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Displaced Katrina College Students Finish Classes Online

Displaced Katrina College Students Finish Classes Online

      When Hurricane Katrina forced junior Special Kirk out of Dillard University last August, he searched for options to finish the semester. “I didn’t want to fall behind,” he says. “I wanted to stay on pace and graduate.”

      Special, 28, and his brother Famous, 23, found a solution in the Sloan Semester, an online education experiment that gave more than 1,000 students, 50 percent of them Black, a chance to take classes while they were displaced or homeless.

      The Sloan Semester was created three days after the Aug. 29 rupture of the levees in New Orleans. Its organizers, a consortium of 200 colleges that have been experimenting with online learning since 1993, called on members to make more than 1,500 Internet-based classes free to hurricane victims in response to widespread university closings.

      They were assisted by the Southern Region Education Board, an interstate compact for education with 16 participating states. The board assists state leaders by directing attention to key education issues, taking surveys and collecting data.

      Organizers of the online experiment had been prepared to hold classes online in case of a campuswide shutdown due to an outbreak of disease, such as bird flu, which affected some Chinese institutions in the first few months of 2005.

      Instead, the hurricane and flooding that forced thousands of students in the Gulf Coast region out of school for a semester gave online educators a chance to make their idea a reality, learn lessons from the disaster and see the potential for future uses.

      They made it happen with a $1.1 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Sixteen days after the levees broke, online classes were in session with more than 1,000 students, says Burks Oakley II, vice president for academic affairs at the University of Illinois and director of the Sloan Semester.

      “We saw the devastation and realized they would have to shut down the university, so we immediately thought, ‘What can we do with online education?’” Oakley says. “What better way to help those students, to keep them going and to help them get their degrees?”

      When Hurricane Katrina made landfall, Special and Famous evacuated their home seven miles from New Orleans in Harvey, La., and moved with their parents to their grandmother’s house 343 miles away, in Shreveport, La.

      The Kirk brothers thought a semester off would delay their graduation. Special tried unsuccessfully to transfer to another college. Famous wanted to continue his education, but did not want to leave his family.

      Instead, they were able to study at their own pace and hold jobs. Famous took his computer with him when he evacuated from New Orleans. When Dillard shut down and the brothers regrouped, they used the computer to search the Internet for ways to continue their education. That’s how they found the Sloan program.

      Teachers uploaded notes, videotaped their classes and posted them online, and made other interactive media available, the Kirks said. Other classes were conducted “live,” where the students were able to ask a question via instant messaging and the professor could answer.

      Special was able to work at Walgreens drugstore while enrolled online in a computer programming class at Ellis College, and in a course in Microsoft operating systems at Southern Arkansas University. He says he earned A’s in both classes.

      Famous worked at Best Buy while earning A’s in American government, abnormal psychology and Spanish.

      Today, the brother’s are back at Dillard, which is holding classes at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside. They say they are on track for graduation because of the online semester. Famous says he is actually a semester ahead.

      Money was available for tuition, and instructors were willing to help, but finding the students for the online program was a challenge.

      “These were students who didn’t have a place to go home [to] because their homes were under water,” says Oakley.

      There were problems contacting some institutions in the flood-ravaged region. Sloan advertised in Louisiana and Texas newspapers, went on radio talk shows and advertised online.

      “Students who did register for classes often had to withdraw because they were not in a stable environment with Internet access,” Oakley says. Some began to have problems completing the courses and communicating with the colleges. Sometimes, e-mails from the instructors were mistaken for unwanted spam and deleted.

      Organizers say the program should have offered books to students who could not afford them. The Kirk brothers say they paid at least $500 for their books.

      But despite the kinks, organizers say the program was a success.

      “I think it brought about some of the best of what education can do,” says Joseph “J.J.” Kwashnak, director of information technology for the Southern Regional Education Board, which funneled information from the Gulf Coast area students to the universities offering online classes. “It sends a powerful message to people that your life may be interrupted but your education is enough [incentive] to continue.”

      The program had 1,736 applicants. Of these, 1,587 were eligible and 99 withdrew. Fifty took an “incomplete” in a course. Fifty percent of participating students were Black, 75 percent were women and most were from Louisiana, Kwashnak says.

— Black College Wire

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