Readying Higher Education for the Next Emergency - A National Plan for Academic Continuity

Burks Oakley II, Bekeela Watson, Melissa Winkel


Although some institutions of higher education (IHEs) have sophisticated emergency plans, most do not. Despite disruptions like the hurricanes of 2005 that profoundly impacted higher education, few IHEs have plans for continuing teaching, learning and research when physical presence is not possible. Today, advances in online education mean that the mission can continue, provided institutions plan for academic continuity of operations. Academic continuity planning substantially mitigates disruption and at the same time strengthens education. Such plans are possible via mutual assistance compacts among IHEs as well as their wide implementation assured with the support and endorsement of the Department of Education and the Department of Homeland Security. In this paper we present several strategic ideas about the role of online education in emergency situations. The argument is based on the Sloan Semester organized after the Hurricane Katrina.

Higher education aid to the Gulf Coast

When the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes caused IHEs to close1, the education of hundreds of thousands of students came to a standstill. Rescue and recovery efforts focused on food, shelter, healthcare, and basic human sustenance; impacted IHEs' efforts focused on restoring buildings and systems to reopen campuses, but they had few resources ready to continue classes and student services online. Higher education from outside the region found ways to help. For example, the American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC) brought its National Science Foundation-supported wireless internet connectivity to support academic continuity and other critical services (such as medical support, insurance claims, and emergency notifications)2.

The Sloan Semester

The Sloan Semester initiative, led by the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) and the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), focused specifically on academic continuity. Drawing on the expertise of institutions committed to widening access to learning via online education characterized by quality, scale and breadth3, the Sloan Semester responded with unprecedented speed, creating a consortial online campus of 150 institutions offering more than 1300 courses free of charge and support services that put students first4. Three weeks after the initial impact of Hurricane Katrina, the Sloan Semester virtual campus opened, and just six weeks after the storm, students were enrolled and participating in online courses. Despite all that was happening in the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast area, students were once again engaged in learning. The Sloan Semester demonstrated that online learning is able to sustain academic activities including advising, registration, financial aid, course equivalence, transcription, not to mention teaching and learning, during times of emergency.

Let us give just one example: Shawn Morris, a 40-year old mother of three, was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. When she evacuated her home, she brought her laptop along. As a result of the Sloan Semester, she was able to take a full course load online, free of charge. I just wanted to make sure I was still on track to graduate, said Morris. I have one semester left before I graduate, and I'm going to finish5.

Professors were impressed with the dedication of students like Morris. Sally Stablein, an instructor at the University of Denver who taught during the Sloan Semester commented, They do have a lot going on, and they do have distractions. However, you wouldn't know that in my classroom.

Lessons learned

However, despite the success of Sloan Semester, communications with students, faculty and administrative staff proved a significant barrier. Too few students knew about the Sloan Semester; some impacted institutions were slow to embrace the effort. For some students, difficulty arose from their unfamiliarity with online classes. Jessie S. Zeringue, who took three classes through the Sloan semester, expressed this sentiment. I work full time, and I have three kids, and this is all new to me, she said. This was the first time I ever took online classes. Other students expressed concern over getting books on time and living in a new city.

While weather-related disruptive events (earthquake, tornado, fire, and hurricane) of the magnitude of 2005 may be rare, others such as a pandemic or terrorist attack are not unimaginable. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education is aware that scientists are predicting a pandemic influenza outbreak and in response there is a focus on preparedness to prevent the spread of disease through "prolonged closures" of IHEs, yet there is no focus on academic continuity during such emergencies6 Prolonged closure, although a necessary action, does not address the needs of the hundreds of thousands of students to continue their academic pursuits from "safe zones". Thus, the academic community ought to learn from these experiences and, in response, actively plan to provide for continuity of operations by developing and participating in a system ready to respond to the next emergency. With this objective in mind, the Sloan C Higher Education Assistance Compact is proposed: to learn from the lessons of 2005, to ready higher education for the next emergency, to assist affected regions, and to develop a flexible and useful national plan for academic continuity.


Academic continuity is inextricably linked with emergency preparedness. However, whereas emergency preparedness in IHEs has traditionally focused on survival and IT activities, it is now clear that academic continuity online should also become a mission-essential priority. Online delivery enables IHEs to strengthen routine academic operations by investing first in networking infrastructures (both human and electronic), then in all-hazards planning, and then in specific hazards planning, as each affects academic continuity operations. IHEs should in particular:

  1. Emphasize academic continuity plans as an integral part of institutional strategy, focusing specifically on expeditious restoration of institutional websites and the implementation of an emergency operations center with leadership that has responsibility and authority to execute rapid response.
  2. Create alternative, redundant, always up, externally housed websites for emergencies.
  3. Publicize, train and test the emergency/continuation plan internally and externally to ensure all members of the community know their responsibilities.
  4. Continuously build network capacity, storage and backup capacity (bandwidth, servers, mirror sites, and partners), including scalable online courses with a goal of putting all courses online for continuity of home operations and for supporting others.
  5. Train faculty, support staff, and students for conversion to online delivery at any point in the semester should disruption occur.
  6. Partner via agreements to share curricula, faculty, students, platforms, student support services, resources and data.
  7. Develop guiding policies and obtain policy commitments from partners, vendors and for personnel and students, including policies for course transferability.
These steps for preserving teaching, learning, and research reassure people, improve institutional chances of survival, and protect resources.

