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Healing from Hurricane Rita

A new e-learning initiative is helping Lamar University expand beyond its borders.
University Business, Nov 2006

At Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, the importance of enhancing e-learning services was heightened after the devastating effects of Hurricane Rita, which hit the Houston and Beaumont areas in September 2005. To date, the university has spent more than $30 million in recovery efforts. Approximately 85 percent of the buildings on campus had some type of damage, which forced administrators to consider additional methods of service delivery. As administrators and faculty began to examine ways to enhance e-learning, they realized the potential benefits outside the classroom.

Employees played a critical role in the recovery efforts. Twenty-three days after the hurricane, students returned to campus to complete the fall 2005 semester. As employees struggled to maintain daily operations as well as recovery efforts, many of them also faced personal loss. Services in the local area were diminished, and housing was scarce. It was important for faculty, staff, and students to maintain a sense of stability and have the time to take care of their own personal needs. While classroom learning obviously has advantages, it was important to explore new ways of distributing educational materials outside the classroom, and provide flexibility in scheduling.

Twenty three days after the hurricane, students returned to campus to complete the Fall, 2005 semester.  As employees struggled to maintain daily operations as well as recovery efforts, many of them also faced personal loss.

Distance learning was not exactly at new idea. (Lamar University has offered telecourses and courses available through an interactive video network since the 1990s.) But these courses were provided via the university cable channel or by students checking out videotapes from the Library Media Services Department. When scheduling conflicts or technical difficulties occurred in interactive courses, VHS tapes of the courses were delivered to the participating K-12 institutions. Online classes were first offered in 1999, using WebCT. As infrastructure improved, the ability to integrate video and other rich media allowed Lamar to establish a visual learning environment to enhance the student's online experience. Today, courses are archived to a centralized server and are accessible to students at any time.

The first use of the enterprise video communications system came about not in the classroom, but in the IT division. The IT staff was often required to leave the office, or the local area to attend professional training and development courses due to rapidly changing technology. As new technologies were implemented in the IT Division, managers found that training activities required personnel to spend a significant amount of time away from their jobs. Administrators wanted to improve employee education and training opportunities with centralized video content delivery, as well as enhancing communications by leveraging live video.

The university chose Media Publisher's Enterprise Video Communications solution. They began working with Media Publisher in December 2005 to implement enterprise video to support four key applications, including publishing of on-demand and live video; archiving classroom sessions; managing a video library/portal; and faculty communications. The University's Enterprise Video Communications project supports an employee community of approximately 1,000 users and a student community of approximately 9,000 users.

Once enhanced e-learning services were put in place for the IT staff, administrators searched for ways to extend their investment in video management solutions. For instance, the school's finance office had to regularly send staff off-site for training sessions on financial reporting, which were mandated by the state.

With a video management solution in place, the financial staff was able to complete the necessary training from the convenience of their desktop computers or centralized training facilities.

Naturally, the school has also used its e-learning system to benefit students--and to increase enrollment. In addition, e-learning has allowed faculty to move to newer, less time-consuming methods of providing video learning.

E-learning has allowed LU to develop in-house training and educational materials that can be distributed across internal networks. Students can sit at a computer anywhere and access Lamar courses anytime on demand. In addition, instructors can broadcast live from the classroom, send out questions to students, and also receive questions from students who may be monitoring the class off-campus from their computers. Centralized storage of all video on-demand assets makes it easy for students and faculty to manage and find the appropriate content.

Faculty members can now stream video live or on demand, archive it on campus, and publish their own video.

For Lamar, creating an e-learning system was a necessary expense that administrators hope will yield long-term benefits. It's an important tool for increasing enrollment, and the university has high hopes for using e-learning to expand the student population beyond its local area.

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