Karen Bull, dean of the University of North Carolina Greensboro’s Division of Online Learning, was running a leadership retreat in late February when her phone rang: Provost Dana Dunn, who’d been tracking the impending COVID-19 pandemic, said the time had come to move classes online.
The task was daunting: 84% of the spring semester’s 4,357 course sections were in-person. “We had to get faculty ready to transition for remote learning quickly,” Bull said.
Bull and her colleagues culled resources for faculty, and tapped tech-savvy instructors for a peer mentoring program. They launched in-person workshops that had to move to virtual sessions when the entire UNC system halted in-person classes mid-March. Laptops and hotspots were delivered to students without computers and sufficient internet service, and accommodations were made for campus-bound students.
Over five days in March, 98% of courses became available online. The remaining courses were School of Nursing clinicals, and students are now using online simulation software, she said.
“It’s been a huge undertaking, but everyone understands we are doing this to support students and keep them safe,” said Bull, who’s working from home with two young children.
Scenarios like this played out at most of the nation’s more than 4,200 colleges and universities. Ray Schroeder, an expert in higher education online learning, estimated that well over 1 million — and perhaps millions —of in-person courses were made remote in a matter of days .
“It is a phenomenal achievement,” said Schroeder, associate vice chancellor at the University of Illinois, Springfield, and a senior fellow at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.
Faculty, many of whom “were starting at ground zero,” suddenly had to create digital content engaging to students. “Students don’t want to listen to a 90-minute lecture,” said Schroeder, who blogs extensively about challenges facing higher education.
The massive shift to distance learning is expected to have lasting implications. When classes resume on campuses, more will likely be blended, incorporating some elements of virtual learning that professors and students find beneficial, experts said.
“To have faculty embracing online learning is probably the best thing that’s come out of this,” said Barbara Kopp Miller, dean of University College at the University of Toledo in Ohio.
Groundwork for remote learning had been laid long before the pandemic threatened. When in-person classes stopped in March, 90% of universities and colleges had a learning management system in use, Schroeder said. Of those, a third had created an LMS venue for every offline class as well as those online.
‘I knew they were good, I didn’t realize just how good’
At the University of Toledo, only 12% of the 4,700 spring semester offerings were online, Kopp Miller said. The university’s 18,550 students were on spring break when the announcement came. Classes were cancelled two days the following week to complete the transition, she said.
Kopp Miller and her team developed tutorials and screen guides in Blackboard Learn, the LMS in use. They organized eight half-day faculty training sessions on campus, and identified online-experienced faculty members to assist peers. Each college at the university was offered a webinar tailored to its needs, and the technology help desk was ramped up with extended hours and weekend coverage, she said.
“I knew they were good, I didn’t realize just how good!” Kopp Miller said of her team.
Video conferencing has exploded. The university used webinars for 119,000 minutes in February, compared to 4.85 million minutes in March, Kopp Miller said.
Calls to the help desk quadrupled and the issues have become more complex, she said. For example, faculty began seeking help with how to assess students’ mastery of the learning objectives, one of the biggest challenges of online education.
Due to the mid-semester upheaval, some institutions are allowing students to choose pass/fail grading for their spring courses.
‘That is powerful stuff’
With more than 700 students studying in China (Hong Kong), Italy, Spain, France, and elsewhere, Syracuse University’s first task was getting students home and moving abroad courses online, said Michael Frasciello, dean of University College at Syracuse University in New York.
Most of the private university’s 6,108 course sections had been face-to-face: 97% of undergraduate and 93% of graduate classes, he said. University College, home to the Center for Online and Digital Learning, coordinated the massive effort with other university entities. They created toolkits for the more than 1,800 faculty and 22,800 students, and have trained about 500 instructors since March 2, he said.
“We were working flat-out for three weeks, 18- to 20-hour days” Frasciello said. “There were a lot of sleepless nights.” All classes were moved online in five days over spring break.
Student advising, wellness and counseling services, coaching and tutoring, also were moved online. Those support programs will likely continue to be offered virtually when in-person classes begin, Frasciello said.
With students living across the country and globe, faculty had to factor in time zone differences in balancing synchronous and asynchronous instruction, Frasciello said.
While the university didn’t create a faculty peer mentorship program, one formed organically, he said. Meanwhile, part-time adult students in University College’s online degree programs volunteered to help traditional students struggling with virtual learning, Frasciello said. “That is powerful stuff.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, universities and colleges have turned attention to the next phase: training instructors to upgrade remote classes to true online learning, which integrates best instructional practices to insure objectives are met. Most summer sessions are online, and institutions are ramping up trainings to certify faculty for online learning.
The fall semester approaches amidst uncertainty. Will campuses be able to open for in-person classes, and if so, what will that look like? Will the start of the semester be delayed? Might COVID-19 disruptions arise during the semester? Institutions including Syracuse University and UNCG are preparing to offer all classes online should that be necessary.
“While we are cautiously optimistic that residential instruction will resume, we have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario,” Frasciello said.
Universities’ Growing Role in Workforce Development
Some 31,000 students attend California State University, Sacramento, but another 30,000 people participate in more than 120 workforce and professional development programs through its College of Continuing Education.
Dean Jenni Murphy and her team continue to support Sacramento State’s six academic colleges’ move to virtual instruction and student support. But she’s focused on another Herculean task: making mandatory employee training programs accessible remotely.
Sacramento County, for example, is required by state law to train about 6,000 home care workers in its In Home Supportive Services program. Those trainings had been in-person before COVID-19 struck. Making the training virtually accessible was complicated by internet limitations in more rural areas, and privacy laws, but her team got it done. In all, Murphy’s college has so far moved 17 workforce training programs to remote learning.
Murphy is also working with elected officials and regional employers to assess what job opportunities may emerge as the pandemic ebbs, and what will be required to retrain the workforce. “I believe our biggest impact is yet to come,” she said.
Ray Schroeder, an expert in higher education online learning, agrees. He anticipates a shift in the role of universities to providing far more professional and continuing education credentials to help people train for jobs. “That’s the way we’re going to emerge from this,” Schroeder said.
Margaret McHugh worked 20 years as a newspaper reporter before launching an independent career, largely promoting nonprofits. Margaret writes for Rutgers University Division of Continuing Studies and other Rutgers’ entities. She has produced and edited content for the ACLU of New Jersey and the New Jersey State Bar Association. She shares a home office with two rescue dogs, Ellie and Emma.