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Published in Print: September 21, 2005, as E-Learning Providers Offer Help in Wake of Katrina

E-Learning Providers Offer Help in Wake of Katrina

Virtual schools opening slots in online classes to displaced students.

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After Hurricane Katrina pounded parts of the Gulf Coast late last month, the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana Virtual School lost track of some 400 of its 2,300 students. But it had re-established contact with half of them by last week and was continuing its efforts to reconnect with the remainder.

“Our virtual school is up and running,” said Janet G. Broussard, the director of educational technology for the Louisiana education department. “We never had any downtime.”

The state-funded Louisiana Virtual School is at capacity for the moment and cannot take any more students. But the school will train 25 to 50 additional teachers this fall and create 500 or more slots for students in its online classes this coming spring and summer, as a direct result of the hurricane.

That planned expansion is not the only e-learning effort afoot to help the thousands of students displaced by the massive storm. Other virtual schools, businesses, and educational technology organizations have stepped forward to donate money and online-learning tools as well.

The Atlanta-based BellSouth Foundation, for one, announced last week that it was donating $5 million to the Louisiana and Mississippi education departments for K-12 online learning. Each state will receive $2.5 million.

“Online courses and technology support is critical to our relief effort,” Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi said in a statement last week as he accepted the funds.

Pooling Resources

The Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, the Alexandria, Va.-based North American Council for Online Learning, and the Washington-based State Educational Technology Directors Association are spearheading an effort with state virtual schools and other educational technology groups to donate online classes and perhaps virtual tutoring, computers, Internet connections, and mobile classrooms to students who fled the Aug. 29 hurricane’s destructive path.

See Also
Read the accompanying story, “What is VSKOOL?”

The groups have started a Web site, www.vskool.org, which has information and other resources on helping Katrina-affected schools.

The consortium is in the beginning stages of gathering online-learning resources for Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, the states most directly affected by Katrina, and are waiting for the education departments of those states to tell them exactly what technology help they need.

“They need their basic needs met first,” said Susan D. Patrick, the president of the online-learning council. “Now we’re doing an inventory of how many open seats, what subjects, and what organizations have space.”

The Florida Virtual School has set aside 1,700 “seats” in its online classes, and may provide thousands more in the near future, said Bruce Friend, the chief operations officer for the Orlando-based school, which teaches about 21,000 students annually.

The Florida virtual program, financed by the state, normally charges $350 per semester-long course to out-of-state students, but it will waive those fees for students displaced by the hurricane. The school employs about 250 online teachers and may hire or train additional teachers to work with hurricane evacuees, Mr. Friend said.

The virtual schools of Kentucky, West Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama can also accommodate students displaced by the storm, said Bill Thomas, the director of educational technology for the SREB, whose members include those states and 12 others across the South.

And virtual schools in states as far away as Massachusetts, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Utah stand ready to absorb middle and high school students.

“If we had to accept 20,000 students for a short period of time, we would do it,” said Richard M. Siddoway, the principal of the Salt Lake City-based Electronic High School. “But we suspect the number will be much smaller.”

The state-funded school, which serves more than 40,000 students a year, offers 135 online courses, each of which normally cost $50 a quarter for out-of-state students.

On the for-profit front, some members of the National Council of Education Providers, a Washington-based alliance of education management companies and operators of charter schools, proposed the idea of establishing a “national virtual charter school” to the U.S. Department of Education. The group, known as NCEP, has set up a “children’s emergency school hotline,” (800) 291-7809, to steer parents to schools where they can enroll their children.

Donating Supplies

Connections Academy, a member of NCEP, had reached the 500-student statewide-enrollment cap for its Florida Connections Academy before the hurricane hit, but it could take a few students on a “scholarship basis,” said Barbara Dreyer, the president of the Baltimore-based virtual charter school provider.

The company also sent a proposal to the Mississippi education department to donate computers, curriculum materials, and online teacher support for as many as 50 students, but hadn’t received a reply as of last week.

K12 Inc., a virtual charter school provider based in McLean, Va., also reported contacting federal and state education officials to offer help.

Blackboard Inc., a Washington-based e-learning software and systems company, is waiving its computer-network hosting fees for K-12 schools and higher education institutions for three months, a potential savings of tens of thousands of dollars per district or university, said Patrick Supanc, the senior director of K-12 markets for the company.

It also set up www.katrina.blackboard.com, a Web site to help connect hurricane-affected schools, students, and teachers. On the site, schools nationwide can “adopt” a school that needs online training, materials, and other support.

Mark Thimmig, the chief executive officer of White Hat Ventures, an Akron, Ohio-based virtual charter school provider that serves 5,000 students in Ohio and Pennsylvania, said his company could provide laptop computers, online teachers, and an entire electronic-learning curriculum for as many as 2,000 students on short notice.

But he said in an interview last week that his hands were tied because of uncertainty over whether some state and federal laws governing public education could be waived, and what he described as the slow response of government agencies to businesses such as his that want to help. Mr. Thimmig, who visited Baton Rouge Sept. 7 and 8 to talk to state and local educators, said he was told, for example, that a school cannot operate within an emergency shelter. ("Law on Education of the Homeless a Challenge for Districts", this issue.)

He was also uncertain about how and when his company would get paid for its services. “It’s as clear as mud at a time when clarity is everything,” Mr. Thimmig said.

Special Challenges

While online learning can be an important service to educate students displaced by Katrina, said Mr. Thomas of the SREB, he cautioned that emotional and academic hurdles exist to making “anywhere, anytime” learning an option for some of them.

Displaced students who could benefit from distance learning include those staying temporarily with friends or relatives who own a home computer, and those with Internet access through a shelter, a temporary school, or a library. Virtual schools could be a logical option for students who will spend the coming weeks and months on the move, but who have the ability to tap in to the Internet periodically, he said.

But most of the students uprooted by the storm may never have taken an online class and so won’t be used to the independent, self-directed nature of virtual classes, Mr. Thomas noted. Many of the displaced students may also have experienced emotional trauma, and will need more time and support to learn, whether in an online setting or a brick-and-mortar classroom, he said.

“Scant few of these kids have ever taken an online course. Think about the ramifications of that,” Mr. Thomas said. “And teachers have to be aware that they will have to spend much, much more time with these students. They’ve had terrible experiences.”

Vol. 25, Issue 04, Page 8

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