Overcoming the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria and Keeping Students Engaged

Sebastián Pulido
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San Juan, Puerto Rico

Nowadays, higher education institutions are at a crossroads, both for trying to capture students’ attention worldwide, and for creating interest in their academic programs –  and the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico (PUPR) is no exception. Currently, the institution is focusing its efforts on implementing technological initiatives that facilitate access to more students, using teaching and learning-based distance education as their methodology. However, this access must be complemented by an experience that is worthwhile for students, and which motivates them and allows them to enjoy the learning process.

The main focus of the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico is on solving the current challenges related to education quality, with a particular emphasis on e-learning and academic integrity. These key elements of PUPR’s strategy have been guiding the institution’s actions for several years, as well as the accreditation and internationalization plans they have been preparing for quite some time.  Added to this are the more than seven years that the university has been creating fully online courses.

However, an unforeseen event of the greatest proportions awaited them. The worst natural disaster in the history of Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria, which hit the island on September 20, 2017, making headlines for days, and leaving behind great economic and human loss. Even now, six months later, most of the road and energy infrastructure remains damaged, and Puerto Ricans still feel the personal sequels of this tragedy very deeply.

Overcoming the impact of this type of catastrophe in a positive way is a task that requires time and effort by anyone involved in the academic process, and students in particular. Heyda Delgado, director of the CEDUP Distance Education Center at the university, takes this into account in her work, as she is responsible for following up with the Miami, Orlando and San Juan campuses during this unexpected situation.

Heyda Delgado, Director of the Center for Distance Education (CEDUP) of the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico
Heyda Delgado, Director of the Center for Distance Education (CEDUP) of the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico

Seven years ago, long before the hurricane, the university had already decided to implement an online education plan that led to the creation of the CEDUP. Since then, and with a team of less than 10 people, Heyda and her colleagues have created 72 courses, with over 20 more currently in development. From the instructional design and of multimedia pieces, to the loading of content into Blackboard’s platform and its management, all constitute complex work that earned the PUPR the Outstanding Recognition for Distance Learning Award by the Middle Commission of Higher Education in 2015.

The Aftermath of Hurricane Maria

 It took weeks before Delgado could restart her work at the institution, as the damages were extensive. However, once activities resumed, the entire university began working to reestablish a sense of normalcy as soon as possible. Temporary office spaces were set up in the main parking lot to help students and their families with their academic situation.

It was not until Category 4 of the hurricane took place, that the efforts of the university, and especially of CEDUP, took on a whole new meaning and value proposition for the university’s transformation. Even though the Polytechnic University has historically offered higher education in diverse engineering fields and has been recognized for years for doing so, it is not surprising for things to change drastically after an event of such a magnitude as Hurricane Maria.

One thing that took Delgado and many other faculty members by surprise was the change in direction proposed by the institution’s board: focus on the area of health. This unexpected direction was greatly (although not completely) influenced by the island’s situation after the hurricane. In addition, it is more than justified given the island’s strong pharmaceutical industry and the projected increase in the median age of Puerto Rican’s, which will require improved care to ensure a better quality of life.

Before Hurricane Maria, the Polytechnic University was already considering internationalization and promotional plans to attract more students. As a result, although the natural disaster took everyone by surprise, the university had already devised a plan, and which was immediately implemented, although directed more towards repopulating and rebuilding. This led to the university’s outreach to the island’s more rural areas with a message of affordability, opening the doors to thousands of young people who would otherwise have difficulties completing any type of study through a traditional face-to-face learning model.

Motivating Students

 The Polytechnic University aims to attract students through technology, as well as through an improved learning experience that generates their enthusiasm in the educational process, driving them to seek out the course topics and contents that are appealing and enjoyable to them, resulting in better, self-driven learning.

Delgado has also been an online student herself. In fact, she is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Nova Southeastern University and knows first-hand what it means to teach and to receive education online. As a result, quality education and the student experience are key interests for her. For this reason, she has made it a point to work with professors and show them the full range of possibilities available with the Blackboard tools at their disposal. However, tools alone are not enough. On the contrary, thinking more broadly about how to inspire genuine student interest about their own learning can lead to answers when it comes to course design and implementation.

For example, the CEDUP proposes a simple strategy: putting oneself in students’ shoes, as course designers and instructors can only cover so much, despite their knowledge and good intentions. From there on, it is fundamental to talk directly to students to set a clear path, as Delgado’s and her colleagues’ work at the university has shown. The idea is not to leave everything in students’ hands, but to include them, so they can contribute to the creation of a program which they’ll have to interact with every day.

