Hurricane Harvey flooding: Port Arthur, 31 August 2017. Image: Wikipedia

Holzweiss, P. and Walker, D. (2021) The Impact of a Regional Crisis on Online Students and Faculty Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, Vol. 24, No. 3 

What happens when the Internet goes down?

This article is required reading for administrators at any institution with a substantial number of online students. What are your plans, if suddenly, due to a natural disaster or other catastrophic event, most of your online students lose Internet access, especially if the main campus is unaffected? As the authors note:

institutions may have crisis management plans supporting the safety of face-to-face (FTF) students and their ability to access classes on the physical campus, but what happens when online students are the ones affected by a crisis?

This is exactly what happened at Sam Houston State University in Texas, when Hurricane Harvey hit the state in 2017. It caused severe flooding through the city of Houston and its surrounding areas, resulting in widespread loss of power and Internet access. More importantly, everyone in the area affected were scrambling for their lives and the security of their property.

Although the university campus is located in Huntsville, about 70 miles north of Houston, and was spared the worst of the flooding, approximately 80% of the institution’s online student population resided in the impact zone to the south of the university, and were at immediate risk of withdrawing from courses.

Holzweiss and Walker’s article looks at how the institution responded, and the impact on students and faculty in online courses. I provide a very brief summary below. As always you are recommended to read the actual article, which is well written and easy to read. But see my comments at the end of this blog post.

The size of the problem

In the fall of 2017, almost 21,000 students were enrolled at the institution, with 15% (about 3,000) enrolled in fully online programs and 80% (about 17,000) enrolled in at least one online course. Administrators soon realized that a significant number of online students resided in the impact zone.

What the institution did

Administrators created a compressed 7.5-week course structure (“7B”) as an alternative to the 15-week courses that had already begun. The plan called for 7B courses to begin in mid-October, or the second half of the 15-week term, so online students could restart their courses after a six-week break. Compressed courses had been previously used at the institution so enrollment systems and learning management structures already existed.

Administrators invited faculty teaching online courses to offer a 7B course in addition to their already functioning 15-week course. Monetary incentives were provided, and more than 300 online faculty (43% of online instructors) volunteered. At the conclusion of the 7B enrollment period, 181 compressed sections were created with more than 850 online students enrolled in these new sections. Students who did not enroll in the 7B sections could remain in 15-week courses and work with their instructors for individual accommodations.

The research

Separate web-based surveys, containing mostly open-ended questions, were sent to a random sample of online students and all online faculty in the middle of the spring 2018 term so experiences across the entire fall term could be shared.

Out of 1,068 students selected for the study, 114 participated for an 11% response rate. Out of 413 faculty, 177 participated resulting in a 43% response rate.

The outcome

Three quarters (76%) of online students completed fall courses on time and 86% returned for the spring term, which matched completion rates in previous fall terms.

Student responses to the survey

  • many online students lost power and Internet connections for several weeks
  • others could not get textbooks, because the storm affected supplies
  • others were emotionally and practically affected by loss of homes, damage to their properties, or friends and relatives moving in temporarily
  • students needed emotional support as well as adjustments to their courses, and they reported that faculty overwhelmingly provided that support
  • when asked what support they received from administrators, the response was mixed
  • students who chose the 7B course option did so based on their personal needs after the storm; participants were overwhelmingly positive about the 7B strategy and appreciated the concern, even when they individually did not need accommodations.
  • a majority of students who did not register for a 7B course explained that they were not affected by the storm and did not need any accommodations. Another group of participants said the compressed format was not appealing to them and they wanted to remain in the traditional 15-week format.
  • students wanted more empathy from faculty and administrators, mandatory adjustments for all courses, and proactive communication to find out what students need. Some students desired more flexibility with policies and processes such as temporarily extending academic and financial deadlines.

Faculty responses

Faculty often had similar responses to students, including the emotional toll.

