Cardinal Cadence Fall 2012

Delivering in the midst of disaster

Faith Wallace at clinic in the PhilippinesFaith Wallace, assistant professor in the Joanne Gay Dishman Department of Nursing, is a well-travelled woman. From her hometown of Cagayan de Oro on the Philippine island of Mindanao, to Austria, to the Texas Gulf Coast, Wallace has worked and been educated in several corners of the globe. Now, with continual advancements in delivering online education, Wallace can teach her own students at Lamar University from abroad using the Blackboard system.

Wallace already had experience teaching online courses, and technology provided a way to continue her work when her 91-year-old mother needed her to come to the Philippines to help with family business. Eileen Curl, chair of the nursing department, suggested Wallace use the online Blackboard system to teach her class from abroad to enable her to both help her mother and not miss any time working with students.

While the idea was well conceived, its execution presented a number of challenges. About six weeks before Wallace’s arrival in Cagayan de Oro, the area was hit by a severe tropical storm. Tropical cyclone Washi made landfall between Dec. 15 and 18, 2011. Named Typhoon Sendong by the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration, the storm killed more than 1,200 people and displaced more than 285,000.

Wallace was aware her hometown had been one of the hardest hit by the typhoon. Cagayan de Oro is situated on the Cagayan de Oro River. The already swollen floodplains swallowed many families’ homes during the storm. “The houses weren’t there anymore, especially on the banks of the river,” she said. “There was a small island where there were once houses and people, but it was completely gone.”

Upon her arrival, her first priority was to find an Internet connection. But with devastation from the storm, this was easier said than done. Wallace began searching for Internet cafes where she might get her work done.

“Computers are not in most homes in the Philippines,” she said. “The cafes are open 24 hours, so teenagers are there at all hours playing games and being noisy. Here you are trying to concentrate, and the minute school lets out the place fills up with students. I had to figure out which cafes to go to at what time of day to get the most work done. I found a café in the city, a little further away from my mom’s house, so I had to stay until I finished everything for the day.”

The next obstacle she faced was bandwidth limitations on the island. With fiberoptic lines out, transferring data became very slow, and computers would simply log off if they became bogged down processing information. Simply opening Blackboard, the program used for Lamar’s online courses, became an insurmountable challenge at many of the Internet locations on the island. After three weeks of long nights at the cafes, Wallace finally attained connectivity at her mother’s house.

Being in a different time zone, Wallace had to keep odd hours to be available for her students’ questions and e-mails. The 13-hour gap between Wallace and her students meant that to address questions or concerns regarding an assignment due at 5 p.m. in the U.S., she had to be awake no later than 4 a.m. the following morning in the Philippines. “If they have questions before the assignment is due, I have to be up even earlier to address those issues before they turn their assignments in,” she said. Despite being connected at her mother’s house, the issues with bandwidth persisted.

In a classroom setting, questions can be addressed individually in a venue where the entire class can hear both the question and response. But in an online class, this is not always the case. “The students want to feel like they are being addressed personally,” she said. “They want that individual attention, even online.”

To help relieve some of the stress resulting from bandwidth issues, Wallace answered similar questions in the Blackboard announcement area rather than sending out more than 20 individual emails. In addition to teaching her online class and helping her mother sort out family matters, Wallace made time to assist with the disaster efforts in her hometown. She helped set up clinics so that patients could be assessed and diagnosed.

When Wallace arrived in Cagayan de Oro, she discovered that an old classmate, Ramon Nery, a CEO of provincial hospitals, was in charge of organizing relief efforts. He told Wallace the people there needed more than money—they needed the help of someone who knew them. “So I stayed and went to work helping set up clinics,” Wallace said.

With the help of a financial donation sent by Wallace’s church, First United Methodist in Nederland, the clinics were able to serve as many as 300 patients.

Having maintained a relationship with the dean of her graduate school program at Liceo de Cagayan University, Wallace often takes opportunities to give guest lectures or present research there. Much like universities in the U.S., universities in the Philippines are also attempting to reduce their expenses while simultaneously increasing programs for students. The faculty at Liceo de Cagayan University was very interested in Lamar’s method of online education.

“Their mindset of an Internet course is to put everything on YouTube and use email,” she said. “They don’t really understand the interconnectivity of American online education.”

Wallace began to explain how to use Blackboard to deliver presentations, links to videos and PDFs, as well as the various ways students can interact with the instructor and other students in the class. “After they saw what I was doing, they began to ask questions,” she said. “They were in awe of the extent of the organization.”

While the online infrastructure at Liceo de Cagayan University has a long way to go before being able to deliver courses through a program like Blackboard, seeing how Lamar does it gave the faculty there an idea of the type of technology and funding needed to provide a similar product to their students.

Despite the challenges she faced, Wallace said teaching an online course from abroad is doable—even in a disaster zone. “We are spoiled by the technology we have in the States,” she said. “When you get somewhere and it takes more than 30 seconds to load a page, you think, ‘Wait a minute, something must be wrong.’ But it is doable. You have to have patience and just do the work.”

Wallace’s students have little to no knowledge of the lengths she went to in delivering her courses. “I never announced to the students I was overseas,” she said. “I told them I would be without the Internet for a couple of days so I would answer their e-mails once I had connectivity. When managing an online course, your students want to feel like their professor is there for them, so I didn’t tell them I had left the country.”

Through all of the challenges she faced, Wallace maintained her dedication to her students and her responsibilities as an instructor.

“That is what online faculty does,” she said. “It was a unique situation, but you do the best you can to give your students the best you’re able.”

by Andrew Strange
August 2012