Going Online When Disaster Strikes

Texas colleges devastated by Hurricane Harvey are moving face-to-face courses online. Institutions in other disaster-prone states share their digital strategies.

September 6, 2017
 
Lone Star College-Kingwood

A couple of days before Hurricane Harvey devastated much of southeast Texas, administrators at the University of St. Thomas in Houston gathered to talk through contingency plans. On the list was a discussion of online options for face-to-face classes that could be affected by flooding and adverse weather. The team decided to encourage faculty members reach out to students about the possibility of conducting class remotely on Blackboard.

Less than a week later, Dominic Aquila, St. Thomas’s provost and vice president for academic affairs, told “Inside Digital Learning” that he hopes the university will be fully prepared and ready to go online farther in advance if another incident like Harvey happens.

“We definitely want to make a robust plan,” Aquila said. “We’re not taking any more chances.”

The cities hit hardest by deluges of rain and wind during a grim week last month might not recover for many years. The arrival of the hurricane also coincided with or immediately preceded the beginning of the academic year for numerous institutions. Some have delayed starting classes, while others whose academic years were already underway have shifted some courses online. One institution took a more drastic step: Lone Star College Kingwood announced Saturday that all of its face-to-face courses will be conducted as hybrid or fully online courses for the rest of the semester.

While it’s impossible to fully prepare for a natural disaster of Harvey's magnitude, many universities and colleges have established contingency plans in case face-to-face class sessions become untenable with little warning. Those who had only scratched the surface of that discussion before, like St. Thomas, are actively working toward more comprehensive preparation. For institutions in areas at high risk of hurricane, flood, earthquake or other natural disaster, online classes have become a viable alternative in a pinch.

A Way Forward, Hastily Assembled

The Kingwood area, roughly 30 miles north of Houston, was hit hard by the storm, but the most pressing concerns came a few days later, when flooding arrived courtesy of runoff. As a result, the Lone Star College system has closed its Kingwood campus for up to two months.

The decision to take courses either fully online or hybrid wasn’t a difficult one, according to the system’s chancellor, Steve Head. More than 35,000 of the system’s nearly 90,000 students are already taking at least one course online, he said. And he’s been prioritizing new instructor hires with experience teaching online.

“We’re very technologically advanced here. If students can get themselves to the campus at any of our locations, then you can do your work there or at home,” Head said. “We were already trending in that direction anyway.”

Instructors at Kingwood this week are taking four-hour sessions to refine their online teaching abilities, a condensed version of the typical training program. Online and hybrid courses with six-, eight-, 10-, 12- and 14-week schedules will be launching throughout the semester, Head said.

The aftermath of Harvey may lead the system to accelerate some of its other digital learning initiatives, according to Head. Plans have already been under way to add $100 to the cost of each course for a digital textbook, rendering physical textbooks entirely optional. Lower tuition for Friday, Saturday and Sunday courses is also under consideration. Both projects and other efforts to expand the university’s digital commitment might be feasible earlier than previously scheduled, given the constraints Harvey has placed on the system’s physical environment.

“We just need to be thinking about how we can best meet their needs,” Head said.

Inside Digital Learning blogger Josh Kim writes that as devastating as Hurricane Harvey has been, it shows how resilient colleges can be because of digital technologies.

Smaller-Scale Adjustments

Harvey didn’t prompt drastic operating changes at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, according to Edward J. Evans, associate vice president for information technology and chief information officer. But the university was prepared to offer courses online through its learning management system, which is hosted not on the institution’s campus on Ward Island, but safely at Blackboard 's data center in Northern Virginia.

“If we have to evacuate campus, we have to continue our learning process,” Evans said.

Texas A&M at Corpus Christi’s office of distance education and learning technologies provides regular training for instructors, all of whom put their course materials on Blackboard even for face-to-face courses.

This time, though, the university’s biggest spur-of-the-moment leap was establishing a call center for students and instructors to find out the latest information about operations in light of rapidly changing conditions.

Even though the worst-case scenario didn’t happen, Evans said he’d rather take time to consider plans of action than to assume they won’t be necessary.

“What it really comes down to in my mind is you have to be prepared. An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure,” Evans said. “If we have nothing, it can be difficult in the moment to put it together.”

Lee College, 30 miles east of Houston, adopted a similar ethos after learning its lesson from the impacts of Hurricane Ike in 2008, according to Veronique Tran, vice president of learning. The college requires all professors to post all course materials on Blackboard. More than 900 course sites were available on Blackboard during the storm so students could prepare for the start of the semester Tuesday, Tran said.

Beyond Texas

Texas and nearby Louisiana aren’t the only states that can face a hurricane’s wrath. Right now, Florida is bracing for possible effects from Hurricane Irma, and the state has faced numerous such situations in the last couple decades.

For almost a decade, the ministry school at Palm Beach Atlantic University in southeast Florida has had in place a plan to help students move online in the event of an unexpected campus closure. When emergencies result in short-term disruption, a series of protocols kick in that require instructors to modify assignments to make up for however much time has been lost, according to the ministry school dean, Jonathan Grenz.

No event has yet triggered the plan, according to Grenz. “We live in Florida, so we’re always going, ‘Well, we could have one,’” he said. Grenz credits technologically adept professors and existing online programs in the ministry school for the policy, which other schools within the university have since adopted.

Other possible natural disasters that obstruct campus operations have prompted similar discussions. In California, earthquakes occasionally reach a magnitude that causes significant damage.

At the University of California, Berkeley, the technology setup with the Canvas LMS would make moving online in an emergency very easy, according to Meggan Levitt, deputy director of the institution’s educational technology services. Some programs lend themselves more easily to that transition than others, she said; theater and dance, for example, would have a more difficult time than math and history.

As with any digital transition, some faculty members are more on board than others. Levitt’s approach in general is to find one way to communicate the value of digital to each faculty member. One might be more interested in managing their classes better, while others might care more about expanding opportunities and reaching a more diverse audience.

Engaging instructors on a regular basis about how to transition online effectively makes emergency situations run more smoothly, Levitt said.

It’s not just the coasts, either -- Oklahoma has fallen prey countless times to the sudden wrath of tornadoes. A decade ago, the Oklahoma State University decided to take proactive steps to ensure that it wouldn’t be caught flat-footed. The result was the adoption of a Skype for Business videoconferencing tool available to all faculty members in case of emergency.

Instructors have run with the service, and some now use it for virtual office hours, according to Chris Ormsbee, Oklahoma's associate provost and director of outreach, online education and the institute for teaching and learning excellence.

“It’s a universal tool for us,” Ormsbee said.

More recently, the institution has offered professional development to help them understand transitioning from face-to-face to hybrid. It can be jarring for some to give up eye contact and interpersonal communication. But the asynchronous approach to online course materials usually outweighs that initial discomfort, Ormsbee said.

Catching Up

Back at St. Thomas, plans like these are being drawn up. Training faculty members is one of the most significant components, as is finding a way to procure videoconferencing systems.

In addition to his administrative duties, Aquila is a professor with several online courses. He’s a strong proponent of digital learning and hopes it will become a bigger part of the university moving forward. He said he’s glad to be developing emergency protocols that reflect rapidly advancing technology.

“With all universities, it has to be a collegial and inclusive discussion,” Aquila said. “Every discipline will have different experiences and different ways to think about how to move online quickly in an emergency.”

 

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