Learning after Loss: Well-Planned Online and Distance Offerings Can Give Institutions of Higher Education the Ability to Keep Education Going in the Wake of Disaster

By David, Chelan | University Business, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Learning after Loss: Well-Planned Online and Distance Offerings Can Give Institutions of Higher Education the Ability to Keep Education Going in the Wake of Disaster


David, Chelan, University Business


The familiar rhythms of academia lend a comforting presence on college campuses. Each autumn as summer temperatures begin to fall, days shorten, and leaves flutter down, fresh-faced students arrive en masse, their futures pregnant with possibility.

Last year, however, as students and educators in the Gulf Coast region prepared for the onset of fall classes, an unexpected visitor interrupted the traditional proceedings: Hurricane Katrina.

In the storm's wake, nearly 1,600 lives were lost, property damage numbered in the tens of billions of dollars, and educational institutions found themselves in disarray.

Ground Zero

Elizabeth Moore Rhodes, the director of distance learning and the educational technology support specialist for Xavier University of Louisiana, vividly remembers the destruction that the hurricane left behind. "Practically every building on campus had water in it," she says. "My office is in the library, and the library had 4 to 5 feet of water on the first floor."

The office spaces and holdings in the library were completely destroyed. A large computer lab on the library's ground floor was also ruined. Teachers and students alike sought safety and classes were canceled. "All of our academic programs were interrupted, even the distance courses. Everything was down until January 2006," says Rhodes.

Once faculty and staff members finally reconvened, it was clear that a new disaster plan had to be formulated--a plan with which, even if the campus' brick and mortar facilities were again damaged, distance learning could continue with the support of a reliable and flexible network infrastructure.

"We've developed short-term plans as well as long-term plans on how we can get communication back initially and then get our course management system software running again with the expectation that students could continue with their distance learning programs," says Rhodes.

The university is putting arrangements in place to provide faculty members with internet access at predetermined evacuation sites. Faculty members are also being trained extensively in the Blackboard course management system so they will be able to deliver content and administer tests in the event of another disaster. As for more long-term plans, the preparation is focusing on data transfer and the coordination of remote locations where--if the campus must be closed--all data cartridges and systems will be taken and where host servers will have already been lined up.

Katrina changed the scope of Xavier's distance education program, which first launched in 2003. Prior to the hurricane, education courses were not offered online at the graduate course level. But when New Orleans was evacuated, its school system collapsed and a large number of schoolteachers were out of jobs and displaced around the country. To help them, Xavier added online education courses to its roster.

Rhodes believes that if online courses were not added at Xavier following the storm, then teachers from the New Orleans area would have pursued their graduate studies elsewhere. "We met the needs of our audience," she says. "The students needed online courses; they couldn't come back to campus and they didn't have jobs here anymore."

Down, Not Out

At Loyola University New Orleans, students were moving into residence halls as Katrina approached. Forced to evacuate, they ended up dispersing to nearly 400 different institutions. The majority of Loyola's classes were canceled, although after a short shutdown of nine days, distance education programs in areas such as ministry, nursing, and health-care management carried on.

Bret Jacobs, executive director of Information Technology, attributes this continuity to having an actionable disaster recovery plan that had been rehearsed annually. "We were a little ahead of the curve because we had exercised our plan on a few occasions and had just completed our test for 2005 in March," he explains. …

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