From UB

The familiar rhythms of academia lend a comforting presence on college campuses. Each autumn as summer temperatures begin to fall, days shorten, and leaves flutter down, fresh-faced students arrive en masse, their futures pregnant with possibility.

Last year, however, as students and educators in the Gulf Coast region prepared for the onset of fall classes, an unexpected visitor interrupted the traditional proceedings: Hurricane Katrina.

In the storm's wake, nearly 1,600 lives were lost, property damage numbered in the tens of billions of dollars, and educational institutions found themselves in disarray.

Elizabeth Moore Rhodes, the director of distance learning and the educational technology support specialist for Xavier University of Louisiana, vividly remembers the destruction that the hurricane left behind. "Practically every building on campus had water in it," she says. "My office is in the library, and the library had 4 to 5 feet of water on the first floor."

The office spaces and holdings in the library were completely destroyed. A large computer lab on the library's ground floor was also ruined. Teachers and students alike sought safety and classes were canceled. "All of our academic programs were interrupted, even the distance courses. Everything was down until January 2006," says Rhodes.

Once faculty and staff members finally reconvened, it was clear that a new disaster plan had to be formulated-a plan with which, even if the campus' brick and mortar facilities were again damaged, distance learning could continue with the support of a reliable and flexible network infrastructure.

"We've developed short-term plans as well as long-term plans on how we can get communication back initially and then get our course management system software running again with the expectation that students could continue with their distance learning programs," says Rhodes.

The university is putting arrangements in place to provide faculty members with internet access at predetermined evacuation sites. Faculty members are also being trained extensively in the Blackboard course management system so they will be able to deliver content and administer tests in the event of another disaster. As for more long-term plans, the preparation is focusing on data transfer and the coordination of remote locations where-if the campus must be closed-all data cartridges and systems will be taken and where host servers will have already been lined up.

Katrina changed the scope of Xavier's distance education program, which first launched in 2003. Prior to the hurricane, education courses were not offered online at the graduate course level. But when New Orleans was evacuated, its school system collapsed and a large number of schoolteachers were out of jobs and displaced around the country. To help them, Xavier added online education courses to its roster.

Rhodes believes that if online courses were not added at Xavier following the storm, then teachers from the New Orleans area would have pursued their graduate studies elsewhere. "We met the needs of our audience," she says. "The students needed online courses; they couldn't come back to campus and they didn't have jobs here anymore."

At Loyola University New Orleans, students were moving into residence halls as Katrina approached. Forced to evacuate, they ended up dispersing to nearly 400 different institutions. The majority of Loyola's classes were canceled, although after a short shutdown of nine days, distance education programs in areas such as ministry, nursing, and health-care management carried on.

Bret Jacobs, executive director of Information Technology, attributes this continuity to having an actionable disaster recovery plan that had been rehearsed annually. "We were a little ahead of the curve because we had exercised our plan on a few occasions and had just completed our test for 2005 in March," he explains.

Still, says Jacobs, there were a number of challenges to combat. For a few days administrators were unable to act because of a complete failure in land- and cell-based telecommunications. The campus didn't have power for nearly a month. The Blackboard system wasn't operating for more than a week after the storm.

With such events in hindsight and to prepare for future disasters, the university has taken steps to apply lessons learned. Administrators have opted to move course management to a hosted site, so that they can shrink the nine days that Blackboard was down last time to, hopefully, zero days next time around.

Jacobs has also developed a "technology triage" that outlines what technologies would be restored in an interim time frame and what will not. As a member of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, the university is also exploring how it can work with sister institutions in the event of another shutdown.

Jacobs believes that hybrid courses, in which traditional classroom sessions are supplemented with online components, might ease idleness in the case of a future shutdown. "Our students are already in the habit of checking their assignments online and getting course materials, so the bridge is already there," he says.

While hybrid courses wouldn't continue without interruption in the event of a major disaster (since facilities would likely be damaged), they would provide a way for students to continue accessing coursework. Once any damaged facilities reopened, face-to-face instruction would then continue and be tailored to the distance learning that took place in the interim.

Unlike institutions in New Orleans, the University of Houston was not directly affected by Katrina. However, it experienced a storm impact all its own.

Around 1,000 displaced students from New Orleans enrolled at the university, with approximately 700 of those electing to take online courses that were added as part of a special "second start" semester that kicked off on September 20, 2005.

