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Empowering Online Instructors: A Guide to Crisis Prevention and Preparedness – Faculty Focus


If you have taught in higher education in the last 20 years, you have probably taught an online course. Online learning is one of the most prevalent modalities in higher education today and has only been made more visible by the COVID pandemic (Costa, Kavouras, Cohen, & Huang, 2021). However, the rapid expansion of online learning meant many institutions overlooked the campus safety procedures for faculty teaching online from remote locations.  

Higher education campus policies often emphasize safety and crisis prevention interventions in the context of traditional, face-to-face learning environments. Aspects in brick-and-mortar policies often overlook articulating best practices for online crisis prevention and intervention. Crisis intervention has three: “1) the crisis, the perception of an unmanageable situation; 2) the individual or group in crisis; and 3) the individual, helper, or mental health worker who provides aid. Crisis intervention requires that the person experiencing crisis receive timely and skillful support to help cope with his/her situation before future physical or emotional deterioration occurs” (Stevens & Ellerbrock, 1995, P.1). However, there is a compelling need for well-defined policies and procedures that specifically address safety concerns in online academic spaces. 

Drawing from personal experience as an online faculty member, a mental health professional, and a member of a crisis prevention team, I recognize the imperative to bridge this gap. I have worked first-hand in the online domain and firmly believe in the importance of identifying and presenting best practices and evidence-based strategies that are specifically tailored for crisis prevention in the distinctive landscape of online higher education settings. In the course of extensive reviews of institutional crisis policies, safety measures, and strategies for crisis prevention, a prevalent observation emerges: the majority of these guidelines are distinctly designed for traditional face-to-face settings. Notably, there is a conspicuous gap wherein these examples lack the necessary modifications or elucidations required for the context of online campuses and courses. This endeavor is essential for cultivating a comprehensive approach to safety that aligns with the unique dynamics of virtual learning environments. 

Faculty discussions 

The importance of fostering safe spaces in online spaces cannot be overstated. Engaging in open and ongoing discussions with educational leaders becomes an imperative for creating policies that uphold the safety and well-being of all those who are working in online spaces. This dialogue ensures a comprehensive understanding of online policies, allowing for the development of effective strategies that promote a secure virtual learning environment. The significance of communication between educators and leaders is crafting policies that foster safe and conducive spaces for learning in the digital age.  

Addressing crises in online spaces requires specific considerations. Faculty should be prepared to answer key questions from leadership related to crisis prevention and intervention in the online learning environment: 

What training have you received in crisis prevention and intervention specific to online education? 
Faculty should be familiar with training programs or certifications specific to crisis prevention and intervention in online spaces. This may include understanding the unique challenges of virtual environments and effective strategies for intervention. 

How do you recognize signs of distress or potential crisis in online spaces? 
Faculty members should demonstrate an understanding of digital indicators that may signal distress in online students. This involves being attentive to changes in communication patterns, participation levels, or the quality of submitted work. 

What protocols are in place for reporting and responding to online students in crisis? 
Faculty should be aware of established protocols for reporting and responding to online students in crisis. This may involve utilizing digital reporting systems, notifying appropriate personnel, or initiating crisis intervention procedures tailored to the virtual context. 

How do you engage with students experiencing emotional distress or crisis in an online setting? 
Faculty members should articulate strategies for engaging with students experiencing emotional distress in an online environment. This includes effective digital communication, providing additional resources, and facilitating connections to support services. 

What online resources are available to support students in crisis after hours in a virtual setting? 
Faculty should have knowledge of online resources available to support students in crisis, including virtual counseling services, mental health platforms, and crisis intervention teams. They should guide students to these resources effectively. 

Can you describe a situation where you successfully intervened in a crisis or supported a distressed online student? 
Sharing experiences of successfully supporting distressed online students demonstrates practical application of crisis intervention skills in a virtual setting. 

How do you balance the need to intervene with respecting the privacy of online students? 
Faculty members must understand how to respect the privacy of online students while ensuring a safe learning environment. They should be familiar with online privacy laws and institutional policies related to virtual education. 

What ongoing professional development do you engage in to enhance your crisis intervention skills in online education? 
Continuous learning is crucial in the digital landscape. Faculty should discuss ongoing professional development activities to stay updated on best practices in crisis prevention and intervention in online education. 

How do you communicate with other faculty and staff regarding online students in crisis? 
Faculty should be aware of communication protocols for sharing information about online students in crisis with other faculty and staff. This involves maintaining confidentiality while ensuring relevant parties are informed. 

Faculty safety suggestions 

Faculty play a crucial role in maintaining safe online spaces for learning (Colman, 2022). Implementing measures to ensure online safety involves creating clear guidelines, fostering a respectful digital environment, and prioritizing privacy. Faculty can contribute to a secure online space by choosing secure platforms, establishing communication channels that prioritize safety, and being prepared with emergency protocols. Through these actions, faculty can contribute to a positive and secure virtual learning environment without compromising the privacy and safety of students. 

Coordinated crisis management 

Faculty should have access to open lines of communication with academic leadership to collaboratively establish protocols for managing online crises. This becomes particularly crucial outside regular hours, ensuring a well-coordinated and effective response that prioritizes the safety and well-being of all participants in the virtual learning environment.  

Post safety procedures: Fostering a secure learning environment 

Faculty can take proactive steps to establish a secure learning environment by clearly articulating safety procedures within your online course. By providing students with explicit guidelines on reporting concerns or emergencies, you empower them to navigate the virtual space with confidence and contribute to a safer online community.  

In times of crisis, accessibility to essential contacts is paramount. Faculty can keep important contact information readily available, including emergency services, support staff, and relevant administrative contacts. This proactive measure streamlines communication channels, allowing for swift and efficient responses when urgency is paramount. 

Recognizing the potential need for immediate assistance during a crisis, have mental health resources on standby. This proactive approach ensures that support is readily available, contributing to the overall well-being of individuals within the online learning community. Preparedness in this aspect is fundamental to creating a safe and supportive virtual educational environment. 

Post safety procedures: Fostering a secure learning environment 

Take proactive steps to establish a secure learning environment by clearly articulating safety procedures within your online course. By providing students with explicit guidelines on reporting concerns or emergencies, you empower them to navigate the virtual space with confidence and contribute to a safer online community. 

In closing, online learning and virtual spaces have become integral to higher education, with the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally transforming the delivery and accessibility of public education by shifting it into online domains. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic produced evidence that online learning is no longer an auxiliary component but a fundamental pillar of academic delivery. Yet, with this shift comes the responsibility to fortify our institutions against unforeseen challenges, particularly in the realm of crisis management within virtual spaces. Although many pivotal questions remain, addressing questions head-on related to online safety, pave the way for a future where higher education not only embraces digital innovation but does so with a steadfast commitment to safety, resilience, and an unwavering dedication to the well-being of all those engaged in the pursuit of knowledge.  


References  

Coleman, M. E. (2022). Mental Health in the College Classroom: Best Practices for Instructors. Teaching Sociology, 50(2), 168-182. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X221080433 

Costa, S. A., Kavouras, I., Cohen, N., & Huang, T. T. K. (2021). Moving education Online during the COVID-19 pandemic: Thinking back and looking ahead. Frontiers in Public Health, 9. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3389/fpubh.2021.751685 

Stevens, B. A., & Ellerbrock, L. S. (1995). Crisis intervention: An opportunity to change. ERIC Digest. ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services. Greensboro, NC. 

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