Flood damage from Hurricane Harvey forces change of plans at Lone Star College
For three decades at Lone Star College’s Kingwood campus, Steve Davis has looked students in the eyes as he taught the Reconstruction era and World War II in his American history courses. This semester, he worries he’ll never see their faces.
About 600 in-person courses at Lone Star College-Kingwood, including Davis’, will move at least partially online after Hurricane Harvey plowed floodwater and sewage through many campus buildings late last month, causing millions of dollars in damage and requiring the major change to course schedules. Before Harvey, the campus scheduled 28 percent of its classes to take place partially or fully online. That figure is now 73 percent.
The decision forced an abrupt training of many professors who had never taught online before and required the college to find class space in facilities from local churches to the student center before the semester begins Sept. 25.
Davis said he’s anxious about leaping into online education abruptly. He has never held an online class – and like many other faculty at Lone Star College-Kingwood, he had never been trained to do so before this week. A few colleges and universities have moved to online operations in times of crisis over the last decade, but digital learning experts characterize that decision as reactionary, not a pre-planned strategy.
“I know I’m a really good teacher,” he said. “It’s going to be hard for me to be an average teacher, to do this quick transition to this. … The stress is coming from a feeling of worry that I’m not going to be as good as I want to be.”
Faculty learned how to host discussions virtually, how often to respond to student emails and when to pick up the phone or schedule a video call. Professors, many of whom were familiar with the digital system from online grading and other course management programs, are now assessing how many students do not have reliable internet access. The college could not estimate that figure or assess how many faculty members completed training this week.
‘Planning as we go’
Professors and administrators acknowledge several reasons why moving to a heavily online semester was a good option for Lone Star College-Kingwood, which enrolled more than 12,000 students each semester last year.
First, about a fifth of those students generally take courses online each semester, making the process familiar, the campus president said. Second, at least one study has shown that a significant percentage of community college students who take time off from their education don’t return to finish their degree. Administrators and faculty, then, had to make every effort to hold classes, they say.
Kingwood campus president Katherine Persson said in an interview that Lone Star had not expected that Harvey would halt campus operations for so long.
“No one ever thinks they’re going to lose 80 percent of their facilities in a weekend,” Persson said. “Maybe when all this is over, I’ll have sage words to offer. But right now, we’re planning as we go.”
Harvey had brought more than 30 inches of rain to Kingwood over three days, isolating the neighborhood from other parts of the city as high waters submerged streets.
Repairs to campus will span the semester. Six of nine buildings took on floodwater, and an additional building lost power. Damage is estimated at about $15 million, including the loss of life-size medical mannequins that simulate childbirth for nursing students and 12 dental seats for dental hygiene students.
After the rains subsided, administrators met around a dean’s kitchen table to assess damage and examine the semester’s course offerings, Persson said.
Some available rooms in a student center and music building will turn into classrooms. Facilities from local churches to a rehabilitation hospital will also host in-person classes, said David Baty, vice president of instruction, in an email. Organizing which courses will be held where is the last stage of planning for the semester.
Besides the move online, Harvey required faculty to trim courses to fit in a shorter semester and operate without office space. Speakers and extracurricular events will be cancelled, faculty say, including author visits.
Same skills apply
Just two students of more than 100 have dropped from professor Daniel Coleman’s fall classes, he said.
Internet service has been out at Coleman’s home in Westbury since Aug. 26, and this week he uploaded tests for his online religion classes from the priest’s office at Grace Episcopal Church in Willowbend, where he could use Wi-Fi.
Coleman has taught online classes for years, he said, and even for in-person world religions classes, he uploads lectures along with Buddhist and Hindu prayers for student review off campus. Teaching online, like in-person, requires clear communication with students, he said. He sometimes asks students to call him.
“The foundation is learning the technological end,” he said, “but the same skills that apply in a regular classroom apply in an online classroom, too.”
Online learning has helped college students continue taking classes through crisis for more than a decade, but education technology experts say few universities and colleges are prepared to immediately switch to heavily online operations after a natural disaster.
New Orleans students took online classes financed by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation the semester after Hurricane Katrina, and a report by that foundation said University of Hong Kong students used distance education during the SARS epidemic, too.
“It’s often a seat-of-the-pants response,” said Robert Ubell, vice dean emeritus for online learning at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. “But because it’s a seat-of-the-pants response, it’s quite extraordinary for them to have done it.”
With last-minute preparations, however, course quality may suffer, said Scott McLeod, an educational leadership professor at the University of Colorado Denver.
“A large number of faculty have been allowed to not engage in online learning in any way,” he said. “Which means, all of a sudden, their learning curve is sharp in a compressed period of time.”
Kaleigh VonDerVor, Lone Star College-Kingwood’s director of professional development, said faculty should not have been required to learn how to teach online as a preemptive measure.
Professors should be free to use their limited professional development time to develop skills of their choice, she said.
“We couldn’t have anticipated this, ever,” she said, adding that she is not familiar with any institution training all faculty to teach online.
‘We don’t have a choice’
Still, some students who had paid tuition before Harvey do not have high expectations for the semester, though they will stay enrolled. Kingwood resident Wendy Curts said her 18-year-old daughter is starting her freshman year this fall and will remain enrolled for core classes.
She registered for in-person classes, Curts said, because she worried online learning would heighten her tendency to procrastinate. Her daughter would have attended a different college or university had she known her courses would be online, Curts said.
“I’ve already paid for it – we don’t have a choice,” she said.
Faculty said they plan to schedule in-person meet ups throughout the semester to say hello to their students and answer questions face to face.
Davis, the American history professor, emailed students on Wednesday, urging them to meet him at a Starbucks in Kingwood on Thursday.
“I would love to meet you and will answer your questions to the best of my ability,” he wrote. “This semester is certainly going to be a challenge, but maybe it’s a comfort if we all realize there’s no way we can do as horribly as the Texans did last Sunday (against the Jaguars).”