Marshall Schott, executive director for educational technology and university outreach, says that the distance learning programs provided a flexible and accessible means of accommodating the displaced students. Fortunately for all parties involved, the institution's administrators and faculty were already well versed in the intricacies of distance education.

The university's first distance learning program launched in the early 1980s, when courses were delivered to off-campus sites via traditional and videoconferencing instruction. Over the past two decades, the program has evolved significantly: Now courses are available by broadcast television, DVD, and online. Currently, University of Houston Distance Education enrolls nearly 20,000 individuals annually.

On the heels of last year's hurricanes, Schott and his team are developing contingency plans for environmental disasters that could occur in the Houston metropolitan area. In phase one, they are developing listservs for all courses so that faculty can maintain e-mail contact with their students in the event of an emergency. In phase two, which will take place in 2007, they are moving toward an environment in which faculty can activate a course shell, or template, to post syllabi, course materials, announcements, and other information through Blackboard Learning System-Vista Enterprise License. In addition, administrators are exploring remote-site hosting for the school's Vista servers, and faculty will be trained in effectively using the enterprise system.

Disaster or no disaster, the goal is to utilize distance education to improve learning outcomes. Like his counterpart at Loyola, Schott sees hybrid courses as a near-term growth segment. "Hybrid courses give faculty the opportunity to deliver material to students so they can come to class more prepared to engage in higher-level discussions and activities. Students like the convenience of one-day-per-week class meetings in a reduced seat-time format," he observes.

Most students taking online courses expect flexible and accessible support. They also often expect an immediate response. To this end, a university's support staff is critical to the effectiveness of a distance education program in the event of a disaster.

Support staff duties include, among other things, student registration, scheduling, and working on IT issues. Schott advises that procedures and staff members be evaluated regularly.

Comprehensive evaluations to ensure the quality and consistency of a distance learning program are also important, he says. "Learning outcomes and student satisfaction need to be benchmarked against standards for traditional classroom delivery. In order to ensure that you are measuring the right things, survey instruments unique to distance learning environments usually need to be created," advises Schott.

For the University of Houston, such surveying involves a two-pronged approach. The first element focuses on institutional effectiveness and assesses the extent to which faculty create an effective teaching and learning environment. The second element assesses infrastructure and learning support.Shifting Priorities

While University of Houston online educators welcomed an influx of new distance learning students to the Lone Star State (virtually, at least), Mark Hendricks viewed firsthand the devastating impact that Katrina left behind. Just 10 days after the hurricane blew through, Hendricks, a system administrator for communications and information technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, was in Gulfport, Miss., installing portable networks.

His mission? To rebuild internet service for a group of Virginia Tech medical students who were providing health-care services in the region. Once this task was completed, Hendricks and his team, armed with a satellite dish and radio, journeyed to Alcorn State University (Miss.) to help resuscitate the institution's online infrastructure.

Reflecting on his Katrina experience, Hendricks sees a glaring need for educational institutions to have recovery plans in place. "Universities need to make business continuity a priority," he says.

Indeed, administrators are coming to grips with the myriad complexities that accompany re-establishing distance education and related information and communications services following a disaster. Network infrastructures must be rapidly rebuilt. Information must be culled from off-site data storage sites. An operational hot site needs to be set up that will handle the needs of students, faculty, and staff.

Jacobs of Loyola attributes his institution's relatively quick recovery time to the fact that a hot site was actionable and exercised. Otherwise, he says, "We would have had almost insurmountable challenges." Schott notes that there are a number of challenges to keep in mind when putting contingency plans in place. In addition to exploring remote hosting, Schott and his team are also looking to build hot sites at the University of Houston's regional campuses that could provide backup support if the main campus were to be impacted.

Of course, it's not just hurricanes that are capable of disrupting educational pursuits. Colleges and universities can be hobbled by earthquakes, tornadoes, or even tsunamis. No region is insulated from potential terrorist attacks or the possibility of an influenza epidemic.

As the last handful of years have taught us, disasters can strike at any place, at any time. In an effort to ensure educational continuity, many universities have opted to collaborate with other schools.

Partnering with colleagues offers several benefits. "All institutions have strengths and weaknesses and can learn something from others facing the same issues," explains Hendricks. "Also, collaboration is probably the most economical way to ensure educational continuity."

Joining forces from a technological standpoint makes sense as well. There are a number of possible solutions to the impediments thrust upon distance education, but not all institutions are privy to the most recent advances. Strength in numbers makes the possibility less likely that a single catastrophic event can wipe out all remedies.

