Revisiting Emergency eLearning

On April 30, 2020, my article “COVID-19 and Emergency eLearning: Consequences of the Securitization of Higher Education for Post-Pandemic Pedagogy” was published in Contemporary Security Policy. In that piece, I argued that securitization theory could help understand the experience of teaching and learning online as an emergency measure, but also that the lessons of desecuritization could help us to thoughtfully prepare for a post-pandemic pedagogy. Now, with news outlets reporting promising signs in vaccine development and deployment, I thank the PRIO “States of Emergency as Disruptive Pandemic Politics” research group for inviting me to reflect again on emergency eLearning.

With the hindsight of a second semester teaching under COVID-19, I would like to revisit the state of emergency literature and focus on how it can help explain the pandemic present within the higher education sector.

Photo: MChe Lee on Unsplash

In the original article, I suggest that securitization theory helps us to understand the rhetoric of emergency eLearning announcements. In its early formulations, the Copenhagen School account of securitization theory argued that security threats were not inherently about security, but that the security-ness of a threat was constructed through a linguistic act. Known as a “speech act,” the drama of securitization sees an executive actor claim that something presents a threat to a given community, and given the significance of the threat, exceptional measures must be taken in response. That issue then leaves the realm of normal political discourse and moves to the exceptional space of security policy, where rights may be limited and power less bridled. Through an analysis of announcements of online learning adoption, I demonstrated how the theoretical framework of securitization can help to understand the enactment of emergency eLearning policies. The crucial point here is not only to see how the time of the pandemic is presented as exceptional within higher education, but that because we can recognize features of securitization in the enactment of emergency eLearning, we can try to avoid excesses of the exceptional.

The drama of securitization sees an executive actor claim that something presents a threat to a given community, and given the significance of the threat, exceptional measures must be taken in response.

In announcements of emergency eLearning, COVID-19 is presented as a threat to the university community in general terms, and the possibility of COVID-19 transmission through face-to-face teaching is identified as a specific vulnerability. University leaders suggest that suspending ordinary face-to-face teaching arrangements in favour of emergency eLearning can provide greater security to the community. In terms of securitization, we see a securitizing actor (usually the university president) identify these threats (COVID-19 and face-to-face teaching) and declare that exceptional measures are necessary (emergency eLearning). Given the similarity of entering into an exceptional state, the established literature around securitization theory and emergency powers can help to highlight potential excesses of responses to the pandemic. I argued that attention was necessary to the tendencies of securitization—specifically, the extension of the emergency and the reification of executive authority.

One of the ways in which the emergency was extended is through the serial announcement of short-term continuations of emergency eLearning. While the immediate transition to emergency eLearning in March 2020—occurring in as little as 3 days—left no time to properly design courses, short-notice announcements continuing emergency eLearning made it more difficult for meaningful online learning experiences to be developed. As I suggested in a blog in the spring, announcing an online Fall term in March would have permitted far more time to prepare rich and robust learning experiences for the second wave about which all experts warned us. Living in an iteratively extended emergency, our sights must fall lower out of compassion to our colleagues and to save ourselves from burnout. In the words of Brent Steele from a recent forum on emergency eLearning, we need to accept that “good enough is good enough.” While some institutions proactively announced that future semesters would be online with months for preparation, others required instructors to simultaneously prepare for both in-person and online instruction, or to adjust to last-minute decisions.

There is another lesson that securitization theory offers (as does its kin, the Schmittian exception), which can help us to understand how our current eLearning has continued as an extended emergency. As Carl Schmitt argues in Political Theology, the sovereign can be identified as the one who declares the exception; indeed, it is that declaration of the exception that makes the sovereign a relevant figure. With rare examples, such as the province of Quebec, the decision on emergency eLearning was announced by the highest executive at the institution. While many were—with good reason—focused on the content of the decision, the act of deciding reinforced the executive power of university leadership. The declaration of emergency eLearning demonstrated what Schmitt called, as a corrective to Max Weber, “the monopoly to decide” (2005, 13). While statements often mention consultation with public health officials, the decision rests in the hands of the executive, where epidemiology shares the stage with budgetary influences.

There is one final aspect of pandemic pedagogy that bears recognition in terms of the theory of the state of exception, the impact on life. Reports of mental health crises among faculty and students alike as well as broader experiences of exhaustion setting the mood across society reveal the toll of life in the extended emergency. While outbreaks at institutions who elected to return to face-to-face learning, open dormitories, and even reopen college athletics programs seem to suggest that emergency measures were justified, that does not mean that life under the emergency comes without cost. Scholars in critical security studies have for decades now highlighted the negative impact on life of emergency and securitized measures, and these insights are now immediately policy-relevant if executive actors in all kinds of institutions are to act responsibly in facing the pandemic. But this same scholarly literature offers insights into what kinds of agency remains for those living under the emergency. Taking the example of exceptional border security policy, Mark Salter argued that the sovereign state’s absolute prerogative to allow or deny entrance to a country puts all border-crossers into a shared position as objects of exceptional sovereign power (rather than complex social beings). He argued that recognizing that shared experience might ground “sympathy or solidarity” with those who are constantly objects of emergency power. While the virtual classroom may seem a far cry from the experience of border security, the very real impact of the pandemic response measures—reverberating as emotional, social, and psychological tolls—creates a similarly shared experience of the exception. Within the classroom, prioritizing sympathy for and solidarity with our fellow human beings in these exceptional times means adopting a pedagogy of care.

Attending to the lessons that theories of the state of emergency and securitization offer can help identify challenges to the reality of life under the pandemic. While many lessons will be drawn for the crises we hope never happen, we must also recognize that scholarship exists that can help us to see power and politics operating in the pandemic present.



  • Michael P. A. Murphy is a SSHRC doctoral fellow in International Relations and Political Theory at the University of Ottawa, and an associate member of the University of Ottawa Research Unit in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. He serves as an elected school board trustee, Editorial Assistant at Security Dialogue, and member-at-large for ISA’s Active Learning in International Affairs Section. His new book Quantum Social Theory for Critical International Relations Theorists: Quantizing Critique, has just been published by Palgrave. He has published over a dozen articles on International Relations theory, political theory, and pedagogy, appearing in International Relations, the Journal of International Political Theory, Critical Studies on Security, the Journal of Political Science Education, and elsewhere. His work can be found at:
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