What is your Academic Continuity Plan?

How IT principles of disaster recovery and business continuity planning provide a powerful model for higher education.

Christina Perdikoulias, President, DigitalEd


TECHNOLOGY WITHOUT COMPROMISE

I've been very fortunate to work with inspiring thought-leaders across various industries within the enterprise software space, supporting incredibly knowledgeable customers with demanding requirements. Each new sector I encountered surfaced unique challenges to overcome, bringing with it a tremendous opportunity to learn and adopt best practices to add value to the next industry I met on my journey. My experience within the IT space was no exception.

Professionals in IT use terms such as resilience and fault-tolerance. They regularly measure and report on uptime and service levels, working tirelessly to evolve and support the technology infrastructure that their organizations rely on to conduct business and deliver on their commitment to their customers. While I learned a lot from these teams, what has taken root as a guiding principle for enterprise software is what I now refer to as Technology Without Compromise: Deliver the best of what technology can offer, without compromising strict standards of reliability, security, auditability, privacy, and data recovery in the case of unforeseen events. As a vendor, this is documented more formally in a Business Continuity Plan encompassing supported policies, disaster recovery plans and procedures, and global standards, delivered as a package to IT partners at customer sites, to help them understand how the service they rely on will be there when they need it.

Recently, we submitted our Business Continuity Plan to one of our customers to support the procedures and guidelines that make up the Academic Continuity Plan for their university. As we walked through the details with their IT team, it made me think; do our customers have the support they need to build their Academic Continuity Plans? What can we do to help them share and learn from best practices among their peers within the Higher Education community?




ACADEMIC CONTINUITY

Much like their counterparts in commercial enterprises, academic institutions take great care in ensuring they can deliver the services their customers (students, faculty, and staff) depend on continuously. An extended disruption can cause a multitude of problems for the institution, including reputational impact and general dissatisfaction if students cannot complete their degrees or prerequisite courses as planned, causing other cascading financial, employment, and academic planning impacts.

There is also the risk of considerable financial impact to the institution itself if students disengage and are no longer enrolled due to the disruption in Academic Services. With almost half of the revenue for public higher education coming from student tuition, it is imperative that students remain enrolled.



When preparing a Continuity Plan, whether it is for Business or Academics, ensuring the safety of the individuals impacted is paramount. As in any Disaster Recovery scenario, once personal safety is ensured, lines of communication recovered and restored, impact and damage assessed, the path back to 'normal' operation is on everyone's mind. While the full restoration of services could be a long journey, reducing the impact of the disruption can mitigate some of the adverse effects on the institution, its students, faculty, and staff.

Here at DigitalEd, we initiate our Business Continuity Plan for anything that causes an extended disruption of services. As we communicate the results of our Impact and Damage Assessment of the service disruption to our customers, our teams work on recovery and restoration activities, executing against our documented priorities, and engage with our partners to either mitigate the impact of the service disruption, or find a path to an alternative quickly. In either case, the priority after all safety and security precautions are confirmed, is to restore the value our service provides our customer.

Can we mirror these basic principles when considering Academic Continuity? Sure we can! In fact, that is the approach many of our partners have taken, modelling the structure of their Continuity Plans to long-standing Disaster Recovery paradigms adopted from IT professionals.

The scope of your Academic Continuity Plan can evolve as you develop your ecosystem of service partners, and establish a global understanding of essential services across the academic institution. Generally, the services you prioritize for continuity are determined by the outcome of a Continuity Impact Analysis exercise, where you collaborate with your stakeholders to decide what services should be included to mitigate the negative impact of a disruption to the academic experience.




MÖBIUS CUSTOMER STORIES

Our customers have used variations of these principles when faced with the challenge of ensuring continuous delivery of education for their students. They have found success under extreme circumstances such as school closings due to natural disasters and globally imposed quarantines, but also in the more localized scenarios where students are unable to take part in their education in person but do not want to fall behind and impact their academic progress.

When the University of Canterbury was impacted by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Christchurch, they faced a dramatic loss of 25% of its first-year students and 30% of their international students.4 Within the Mathematics department, the university used Möbius to offer the full academic program for their students, aiming to avoid any disruption to their classes and offer academic continuity to these students.

A more recent example comes from ISU Mongolia, where students used Möbius from home as a result of COVID-19 precautionary measures: "Recently our school closed due to the coronavirus spread in China. We started doing online schooling for the last 2 weeks. It works perfectly with my students."
B. Yadamsuren, ISU Mongolia. Note: Further to the current global COVID-19 crisis, the Online Learning Consortium has provided guidance for the academic community.5

The University of Waterloo has taken a different approach to Academic Continuity, enabling the infrastructure and processes for online learning on a continuous basis, and incorporating continuity principles into their standard curriculum, wherever possible. With the students participating in the Co-operative Education program at the university, they are offered the opportunity to continue taking courses while on their work terms, continuing to fulfill academic requirements, taking prerequisites, or participating in classes that may not be offered when they are scheduled to return to campus after their work term is complete.

What these schools and many like them have in common, is that they are considering various scenarios that may constitute academic disruption, and planning for these possibilities as part of the value they offer their students, making continuity of the academic experience a critical component of the service they provide.



LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

We have learned a lot from our customers, and continue to evolve our guiding principles to align with their needs and priorities. Our role within the greater education technology ecosystem is as a partner and enabler, allowing our customers to open up learning to their students from anywhere, on any device, with the flexibility to move payloads to maintain service levels when the circumstances call for it. Our multi-cloud infrastructure enables us to deploy instances globally, and we have further leveraged other cloud-native technologies for service resilience and fault-tolerance, such as automatic migration to other cloud locations and environments in the event of an extended outage, if that becomes necessary.

If you and your team have not yet established an Academic Continuity Plan, chances are your colleagues in IT have a great starting point for you to consider - you're likely not as far away as you think! You may find that they have general provisions for access to services in the event of disruption that students, faculty, and staff depend on, that go beyond emergency and safety alone. I also suggest you look to your peers for inspiration; Pace University, University of Oregon, and Cornell University are just three of the many institutions who have published their plans online, and offer different perspectives on how to approach Academic Continuity Planning.

Ask us how our current customers are using Möbius as part of their continuity strategy, and how we can help you build and support your Academic Continuity Plan.




  1. https://www.umass.edu/emergency/sites/default/files/UMass%20Amherst%20Guide%20to%20Academic%20Continuity%20Planning%20121814.pdf
  2. https://medium.com/kuali-ready/the-benefits-of-continuity-planning-for-higher-education-691027698963
  3. https://www.pace.edu/its/teaching-and-learning/academic-continuity-plan
  4. http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/5726614/Canterbury-Uni-invites-staff-to-resign
  5. https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/response-from-olc-qm-upcea-and-wcet-regarding-the-coronavirus-covid-19/

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