  • student support included faculty choosing to convert their courses to the shorter 7B format, faculty removing assignment deadlines in the 15-week courses so students could turn in work at their own pace, and faculty contacting publishers to replace students’ lost textbooks.
  • faculty also provided non-academic support such as identifying ways students could access computers and internet in their geographic area, demonstrating compassion by asking students about their families, and hosting online discussions so students could share experiences with others in the class.
  • those who taught an emergency response program noted that many of their students were themselves emergency first responders and thus were fully occupied in the aftermath of the hurricane
  • some faculty faced the same issues encountered by students, such as being unable to access internet or electricity, dealing with a damaged residence or vehicle, or being unable to leave their neighborhoods due to flooding.
  • another challenge was an increase in workload by faculty who converted to the 7B course because it often involved adapting instructional practices and managing the fast pace of the updated course. However, even faculty teaching traditional 15-week courses reported increases in their workload as they adapted to individual student needs and provided emotional support for students who were experiencing anxiety and stress.
  • there was mixed reaction to moving to the 7B version of courses, despite an offer of an extra $1,000 stipend for moving to a 7B version; while faculty felt students were generally successful in completing the 7B courses, they also expressed doubts about how much students really learned; faculty teaching 7B courses felt overwhelmed with converting their courses to a shorter format and keeping up with the fast pace of grading once the courses began.
  • a majority of faculty participants held positive views of the institutional crisis response and described it as timely, supportive, and informative. The primary criticism was that there was no formal plan for managing a crisis of this magnitude for online students; and faculty participants criticized campus leaders for not considering the impact on faculty responsibilities before implementing the crisis response. One said: ‘Administrators need a reality check on how much work it is to teach online. Simply saying we can shift to a 7.5-week model shows ineptitude of how much work goes into pedagogy, planning, and teaching.’

Key lessons

  1. What makes the online student experience unique is that they do not have an alternative access point for their courses. While FTF students can access their courses by moving to an online environment, online students cannot readily move to the FTF environment for courses. When both the physical and online learning environments are not accessible, academic continuity for online students ends abruptly. 
  2. First, get to know the demographics of online students at the institution. Understanding where they reside geographically can assist with identifying students impacted by a regional crisis; knowing what academic programs they are enrolled in could prove beneficial. For example, student teachers may take face-to-face courses for most of their curriculum but their student teaching term may occur online as they move to different locations.
  3. A second strategy is to develop a specific crisis response for online students, especially concerning incidents that may impact academic continuity. Creating strategies that explain what instructors and students should do in this situation could provide a rapid response that is consistent and can be adequately supported by campus resources.
  4.  Faculty will be the first campus representatives students turn to when they are experiencing a crisis situation and should be considered frontline responders.
  5. Many faculty are unlikely to have previous crisis training so it is imperative that leaders provide as much guidance and support as possible when a crisis occurs.
  6. Leaders should also consider the increased demands on faculty during a crisis.
    Faculty in this study were willing to support students through the crisis and believed it was the right thing to do given the circumstances. But they also worried about their workload and productivity and how their efforts would be judged when they spent so much time supporting students. Addressing these concerns as part of a crisis plan can help campus leaders develop a culture of trust with faculty.
  7. This study emphasizes the need for a crisis plan that includes online students as a population of concern.

The article suggests a variety of topics that should be covered in crisis planning.

Considering crisis management for online students

I am so heartened to see, as with the Covid-19 emergency, the resilience of students, faculty and to a lesser extent administrators during a crisis. From this study, although things weren’t perfect, and despite horrific personal stress, most students and faculty successfully worked through this crisis. Most completed their courses. (Although I am concerned about the low student response rate to the survey – 11% – which makes me wonder how the other 89% of student would have responded – or were they already gone from the university?).

However, although the institution and students responded well, it was more by nimbleness and ad hoc solutions than by advance planning. It was fortunate that the university already had a system in place for condensed courses, which was the main institutional strategy employed. The rest was left to individual faculty to improvise and adapt.

When people plan, God laughs. Nevertheless, institutions should be thinking about not only what they could do to prepare for on-campus students when the campus needs to close during an emergency, but also what should be done when significant numbers of online students lose Internet access and/or power during an emergency. We are told all the time that such incidents will not only become more frequent but more severe, due to climate change. Political volatility or terrorism could also have the same consequences. Loss of Internet access for large numbers of students is not unlikely: so what’s your game plan in such circumstances?


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