and consistent environment for student and education leaders. A natural network of support and a line of communication evolves through continuity of education initiatives.

When Hurricane Harvey was racing toward the Corpus Christi campus, university officials delayed the start of the school year by one week. “Those of us along the gulf coast take it very seriously,” said Evans. The university’s commitment to students and staff is outlined in their academic continuity document. Described as a critical element to minimize the effects of a disaster, the academic continuity plan is purposely fluid in order to mitigate any risk for students and faculty during an emergency.

A key component of that fluidity is the use of Blackboard Learn by students and faculty during normal school operations. Faculty receive clear instructions on how to transition from normal classroom operations to continuing education operations if the campus is closed. They begin by introducing Blackboard Learn in the classroom on the first day. The university encourages faculty to have the syllabus, grade book, and other critical information already in the system and through Blackboard Learn, every faculty member creates a course shell for each course.

By using Blackboard Learn, students have the same opportunity as if sitting in the classroom. According to Evans, faculty receive detailed instruction on how to have their online classroom in place before an evacuation.

The Office of Distance Education and Learning Technologies website houses the Blackboard login page and the continuity of learning links for students and faculty. The website walks students and faculty through steps on how to prepare for academic continuity during an emergency.

The university’s commitment to its students is illustrated in its efforts to educate and support faculty using online education. “We offer a certificate in best practices for online course design that is taught by our Office of Distance Education and Learning Technologies, so faculty can learn best practices for putting their courses together.”

While Blackboard serves as the university’s main tool in continuity of education, it also fulfills the critical role of the emergency alert system through Blackboard Connect. “We keep the systems confirmed at all times,” said Evans.

The university collects students’ contact information and corresponding information from employees. That information is housed in Blackboard Connect and updated weekly. The technology and consistency provided by Blackboard creates an environment for academia to adopt, adapt and continue during a crisis.

During a disaster, “The goal is not a major redesign. Hopefully the flow of things moves to online,” said Evans.

During any crisis, the university’s access to student records is critical. “As soon as the university came back from Harvey we were running reports to see where students were located and how many were affected. Understanding the likelihood that people were coming from affected areas helped to inform our response and make decisions.”

Blackboard Intelligence provides the university with a means to track student interaction in the classroom. Most importantly, it creates an opportunity for the university to identify students at risk.

Many of the university’s students live in Southeast Texas which was impacted by the hurricane. Using Blackboard Intelligence generated reports, the university was able to identify the geographical home of all its students. This intelligence provided the university’s administration with critical information in deciding when to reopen the university.

“How does this factor in the grand scheme of things? I don’t think we are doing things too differently than what students expect. Students are already familiar with using mobile devices and a variety of applications for interacting with friends, family, classes, and in some cases, work. This is part of the larger ecosystem that students are accustomed to working in.”

Questions of operational success and potential adjustments are raised as the university returns to normal operations. “Many people in IT are early responders- early reentrants into the university to help get things ready for the university. We had to be ready to engage faculty and staff and get their office computers set up. I am re-evaluating who I need back,” said Evans.

Faculty and staff engagement is also examined through Blackboard Intelligence reports. Students remain forefront in the mind of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi leaders. If students are dropping hours, then the university wants to determine if a response to that situation is needed. Reflecting on the last few weeks after Harvey, Evans commented, “We need to get past the storm and give students time. A lot of our students are coming from flooded areas.”

After an emergency situation, the continuity of education evolves as the university returns to normal operations. Blackboard Intelligence is used to monitor student activity including logins into Blackboard Learn and student payments or withdrawals.

Through crisis and in everyday situations, Blackboard Intelligence allows the university to understand more about its student population. It provides the university with a big picture view of the student body and core details to highlight any changes in the student population. This information provides administrative officials with the opportunity to implement or change current plans to meet students’ needs while achieving the university’s core mission. Administrators are able to understand more about a student based on their activities and can contact relevant departments to see how they can keep the student engaged.

Evans is particularly proud of the university’s decision to open a call center for students for the first time ever, in response to Hurricane Harvey. This provided students with one number to call to find out answers to any questions. Now that classes have started, and the number of calls has decreased significantly, students are being redirected to the appropriate offices for assistance.

Continuity of education depends on electrical power to run the devices. Being a certified StormReady campus means contracts are already in place in case the university generator goes dark. For further security, Blackboard Learn and other core services are hosted off campus.

Technology plays a critical role in implementing a continuity of education plan for students, faculty and the administration. The most important applications must be identified from a long list of university provided services.

When asked about the core pieces of software needed in an emergency and to implement into an academic continuity plan, Evans didn’t hesitate. “If I am picking out the things that we use from Blackboard off the top of my head, Blackboard Learn and Blackboard Connect have been a huge part of our emergency response plan and disaster response plan.”

“We have to have Blackboard Learn available.” In order for this to happen, the university must ensure that other systems are working. “Our day-to-day activities won’t work if these are not in place.” Timely information and communication help students and faculty stay connected and provides a means for the university to continue its core mission.

“On the other side, we need to be sensitive to whether in the midst of the disaster people have good data service. I had a number of coworkers who stayed in town to weather the storm. They were lucky to get text messages.”

During their planning exercises, university leaders asked, “What is our lowest barrier we want, or do we need multiple ways to communicate with people?” During an event, different mobile communication options may work with different people in the thick of it, according to Evans. “Utilities realize those services need to recover rather quickly, but we still need to be sensitive.”


Photos by: AFP – Eddie Seal