Hendricks provides an example using his employer. "If UNL buys heavily into satellite technology, and a solar flare takes out communications satellites for a period, it would be nice to have a partner like Texas A&M who is working with microwave networks to help us with our situation."

Joining an established consortium can also be beneficial. Organizations like the Sloan Consortium and American Distance Education Consortium can help administrators correspond with counterparts at other institutions. Such communication enables members to build a network while keeping abreast of possible resources that could help keep programs running, points out Hendricks.

Consortia also provide invaluable support in times of need. After Katrina struck, more than 150 colleges and universities joined efforts with the Sloan Consortium and the Southern Regional Education Board to offer an online institution. Dubbed "Sloan Semester," the initiative provided tuition-free online courses to students affected by the storm. The online catalog listed more than 1,300 courses, and, in all, more than 8,000 enrollments were processed.

"We went to the aid of people who needed it by contacting a number of institutions that could provide help," says Burks Oakley II, co-chair of the Sloan Semester Steering Committee.

If there was a silver lining to the impact that Katrina had on higher education institutions, it was the fierce support that the affected universities received from their brethren in a time of crisis. The hurricane also, no doubt, provided a resounding wake-up call in terms of disaster planning.

According to the 2006 Current IT Issues Survey conducted by EDUCAUSE, disaster recovery/business continuity was the fourth most common challenge in terms of strategic importance to chief information officers and others surveyed-up from number 10 the previous year.

Reflects Hendricks: "Katrina proved that institutions can move swiftly to find solutions. It would just be a lot smoother if there were already plans in place to recover from a disaster."

Chelan David is a freelance writer based in Seattle, Wash. He has recently written articles for EContent Magazine and Smart Business Los Angeles.

Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, the ongoing threats of terrorism, and the auditing profession's increased emphasis on business continuity planning have captured the attention of higher education executives.

Students and staff located at the Thailand campuses of two U.S. universities are safe, say officials. Richard Meyers, president of Webster University in St.

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For the most part, the general public perceives major universities and small community colleges as traveling in different academic circles.

Bringing real-world job experience into higher education has always been a challenge. This is particularly true for professional programs such as architecture, engineering, construction, and urban design.

Student blogs that are sponsored by Admissions offices have quickly spread all over the country. If you haven't started a blog like this yet, you are probably looking at what other institutions are doing with great interest, envy, or fear-and definitely with some pressing questions.

Should you launch your own student blogs to support your recruiting efforts? How can you ensure these blogs about college life will end up generating more applications as well as bigger and better classes of freshmen? Beyond the media hype, can these interactive diaries translate to better yields?

Consider why they can help attract the best prospective students and persuade them to attend your school. Everything comes down to the Holy Grail of authenticity-or at least a perception of authenticity.

Whether you call them Millenials or NetGeners, today's prospective students just don't buy marketing messages delivered on glossy brochures. They've spent their teen years watching all sorts of reality TV shows and fallen in love with their "transparency." They rely on their peers' opinions and recommendations on music, movies, and education. And, according to the report "Teen Content Creators and Consumers" (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2005), 38 percent of all teens who are online say they read blogs.

Student blogs have
become sought-after commodities in the
college selection process.

Already fueled by the prosperous college guide market, this generation's yearning to find out the truth about college life has made student blogs sought-after commodities in the college selection process.

Some corporate players have noticed, taking advantage of this new trend.

There's TheU, for instance. Founded by Doug Imbruce, a recent graduate from Columbia, the company produces and sells DVDs created to reveal the "real" college experience at different institutions.

Recently, current students have had the opportunity to set up blogs and share the lows and highs of their college life. "Bloggers for TheU.com are incredibly aware of the many different shortcomings of their schools and help students enjoy a happier, less stressful college transition by preparing these kids for challenges, big and small," says Imbruce. "The bloggers are also on hand to document and illustrate the many different ways in which some schools cater to specific needs better than others."

With TheU's blogs getting several thousand visits per month, chances are a lot of information about your institution is already available on this website, which is promoted to high school counselors. On these blogs, visitors can find good feedback about college life as well as not-so-good takes-as in this post dated April 24, 2006, by Judy L. from MIT:

"It is lonely up here, and that is why so many of us drink or get depressed. Some, maybe even most, of the heavy drinkers at MIT never even touched a drink in high school-but they can pound a 30-rack [of beer] away in one night without even blinking here."

