Online: Trending Now

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from Ray Schroeder, Director of the National Council for Online Education

What Katrina Taught Us About Online Delivery

In 2005, more than 120 U.S. universities came to the aid of some 20 colleges and universities that had been impacted by Hurricane Katrina through shared online classes.

There is much discussion now about continuing the delivery of the curriculum in instances where the new coronavirus may disrupt traditional campus offerings. This is not the first time that such discussions have taken place. In most cases, disruptions affect only a few colleges and universities.

But in 2005 it was the massive Hurricane Katrina that disrupted more than 20 colleges and university and created widespread destruction along the U.S. Gulf Coast. A remarkable, historic response was mounted by universities across the country to deliver online classes to assist the affected campuses. Just last week I was asked by UPCEA vice president for online and strategic initiatives Julie Uranis to discuss on a virtual chat what lessons I learned from the Katrina Sloan semester that may apply to the situation that we face today.

My personal involvement in this began back in 2004 as I started a study of the SARS virus and the groundbreaking action of U.K. universities to offer classes online to assist Hong Kong universities. In the summer of 2005, I submitted a grant proposal to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to support the study. My daily routine back then was to communicate in the early mornings with my colleague, friend and director of the University of Online initiative, Burks Oakley. We would discuss developments in our field and plan initiatives for the future. On Aug. 31, 2005, Burks alerted me to the devastation of colleges and universities by Hurricane Katrina. We rapidly converted my early research and interest in emergency online learning into an initiative to address the unfolding disaster.

The Sloan Consortium president and Alfred P. Sloan Consortium program officer, Frank Mayadas, immediately recognized the potential. And the rest is history — a history of more than 100 colleges and universities offering accredited, credit-bearing online classes to students from the affected universities during half of the fall semester of 2005. Important contributions came from the late Bruce Chaloux of the Southern Regional Education Board; John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium; and so many other dedicated and talented people around the country. George Lorenzo chronicled the event.

Most importantly, a number of lessons were learned in our experiences 15 years ago about how we can best provide emergency online delivery of classes. Many of these may be applicable in cases where campuses may be impacted by sequestrations and other restrictions due to the spread of COVID-19.

Among the lessons that I recommend we consider today are:

Create the delivery framework — some of this can be done even before the “go” decision is made.

  • Have a central communication site (campus webpage) for students, staff and faculty — organize by academic structure — links to colleges, then to departments, then to courses.
  • Create a course shell in the LMS for every class offered on campus (many universities do that as a matter of course each semester).
  • Populate those classes with rosters when the decision to move forward is made. In most cases, the appropriate classes will appear to each student.
  • Move the basics as soon as possible — syllabus, discussion board — and solicit an announcement from faculty.

Triage priorities and ledgering are critical! These are most important, followed by communication.

  • Identify first courses to be served: for example —
    • Largest enrollment classes in an effort to serve the most students
    • Senior seminar and capstone classes — students who are about to graduate are desperate to have the diploma; their first jobs are stake!
  • Establish a clear hierarchy for triage.
  • Create an action priority spreadsheet and ledger of who is doing what, where they are in the process and when each task is estimated to be complete.
  • Communication — it is essential to keep the team in constant contact; this will require multiple paths of communication for concurrent messaging.
    • Use Slack, Microsoft Teams or some such app so you can be doing your work while at the same time updating the team, asking questions and keeping a record of the communication. Use email, Zoom or another conferencing software, text messaging, etc.

Staffing and support — there will not be enough!

  • You will not have enough staff to do this if you have hundreds or thousands of classes to address in a day or two (hence the importance of the first points about triage and priority)
  • Supplement your instructional design staff with select faculty members who are online champions. They can serve as mentors to help bring their entire department or another department along.
  • Eight-hour shifts will not be enough, so consider 12-hour shifts. Based on our Katrina experience, know that some will work 18 hours a day on this — consider scheduling conference call meetings with faculty between 6 a.m. and midnight.

You cannot succeed alone: cooperate, collaborate, communicate!

  • This is not going to be highly refined — do not let perfection become the enemy of good.
  • Instructors must decide what can reasonably done to advance learning to achieve the established learning outcomes for each class. That may mean reordering or organizing materials in a different way to accommodate the unexpected closure of campus.
  • Contact faculty and experts at other locations to share resources and virtual guest lectures.
  • Imagine you are in a ship at sea — it is leaking; you have to plug the hole; hundreds or thousands of passengers (students) are at risk. Do whatever you can to stop the leak — stuff T-shirts in the hole if you have to and keep bailing to move the ship forward.
  • The point is in each case you are going to try to cover an anticipated four weeks of closure in your first pass, then reassess after a couple of weeks.

Finally, this is not an excuse to ignore accessibility guidelines — those should be steeped into your development process.

Take your laptops home with you tonight — make sure the university VPN is installed so you have access to all campus resources. Wash your hands. And sleep, beginning right now.


This article originally was published in Inside Higher Ed’s Transforming Teaching & Learning blog.

Ray Schroeder 2016 Summit for Online Leadership

Ray Schroeder is Professor Emeritus, Associate Vice Chancellor for Online Learning at the University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) and Senior Fellow at UPCEA. Each year, Ray publishes and presents nationally on emerging topics in online and technology-enhanced learning. Ray’s social media publications daily reach more than 12,000 professionals. He is the inaugural recipient of the A. Frank Mayadas Online Leadership Award, recipient of the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award, the United States Distance Learning Association Hall of Fame Award, and the American Journal of Distance Education/University of Wisconsin Wedemeyer Excellence in Distance Education Award 2016.

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