Although some institutions can readily fortify emergency plans with academic continuity plans, many have insufficient resources. One way to increase resources is for national and regional organizations to join forces and build a national assistance compact and repository. Sloan-C envisions a Higher Education Assistance Compact with a board of advisors from leading academic and professional organizations to represent higher education constituencies' interests in national discussions about readiness. This would make it possible for various groups, including the Departments of Education and Homeland Security, to assure academic continuity via commitments that will:
  1. Make academic continuity a topic of national awareness and urgency, ensuring that academic continuity plans are widely implemented.
  2. Coordinate efforts among consortia and professional associations for IHE representation in nationwide emergency planning.
  3. Build a clearinghouse of resources for interactive academic continuity planning and mutual assistance compacts similar to the SLOAN C Higher Education Assistance Compact Clearinghouse. The main features and goals of this program are as follows:

    • First, provide a nationally recognized institutional resource with a secure "seat" at the state and national levels in emergency planning that member IHEs may access not only in times of or when preparing for a crisis that would allow for continuity of teaching and learning but also during times when no emergency is present.
    • Second, to be a virtual "mutual aid society" where member institutions could both provide assistance and access assistance. Membership would require an annual nominal fee and would be open to all regionally accredited not-for-profit IHEs, who could demonstrate emergency academic continuation plan and sufficient quality control of that plan. The relationships between member IHEs and other organizations such as the Department of Education, regional accrediting association and national education organizations would be key to the success of the program. Governance would occur via a national advisory board.
    • Third, to provide a "menu" of pre- and post-emergency services that an institution could request and the network of members would develop or design to respond to that request including but not limited to web emergency tutorials, faculty training and development, online course development, online courses, advising, library services and communication.
    • Fourth, to establish policies and procedures, agreed to in advance, that would reduce (or eliminate) several potential "barriers" that institutions (and their students) often face in a crisis, such as facilities exchange, the acceptance and transfer of coursework/credits, tuition, fees and financial aid as well as simulations and workshops.
Essentially, member IHEs experiencing a crisis would simply report what is needed, as well as when and where they are needed, to provide academic continuity during times of disruption.


Events that threaten the disruption of the mission of IHEs, although rare, are always present. Academic continuity compacts among higher education will mitigate disruption and assist recovery while at the same time strengthening IHE networks for civic, social, entrepreneurial and intellectual life. Given access to education is central to the quality of life in the United States, academic continuity should be a priority and IHE membership would work well towards accomplishing this goal.


We would like to thank Dr. Peter Boltuc for facilitating the completion of this paper for publication.



The author is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From 1997 until 2007, Oakley served as an Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Illinois. He was the founding director of the University of Illinois Online initiative, a program designed to facilitate the development and delivery of University of Illinois courses, degrees, and public service resources over the Internet. Professor Oakley has received numerous awards for his teaching and for his innovative use of technology in education, including the Luckman Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award from UIUC in 1993, the Outstanding Teacher Award from the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) in 1993, and the Sloan-C Award for the "Most Outstanding Achievement in Online Teaching and Learning by an Individual" in 2003.


The author is employed with the University of Illinois at Springfield. She has a B.S. in Broadcast Journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Master's in Public Health from the University of Illinois at Springfield. Bekeela was previously a contributing writer for Buzz Magazine and for Griot Literary Magazine, both in Champaign, Illinois. Currently, she is a volunteer editorial assistant for the American Philosophical Association Newsletter.


The author is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Springfield where she received a B.A. in Philosophy Summa Cum Laude. She has been a contributing writer for the American Philosophical Association Newsletter.



1 See The Chronicle of Higher Education interactive map for data on institutions and enrollments affected in the Gulf Coast: [08.04.2009]. The Chronicle continues to follow the many unforeseen consequences of disruption, including staff and faculty layoffs and related legal suits, departmental closings, mission redesigns, insurance claims, and long lasting impacts on students, see [08.04.2009].

2 American Distance Education Consortium drew on considerable emergency response experience among its 65 state universities and land grant colleges including Historically Black Institutions and Tribal colleges, [08.04.2009].

3 The Sloan Consortium:; the Southern Regional Education Board's Electronic Campus: www.electroniccampu.... [08.04.2009].

4 Details about the Sloan Semester are online: Additional SREB actions and information are available at The Southern Regional Board Electronic Technology Cooperative: [08.04.2009].

5 More students' opinions on distance education following Hurricane Katrina: [08.04.2009].

6 U.S. Department of Education pandemic emergency planning is available at: [08.04.2009].