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Net classes revive New Orleans college

With virtual classrooms, University of New Orleans will be the first school to bring classes back after storm.

After weeks overseeing phone banks and fielding calls from students and other employees at his stricken school, University of New Orleans professor Ken Walsh is going back to teaching.

UNO is the first of New Orleans' damaged large universities to reopen--if largely virtually--to students in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation. Beginning Monday, nearly half of the school's 17,000-plus student body will start taking classes again, mostly online.

It's a temporary and expedient solution that will certainly cause some hardship and confusion. Walsh, who offers a class on beginning business computer use--primarily Microsoft applications such as Word and Excel--says it will likely be more difficult for the students who aren't regular computer users.

But it's better than the alternative, he and others at the college say. For those students and professors whose lives haven't been too disrupted to return, starting classes as soon as possible is an important step back toward normal life.

"Some courses couldn't be put online, but everyone's chipping in, trying to do something new," Walsh said. "People are scrambling, doing late nights, trying to get presentation materials out in time for Monday."

UNO's plan is an outlier among universities that were hard hit by the flooding that has crippled New Orleans. Other schools, from Tulane University--the city's biggest employer--to the local community colleges, are largely hoping to open in January, with some scheduling a mini-semester next summer for students to make up some work.

Luck on high ground
Dozens of colleges in the area have been damaged, and some in the region are worried about an academic "brain drain," as professors who have lost homes seek employment elsewhere. Smaller schools without large endowments face a particularly dangerous time ahead, as the loss of tuition threatens their financial future.

UNO was lucky in some respects. Its main campus is located on the shores of the lake that flooded the city, but it's on high ground that kept most of its buildings dry.

University officials say that only a handful of buildings suffered any substantial water damage. Evacuees who were brought to the campus and left for several days broke into buildings looking for food and water, causing some small additional damage, but the school is better off than many of its local peers.

Provost Rick Barton said the decision to start up with a fall semester was made soon after the worst of the storm's damage had passed. Many students--particularly those who were planning to graduate in fall 2005--e-mailed to plead that the school start up again somehow.

The school administration agreed that reopening was important, but they didn't have many options. A suburban campus remained largely undamaged, and they found some classroom space in high schools and junior highs that could be used temporarily.

For the bulk of critical classes, they turned to the school's distance learning infrastructure, which is already in place. When classes start Monday, 750 of the 1,100 total being offered will be exclusively online.

The Internet teaching will be critical in linking a student body and professorial staff that is now dispersed around the country, Barton said. Even if the main campus is reopened for part of the fall session, or for next year's January classes, a huge proportion of the housing in New Orleans will remain inaccessible to students and teachers alike.

Already, the university has had senior professors whose houses have been damaged or destroyed say they have decided to retire, and younger teachers seeking jobs elsewhere. It will be critical to keep the Net classes going as long as it takes to keep that far-flung population connected to the heart of the University, Barton said.

"We need to accommodate as many people as possible on both sides of the lectern," Barton said. "My thinking is that once we get pretty good at doing the online instruction, we'll continue doing it for a while."