Some Students Displaced by Katrina Say a Special Distance-Education Program Was an Academic Lifesaver - The Chronicle of Higher Education
By Jeffrey R. Young
The storm took Shawn C. Morris's house, but she is determined not to let it wreck her plans for an education.
A 40-year-old mother of three, Ms. Morris is a senior at the University of New Orleans. When Hurricane Katrina struck, in late August, she and her husband fled their home in Slidell, near New Orleans, to take refuge with family members in Lafayette, La., about 140 miles to the west. They switched on the television news and saw images of their neighborhood completely submerged. "If it hadn't been for the water tower," she said, "we wouldn't have recognized it."
Much of Ms. Morris's life is now in flux. Homeless, she and her family have been staying with friends and relatives while they wait for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide a trailer, which they plan to set up on a cousin's property.
One possession Ms. Morris made sure to bring along when she evacuated was her laptop computer. And that has become her college classroom.
She took a full load of courses online at no charge during the fall semester, thanks to the Sloan Semester, an effort by 153 colleges to use distance education to keep hurricane-displaced students on track academically. The innovative relief effort was set up with remarkable speed and urgency.
Within days of the storm's devastation, a catalog of courses was up and ready for registration, through the leadership of the Southern Regional Education Board, which has 16 member states, and the Sloan Consortium, which promotes standards for online learning (The Chronicle, September 6). The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation gave $1.1-million to support the project. Many of the participating colleges had to make emergency pleas to their governing boards to let them waive tuition for the online programs. The courses were delivered on an accelerated schedule that began on October 10 and is scheduled to end on Friday.
Things did not always go as planned. Because the 400 courses in the initial catalog did not offer enough variety to satisfy student demand, more subjects were added. Many students enrolled but then disappeared as the semester wore on, perhaps because they were overwhelmed by the effort to recover from the storm. In the end, 1,800 students signed up, although there were enough spots for 10,000 to participate. Officials do not yet know how many of the students completed the courses.
But those students who did stick it out say the project was a lifesaver, and they praise the online teachers and administrators who made it happen.
"I just wanted to make sure I was still on track to graduate," said Ms. Morris. "I have one semester left before I graduate, and I'm going to finish."
Several students interviewed by The Chronicle said the going wasn't always easy. Many of them were not only finding their way around unfamiliar cities, but also learning to navigate online classrooms for the first time. They posted comments to course chat rooms when they weren't standing in long lines for FEMA assistance. They read textbook chapters when they weren't looking for new jobs.
Jessie S. Zeringue, a nursing student at Delgado Community College, took three courses through the Sloan Semester -- a psychology course from Northwestern State University, in Louisiana; an English-composition course from the University of Arkansas; and a sociology course from the Community College of Denver.
"I work full time, and I have three kids, and this is all new to me," she said. "This was the first time I ever took online classes."
One unexpected challenge of taking classes online in the storm's aftermath was getting books, she and other students reported. "The mail was so slow, and the courses had started, and we didn't have the books yet," said Ms. Zeringue. The instructors were willing to extend deadlines to accommodate her situation, she added.
Katie M. Crawford, a 26-year-old pre-nursing student at Delgado, took two courses through the Sloan Semester -- a chemistry class from Ozarka College, in Arkansas, and a psychology course from Marshall University, in West Virginia.
She lives in Covington, La., across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, and for the first few weeks after the storm she and her boyfriend stayed with his family members, who live nearby, before they could return to their own house.
"You spent most of your time in line either at FEMA or getting ice or food," she said. "You just hurry up and wait in a different line each day for something."
Once the power was restored, she said, she did not have trouble getting Internet access to the online courses.
She was working as a waitress, but the restaurant's ceiling collapsed in the hurricane, so she had to find a new job. At first she and her boyfriend worked assessing storm damage to buildings in New Orleans. Now she works for a flooring company whose business is booming as people begin to rebuild.
For Andrea Savickis, 20, a junior at Loyola University New Orleans who fled to her aunt and uncle in Dallas, the biggest challenge has been adjusting to a new city.
She decided to take online courses through the Sloan Semester because, unlike some other students who left the New Orleans area, "I really didn't want to go to any other university." As a music major focusing on singing, she said, she couldn't "just switch schools to teachers who don't know my voice and don't know my development."
She is taking a chemistry course from Marshall and a mathematics course from Southern New Hampshire University.
The courses have been "great," she said, but she admitted to feeling "a certain amount of depression" about being away from her friends and her music. She has joined a church choir in Dallas, but "I don't have access to a piano, and as a music major, if you go a semester without music," it's really hard, she said. "I just realize how much a part of my life music is."
She has not found the active social and academic life that she had been looking forward to when she moved into her Loyola dormitory at the beginning of the semester, just two days before the storm hit. These days, she said, "I watch a lot of TV."
Professors teaching in the Sloan program say they have been impressed by the quality of the students' work, especially considering the circumstances.
"You wouldn't know that some of them don't have their homes," said Sally Stablein, a part-time instructor of sociology at the Community College of Denver who taught one of Ms. Zeringue's classes. "They do have a lot going on, and they do have distractions. However, you wouldn't know that in my classroom."
Three or four students from the Sloan Semester were in her course, she said, along with 14 students from her own campus.
But some professors also noted that Sloan Semester students dropped out in slightly greater proportions than others did. "A couple of them have had less Internet access than they thought they were going to have," said Gary Anderson, a professor of chemistry at Marshall who is teaching two Sloan Semester courses. "Their lives have been torn up enough so that the amount of time they can spend on study is not necessarily the amount of time they're used to being able to spend."
Jeremy L. Barris, a professor of philosophy at Marshall who taught a course in the program, said three out of the four Sloan Semester students in his course had stopped responding to his messages and turning in their assignments. An additional 45 students at Marshall were in the same course.
"It doesn't surprise me," Mr. Barris said of the dropout rate. "I was amazed that they were in any kind of condition to continue with anything" academic this semester.
'A Real Breakthrough'
Some leaders of the Sloan Semester effort say Hurricane Katrina has marked a turning point in distance education, putting it on the map for many people who might not have taken it seriously before.
"This was a real breakthrough for online learning in general," said Burks Oakley II, director of the University of Illinois Online and a leader of the Sloan Semester project. The "unintended side effect" of the project, he said, was "promoting an awareness of online education."
Others, however, say the program just confirms that distance education has already reached prime time.
"We're already over the peak as far as acceptance of online learning as a valuable methodology for teaching students," said David J. Gray, chief executive officer of UMass Online, a consortium of colleges in Massachusetts that offered 21 courses in the Sloan Semester. "We already have surmounted that obstacle."
But participants agree on how much was at stake for many of the students involved.
"You know how much delay can side-rail a career," said Shari McCurdy, associate director of the office of technology-enhanced learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield, who taught one of the Sloan Semester courses. "You get interrupted, and you don't get back to it, or you find it harder to go back each time it's interrupted."
"I think it's the role of higher education," she says, "to step in and take on the challenge and meet the needs of these students."