University of Southern California

Learning Design & Technology

Advancing USC's strategic vision for teaching with technology

One Plan B Assignment from a Dornsife Writing Professor


On October 10, 2013, USC will host a weekday home football game. Trojan Football generates extraordinary attendance numbers, and as a result, this game could impact the campus’s ability to conduct classes. The University, with assistance from the Center for Scholar Technology, is positioning this game day as an online teaching drill opportunity, to test tools and scenarios to prepare faculty for the possibility of a real campus closure in the future.

The CST has made numerous resources available, including examples of Plan B assignments, recorded webinars on topics such as “Blackboard 101” and “How to Create an Effective Plan B Assignment,” and a module on Emergency Preparedness in a Blackboard course entitled, “Teaching Online at USC.” Every USC instructor can access this course by logging in to Blackboard. Instructors who would like a consultation about Plan B assignments and emergency preparedness can contact

Plan B assignments are ones that students can access online and complete remotely. The CST’s Plan B webpage describes effective assignment types and guidelines for implementing a Plan B assignment, informed by research findings on best online practices garnered from the USC’s Course Continuity in a Crisis (C3) grant program.

Steve Posner, a Writing Program lecturer at the Dornsife College of Letters, Art, and Sciences, was awarded a C3 grant for his “online active learning module.” Professor Posner explains, “To help create an effective teaching model that could be quickly pulled off the shelf and easily used to seamlessly migrate offline material to the Web during just such an eventuality, the Course Continuity in a Crisis study that I conducted incorporated a variety of distance-learning technologies that could be made readily available to USC faculty.”

The project was implemented in four sections of WRIT 340. Initially, a module was introduced during which on-campus class sessions were replaced exclusively with online meetings and assignments. Other sections adopted online technologies as a supplement to traditional campus-based instruction. The four major assignments followed the usual formats used outside of the C3 grant.

Professor Posner describes his approach: “The first semester research was designed to fulfill the C3 grant’s primary goal of implementing an online active learning module that would consist of assignments designed to replicate those that might be completed during a hypothetical crisis in which students would not be able to come to campus. The online segments were designed to integrate with the course curriculum with some of them involving content that would explicitly relate the course topic to the crisis. During the second semester, I chose to initiate research that presented a contrasting scenario where conditions might allow for a continuation of on-campus teaching that could be integrated with distance-learning technologies.”

While the 10/10/13 drill encourages instructors to provide an asynchronous assignment, students in WRIT 340 were expected to work asynchronously as well as meet online as a class, meet in small peer groups, and meet one-on-one with their instructor using the following tools:

  • Adobe Connect for online class lectures, discussions, and videos
  • ooVoo for Web-based peer-group writing workshops
  • Blackboard LMS for class-wide discussion board comments on assigned readings
  • Skype for synchronous one-on-one instructor writing conferences with students
  • QuickTime for asynchronous videos of instructor comments on student papers submitted via email or uploaded to Blackboard
  • Genbook online appointment website enabling students to conveniently schedule Skype conferences with the instructor
  • Email and cellphone texting to exchange set/confirm/revise appointments

Here are some additional reflections from Professor Posner about his experience preparing to teach online during an emergency: “Instructor presentations, peer group discussions, and individual conferences with students were held on campus in the traditional classroom/office settings. These campus meetings were supplemented with Blackboard postings, Quicktime video commentaries, and one-on-one Skype conferences between students and the instructor. The overwhelming majority of students shared this conviction that the benefits of using technology to supplement traditional offline learning are immediate and substantial. No one suggested that online tools such as Blackboard postings and ooVoo videoconferences replace on-campus classroom discussion and personal meetings with instructors, but nearly everyone agreed that one need not wait for an emergency to use these technologies as a supplement to traditional teaching. And for the instructor who does choose not to wait, maintaining course continuity in a crisis will be easy and seamless since navigating between offline and online teaching will already be a feature of his or her course culture.”

Professor Posner’s C3 project provides an excellent example of utilizing online teaching tools to enhance campus-based instruction while preparing for the possibility of a campus closure.