Andrew M. Byrne is an assistant professor who teaches and researches technology and novel interventions in Higher Education Counseling and Student Affairs in the School of Education, College of Science and Math. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News. 


I am an advocate for disaster elasticity in learning design. This term is probably unfamiliar, because I just coined it while responding to the need for online teaching as a response to COVID-19. I want to make a greater point, however, about a broader necessity. Disaster elasticity is learning design which incorporates maximum flexibility and resiliency to the most responsive level possible, to catastrophe. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to adjust our teaching to be situationally student-responsive, but here we are. 

We are amid an unprecedented crisis. I’ve spoken with students on our campus who wonder how they will learn online. For some of them, it is literally rocket science. At a time like this, we faculty members scramble to answer questions hastily: What do students need to be able to do after their time with me? What do students need to be able to do after this module? I argue that the first question to ask is what do students need? 

Student needs are broad, situational, cultural, and personal. Some of our students have less time than they did before because they are parents, caregivers, or they might be sick. Their work responsibilities may have changed, or they might have returned home to a household whose income is interrupted. Their families may have been ostracized or impoverished due to their identities. Some of our students’ homes are here on our campus. Prior to the pandemic, some had no home. So, the deciding factors between grades of A and C could be more about poverty and privilege than the sophisticated modules we have designed. Is there slack for our students to get sick? What if the professor gets sick? How much slack have you given yourself?

Two authors who cover barriers, privilege, and resilience in higher education are Sara Goldrick-Rab of Temple University and Laura Harrison of Ohio University. A colleague of mine in the School of Education, Daniel Almeida, published with me and two of our students on redefining grit: a lot of the constructs we depend upon to define student resilience tend to break down when privilege and social capital fall by the wayside. 

Some of the practical components that I use to give students space to adjust to catastrophe include opportunities for them to choose which material to prioritize, depending on their specialties. I also want them to have opportunities to revise academic work. High-stakes assessments during a pandemic are not valid as to what they might be assessing. My colleagues have also identified budgets and resources for students experiencing emergencies: food insecurity, inability to purchase course materials or technology, and referral channels for medical and mental health crises. Academic disaster elasticity also includes a flexible assignment timeline, and if synchronous learning is happening, it may be possible to hold discussions and experiences relevant even to those who didn’t do the reading without putting them on the spot. This mindset cannot be prescriptive, however: it must be responsive. I cannot tell you what to do. 

There is, for example, a push against synchronous learning in some circles right now. However, synchronous learning, when accessible, can also be tremendous for giving students in-person support and reliable presence, even by webcam ⁠— if they can connect. I have chosen personally to make things optional, flexible, and to warn students who are parents that if their child interrupts our in-person sessions, that we will say hello and take time out to welcome them. We welcome interruptions in my classes: family is welcome. 

Our colleges have pulled data from students in advance to see what technological and other needs they have. I’ve designed discussions, assignments, and materials around affordability, using free learning support components and textbooks. I’ve also set up my courses to be responsive enough to students that they can fulfill learning outcomes through a variety of means and iterations. 

Finally, a big part of academic disaster elasticity is to allow me to be at my best too. I have a plan for if/when I catch coronavirus. It is not pretty, but it’s better than no plan. I am also gratefully among colleagues who will cover for one another, and we check on each other regularly. The most important piece, I think, to disaster elasticity is to get through this. Academic disaster elasticity is a mindset, or a schema through which we prioritize dynamic student and instructor needs in multiple life compartments (health, family, finance, preference) and this has helped me frame why I teach the way I do. 

The most productive thing we can do for our students and ourselves is to remember that a disaster does not have to be community-wide for elasticity to spring into action. We can take this experience and change how we teach when there is no pandemic. Disasters, after all, are personal, too.

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