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How Education Can Continue When Nature Strikes

And this is where opportunity lies, according to Delgado’s experience: When students feel understood by those who design what they read, listen to, and see, and how they interact with it, it makes it easier for them to understand the learning process and provides them with purpose with every activity they undertake. From that point on, students themselves can justify their behavior, enjoy learning activities, and are more receptive to new experiences, methods and contents. Additionally, constant communication and the certainty that they can always clarify their doubts or share their comments keep students willing to participate and strengthen their trust in themselves and in their academic process. This is why self-assessment is widely regarded as one of the biggest advantages of online learning. However, all of the above must be guaranteed by the design itself.

According to Delgado, one of the keys to ensure the quality of online courses is proper delimitation, as the online world promises no boundaries, a notion that can lead to false expectations and ideas of what it means to learn through a digital learning environment. Therefore, to achieve ideal design, everything must be considered from what is necessary, and from the capabilities and limitations of technology. For example, the university’s first online courses included texts that were far too long, with some 90 pages long. Nowadays, Delgado and her team have concluded that no course can include texts over 70 pages long.

Delgado, an expert in the field, created a Quality Matters rubric to ensure the quality of course design, and comply with Distance Education regulations, which defines three main priorities that guide design across disciplines:

1. First: consider interactions, as this is the first obstacle that can come up in case of a design issue. Instructions and contents must be clear, including student-teacher communications, as students must never feel alone or confused.

2. Second: do not overload students with unnecessary information that could stop them from moving on to the next lesson or lead them to abandon the course.

3. Third and lastly: it is essential to get to know students, as well as any specific condition they may be facing. It is necessary to take into account students with disabilities, those who work, or those with children, as these factors can greatly influence the learning experience, especially that of an online course.

When students feel understood by those who design what they read, listen to, and see, and how they interact with it, it makes it easier for them to understand the learning process and provides them with purpose with every activity they undertake.

Academic Integrity and Quality: Elements of Persuasion

Amidst such a wave of radical changes, PUPR considers the new paradigms to be positive. Both the CEDUP team and faculty members know that the pedagogical process cannot be taken lightly, which is why the changes proposed by a large-scale implementation of online courses must be carried out through a process that includes dialogue and persuasion.

It is common to find professors who resist to certain changes, especially ones as drastic as leaving behind traditional face-to-face education. However, this resistance is understandable, and even healthy, to establish dialogue and work together to solve doubts and achieve the desired results. At least this is how the university’s staff have done it. Delgado’s job and most of her efforts are focused on course conversion and teaching faculty about the benefits of online tools.

To establish dialogue, it is necessary to understand the reasons why a professor would be skeptical to the proposed changes. Whether one calls it fear, prejudice or doubt, many of those motives are valid. However, Delgado is committed to demonstrating that those worries are always considered, as they are an integral part of the pedagogical process and are also compatible with the tools and methods of digital learning environments.

One of the biggest worries shared by most professors is plagiarism. The challenge of ensuring academic integrity in an online environment keeps many faculty members away from new technologies as they are associated with a loss of control over assessments and, therefore, a loss in the quality of education. This is a valid concern and Delgado is aware of it, which is why her team is working hand in hand with professors to develop evaluation methods that create more trust, such as personalized activities for students, as well as the widespread use of SafeAssign software.

Another controversial topic is the origin and use of resources such as video, audio and interactive materials, among others. Some professors may think it difficult to migrate all the resources they have built over the years onto a digital medium, but design guides prove that such thinking is unfounded, as the available pedagogical resources are countless, in addition to the possibility of creating one’s own content.

For this reason, the Polytechnic University is conducting training sessions for faculty members to strengthen their course design abilities, and enable them to share knowledge with complete mastery of online education methodologies. Additionally, roundtables have been created for professors to share successful experiences with their colleagues, channel efforts, and help the university accelerate its transition and continue its transformation and adaptation process.

“Blackboard is a part of PUPR’s day to day activities – an indispensable tool,” comments Delgado. The recent launch of Blackboard Collaborate provided a reliable way for professors and students to communicate face to face effectively, which was unprecedented and helped change several professors’ perception about new technologies inside and outside the classroom.

In short, nobody could have prepared the Polytechnic University or the team at the Center for Distance Education for what was ahead of them after a natural disaster such as Hurricane Maria. Ultimately, however, they had already set the foundations on which they are rebuilding the university, in accordance with the country’s current and future needs. The Orlando and Miami campuses, along with the main campus in San Juan, are the best proof of this.

Heyda Delgado, Director of the Center for Distance Education (CEDUP) of the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico



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