Pandemic Flu and the Web 2.0 University

Washington State University is going through an exercise to plan for a pandemic and the dispersion of faculty and students without canceling classes or closing the university (we don’t want to refund tuition). The thinking is along the lines of moving all the current face-to-face courses into WebCT and continue online. Presently there are 3500 group instruction course sections/semester (not counting thesis and other individualized directed study classes) and currently ~1000 are being offered or supplemented in WebCT. The question is, how would the university add by ~2500 sections in the run-up to a pandemic outbreak?

If we start the scale up now, moving all sections online, we could develop a deliberate process and given time, move each course, including providing the training, etc. needed. Ideally, we would include course design work in the process with the goal of improving the learning outcomes of the courses while we were at it.
If we wait until the next flu season and an immenent declaration of an emergency, there does not seem to be any way to expect that we could scale up the hardware or the faculty training, especially given that some of the key people might become sick themselves.

So assume the university could decide to, and successfully go down the deliberate scale-up path. We need to consider that WebCT and the WSU campus network are potential single points of failure. Individual students or faculty might also experience single points of failure with their ISPs. Using a traditional model of an online course: readings, PowerPoint, video/audio streaming, and quizzes, etc., we probably need to conclude that because of the multiple single points of failure many students will not be able to complete their course work during the diaspora.

Is there another model of a collaborative, adaptive group that:

  • has a clear goal and can recognize (self- & peer-critique) progress toward the goal,
  • uses multiple redundant communications channels and has ways of changing communication channels to meet changing circumstances,
  • can continue to function with breakdowns in its command structure, or without one,
  • where individuals can continue to function when the group is out of communications, and
  • can recognize members of the group by some sign without a central authority providing introductions?

Does this sound like a Smart Mob? Or a terrorist cell? Or a military unit? What can we learn from those organizations and how would it apply to designing a university that would function during a pandemic?

Pandemic as teach-in

Rather than an obstacle to overcome, what if we were to say that the pandemic is itself an authentic learning opportunity for our students. Each university course could create a learning goal that tied to the pandemic, i.e., the sociology of pandemic, microeconomic impacts of pandemic, women’s history and pandemic, etc, etc.

Students would be charged with undertaking activities, individually and as collaborative groups relative to the subject and their personal situation. The course assessment would be using a pre-published rubric (such as the critical thinking rubric) and the artifact to assess would be a portfolio chronicling the student’s activity and learning during the pandemic event.

To manage the communications problem, a Web 2.0 approach needs to be designed. Tags and keywords would be agreed in advance (much like secret handshakes or signs) and these would be used to mark items on the web. Since single points of failure might cripple any single system, learners would use multiple systems, such as Wikipedia, Google Groups, Facebook groups, Blogger,, etc and create resources marked with the tags. Users would also be asked to post pointers in one system to resources in another, for example, in the Facebook group a user who found resources in would post a copy of the links found in That way, if any given system is out, or any given user offline, others have ways to work around the outage.

When the pandemic is over, instructors ask students to complete their portfolios, including copies or links to appropriate resources and a reflection on how those resources give evidence to their deeper understanding of the relationship between the course topic and pandemic. Assessment is by the rubric.

11 Responses to “Pandemic Flu and the Web 2.0 University”

  1. Theron Says:

    I’m wondering if it would be helpful to mock up a pandemic curriculum packet for students. This would also be helpful as a resource when attempting to get buy in from faculty. What are other considerations to move forward?

  2. Sharon Says:

    An excellent plan. I imagine the next step will be to find someone to try it out before the pandemic hits, yes? if not faculty, perhaps a group of like-minded educational developer/collaborative technology specialists? Maybe they could start a shared research project… hmmm ….

  3. One small step for man » Blog Archive » Course Packet: Open in case of Pandemic Flu Emergency Says:

    […] This is the course packet that derived from my previous analysis on Pandemic Flu and the Web 2.0 University. […]

  4. Janis Hall Says:

    Nice summary. I’m wondering if the University invested in space in a virtual tool such as “Second Life” could that provide a common meeting space for students/faculty? I don’t know enough about “Second Life” to know how many courses it could actually handle or what the cost would be, but it might be worth exploring.

  5. nils_peterson Says:

    Janis, I am arguing that the university does not need to invest in anything, on campus or hosted. In fact, the use of several systems offers a redundancy and versatility that any one system can not match. Further, I suspect that a number of people on campus already are using one or more of the tools I mentioned, and would be more comfortable sticking with the familiar than learning the new.

  6. One small step for man » Blog Archive » ePortfolio as the core learning application Says:

    […] thinking about Pandemic Flu planning , we have looked at the multiple points of failure and proposed a loosely coupled teach-in, based […]

  7. nils_peterson Says:

    I just found Clarence Fischer’s post on using many pieces of Web 2.0 software in place of an LMS, cited in the recent ECAR “Web 2.0, Personal Learning Environments, and the Future
    of Learning Management Systems” by Niall Sclater, Open University (Volume 2008, Issue 13 June 24, 2008 )

    Its interesting that Fischer is implementing the kind of distributed solution for his regular teaching that I propose above for pandemic flu.

  8. One small step for man » Blog Archive » Starting to Twitter -- and I think I know why Says:

    […] Twitter been a phenomenon when I did my analysis for Pandemic Flu preparations, I think I would have added it as another of the recommended tools for keeping track of the class […]

  9. Pandemic flu, school closing and community learning « Community-based learning Says:

    […] Pandemic flu, school closing and community learning Posted on April 29, 2009 by Nils Peterson With President Obama preparing parents that the current pandemic flu may close schools and the Centers for Disease Control’s Guidance for Nonpharmaceutical Community Mitigation providing guidelines for school closure, it seems worthwhile to revisit my April 2007 analysis of how a university might respond. […]

  10. nils_peterson Says:

    Were I writing this now, I would add Twitter and a new tool I’m learning about ( as additional tools for communities to use to self- organize

  11. One small step for man » Blog Archive » H1N1 Flu Pandemic Preparations at Washington State University Says:

    […] Two years ago Washington State University was doing pandemic flu planning for the Avian Flu. The University was considering if it could respond to a closure mandated by the Governor by moving online. I wrote this piece looking at the potential single points of failure of the university’s technology and how Web 2.0 strategies m…. […]

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