Here we go again: The Christchurch Earthquake versus the COVID-19 disruption to university teaching

By Erik Brogt (University of Canterbury)

On February 22, 2011, the second day of the first semester at the University of Canterbury, a destructive earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand. I was in a video conference on campus with colleagues elsewhere New Zealand. Apparently, my more than slightly distressed face remained frozen on their screens for some time, as we lost power and I wondered whether the five-story building I was in was going to collapse on me. Luckily, we had no catastrophic building failures and no casualties on campus that day. The campus was declared off-limits for several weeks as buildings had to be inspected, remediated, and recertified for human occupation. Suddenly, online teaching was our only option.

Fast forward nine years, and a distinct sense of déjà vu hit us when the Prime Minister announced a full lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, effective March 25, 2020, just a week-and-a-half before the University’s three-week term break. Once again, teaching and learning shifted fully online. So, how do these two responses to an emergency compare? There were many similarities, but also a lot of differences.

For me as an academic developer, in terms of the actual work, the differences between 2011 and 2020 were not that large. I supported colleagues with teaching and learning, in particular around assessment design and student engagement, and wrote and distributed resources. The colleagues from our E-Learning Support team were much more in the thick of both responses, dealing with the many technical and Learning Management System related issues that arise when suddenly a few thousand courses have to be made ready to be fully taught online. The main difference in 2020 was that I worked much more closely with E-Learning Support (I ended up informally seconding myself to the team), combining our skill sets, coordinating our efforts, and being much more pro-active and visible to the teaching staff, rather than just reactive.

On the logistics front, we were lucky in 2011 that our campus-based IT infrastructure survived relatively unscathed, meaning we could actually shift online. However, many of us did not have access to our teaching materials, or even our work desk-top computers, for several weeks, as they were in buildings that were unsafe to enter. In 2020, the IT wasn’t an issue: we had a fully functioning, and a much more cloud-based infrastructure. Unlike the earthquake, we got advanced warning of the impending lockdown so we could take everything we needed home. We were also lucky with the timing: the lockdown happened just before the term break, so the university moved the break forward a bit. This gave us three weeks to prepare for the shift online.

In 2011, with the extensive damage to the city infrastructure, many students had to rely on weak internet connections and dial-ups. We advised staff against using extensive video, or if needed, to keep video to ‘podcast’ length, so that students would have an opportunity to download the files successfully. There was a strong sense (and peer pressure) within the community to keep the use of data to a minimum, so that the (damaged) mobile phone towers would be available for emergency services. In 2020, we had an intact and more advanced internet and mobile communications infrastructure, which allowed us to use more and more varied teaching delivery and interactions with students online. While bandwidth and connection issues still exist, they are now more limited to rural areas. Another problem that was still present is the quality of gear the students have. In 2020, we spent quite a bit of effort identifying students’ hard- and software needs and sent loaner laptops by courier to students who needed it, something we couldn’t do in 2011.

Technology has of course advanced tremendously since 2011. Mobile phones are ubiquitous, and many educational software applications for computer and phone have become available and/or matured. For example, Zoom did not exist in 2011, and video conferencing was much more cumbersome. Audacity was our tool of choice to record lectures (at our kitchen tables) and make them available through the Learning Management System. I don’t quite recall why, but I suspect it was the software tool that was available and/or we had a site licence for. For many staff, the learning curve to shift online was quite steep in 2011, and this was compounded by ongoing stress of aftershocks, personal and family circumstances, damaged housing, and damaged city infrastructure. However, many staff were actually quite willing to experiment with their teaching. In 2020, the experimentation factor was less (at least in my perception), which may have something to do with technology being more readily available, and the priority of assessments, as the shift to online was just before the mid-semester tests.

In 2020, while comfort levels with technology were generally higher, the main difference was in the preparedness of the teaching staff for the shift online. Many colleagues were there in 2011, and knew what they had done then, and how they had coped. They knew what the size and scope of the issues were, and while there was a sense of urgency, there was remarkably little panic in moving to online. Most of the colleagues had an attitude of “dust off the things we did in 2011, ditch the things we now know don’t work, and add 9 years of technology”. There was an immense amount of institutional knowledge, and colleagues drew on one another for ideas and support. That allowed E-Learning and myself to focus on larger, strategic issues (while also dealing with a tail of the more tech-challenged staff who didn’t want to ask their colleagues for support). We could focus on more and more lengthy discussions with departments and colleges. E-Learning and I met virtually with all the Colleges, holding workshops on online (synchronous and a-synchronous) teaching, online engagement, and online assessment. The topic of assessment in particular was extensively discussed, given that the quite common closed-book invigilated exam was not possible. We worked with lecturers, departments and colleges on assessments that would be most true to the learning outcomes, and most valid given the changed circumstances. From what I heard from my counterparts elsewhere, those types of more strategic teaching and learning discussions were not had to that extent (if at all) at other institutions.

Another difference with 2011 was that COVID-19 is a world-wide issue, with all universities basically trying to deal with the same issues. This has led the international educational development community to spring into action, with many resources being created and shared. While it was great to see this level of collegiality, the downside was that academics were bombarded with resources (some of quite dubious quality) which added to their stress levels. I spent quite some time curating resources from reputable sources and contextualise them to our local situation before sharing them with the teaching staff. I like to believe that this helped somewhat, as the academics got information from a (reliable) source they knew.

This brings me to the last point of difference between the earthquake and the COVID-19 cases. Back in 2011, I was a young, reasonably green academic developer, part of a team of academic developers, and wasn’t yet tuned in to the various structures and networks of the university. By 2020, I was the only academic developer left at the university, added some years of very diverse academic development experiences (as well as some kilos…), and had a vastly more expansive network around all layers of the university. The institutional knowledge that I gained in the past decade, as well as the networks and reputation I built up over that time, gave me a much better strategic cross-sectional overview of the university as a teaching and learning system. I found this immensely helpful for identifying needs, priorities and anticipating next steps for myself and the colleagues in E-Learning, and getting traction and buy-in for the teaching and learning advice we provided. It made me vastly more effective during the COVID-19 response than during the earthquake response.