So, what's a school to do when this type of testimonial is available and promoted on the internet? Join the fray, add other viewpoints, and make them easily accessible to high school seniors and their parents (which MIT does, with its student blogs sponsored by the Admissions office).

"Interaction between these audiences is inevitable and already occurring elsewhere, so why not facilitate the conversations and take advantage of it on our own websites? Prospective students and their families are visiting RateMyProfessor.com, LiveJournal.com, or TheU.com to learn 'the truth' about our institutions," says Bob Robertson-Boyd, web manager at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Since its first student journal in February 2003, the institution has offered several blogs. Administrators there even pushed the envelope further last fall by featuring the latest posts right on the university's home page-without any preliminary sort of content editing.

While student blogs can help prospective students find balanced accounts of college life at a particular institution, they also complement or further the benefits of student-guided campus visits.

Any well-rounded campus tour led by an engaging and interesting freshman can work wonders on undecided admitted students. Similarly, good student blogs inform, engage, and give a glimpse of student life. At Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., 82 percent of the student body is from out of state, with 48 states and 42 countries represented. So campus visits aren't always possible and L&C student blogs have been an excellent substitute since 2003.

"Our student blogs provide insight into L&C and give the college an added dimension that can be difficult to convey over the internet," says Michael Sexton, dean of Admissions.

Blogs can also help admitted students zero in on their final choice school. "Prospective students, and certainly their parents, watch with a critical eye when we show them beautiful words and pictures depicting a perfect campus life. What these decision-makers need instead is a way to understand what life is like on a particular campus to help them decide if that is the right place for them," confirms Nancy Prater, web content coordinator at Ball State University (Ind.), where 12 students started to blog last fall.

Capital U featured its latest student blog posts right on its home page-without any preliminary editing.

Finally, good student blogs can help high school graduates with their last-minute questions or doubts at decision time or even earlier in the selection process-without disclosing their identity. That's exactly why Beloit College (Wis.) launched its blogging program last year. Since a third of its applications had been sent without any documented first contact, officials began offering another option to this type of prospective student.

"Blogs are a good way to invite the attention of students without asking them to make a commitment. Our marketing goal was to provide a way to observe Beloit in a comfortable, non-threatening way," explains Nancy Monnich Benedict, vice president for enrollment services.

All this does make sense. But, what kind of return on investment can be expected from these student blogs?

That's where things get tricky. Launching and maintaining student blogs doesn't require a huge investment. From staff time to a few thousands dollars covering bloggers' compensation and/or technical gear, the necessary budget remains low compared to other tactics. So most early adoptors didn't spend too much time setting up processes to measure their ROI.

While e-mails, application forms, or conversations with admission advisors have expressed positive feedback, measurement data generally isn't available yet, even in schools with three-year-old initiatives.

"As soon as the right tools are available, I fully intend to look at our blogs to track views, time spent on each post, comments posted, on-campus interviews with families, and effort to publish, to try to extrapolate some form of ROI," says Robertson-Boyd. "I want to be able to say that Capital's blogs were responsible for 12 undergraduate students and three newspaper articles in 2007. Assuming the best, of course."

Ball State invested more in its blogging program, essentially in the form of promotional postcards mailed to high school seniors. Just a few months after their September 2005 launch, their 12 student blogs resulted in lots of press clips and received more than 11,000 visits per day. "We have not tried to quantify our ROI but can say confidently that the value we have received has far outweighed our cost," says Prater.

To determine the impact of the blogs, staff have conducted intercept interviews of prospects and parents during campus tours last spring. They're also surveying incoming freshmen and their parents during summer orientation. (Hint for prospective blog program launchers: If you plan to start your own student blogs soon, don't forget to borrow these ideas.)

It would be a mistake to think student blogs will work all the time. The success of these programs depends on institutional culture, the talent of the bloggers, and the efficiency of promotional efforts.

At George Fox University (Ore.), MBA student blogs, tried for nine months and then discontinued, never developed a real audience. Graduate Admissions Director Brendon Connelly (who personally blogs with great success at SlackerManager .com) says, "We wanted the blogs to be so compelling that they would be a recruiting tool that we could highlight. Blogs can be and do all that, but, we now know, there's much more to a successful implementation than simply selecting smart and witty students with impressive titles to blog for your school or program."

<hr>

Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college as well as a consultant on web projects for other institutions.

<i>Program could potentially track students from grade school to workforce.</i>

Picture these scenarios:

At 1 a.m., a student heading back to her dorm after a late-night study group skips the shuttle, opting for a cross-campus walk, sans company, instead.

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