Colleges Planned to Move to Online for Snow Days. Now Some Are Closed Indefinitely.

Mar 13, 2020

Officially, the University of Washington, which canceled all on-campus classes and replaced them with online instruction, plans to resume regular operations at the start of the new quarter, on March 30. But the unofficial advice to professors is that it would be wise to start thinking about how they might start their courses for next quarter online as well.

“Viruses don’t respect academic quarters,” says Beth Kalikoff, director for the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus.

Like many colleges and universities, the University of Washington had planned for a scenario when academic work suddenly needed to move online. That plan was developed for a very different phenomenon: snow.

Kalikoff says that a “snow days website” full of resources for professors was developed last year after an unusually snowy winter meant the college had 5 or 6 days when classes were called off due to weather.

That snow day plan formed the basis of the university’s response to the coronavirus. But how well will that translate to a pandemic, especially if things drag on beyond the initial time frame?

Over the past decade, online learning has gone mainstream, with about a third of college students in the U.S. taking at least one online course. But many of those online enrollments are clustered at one of a handful of online mega-campuses, such as Southern New Hampshire University (which has more than 90,000 online students) and Arizona State University (which boasts 30,000 online students). Those institutions have set up elaborate systems to support online instruction, sometimes building courses with teams of experts.

This week, meanwhile, more than 200 colleges have shifted from in-person teaching to online classes due to the coronavirus. In many cases, the professors being asked to teach online have no experience doing so, and many students have little experience with fully online classes.

Still, says Kalikoff, her university wasn’t starting from scratch, since, like many colleges these days, every course uses a learning-management system as a digital hub for turning in assignments and issuing grades, and many professors already use plenty of digital tools in their teaching.

Many large classes are already in the habit of posting lectures to the class website after every session, as is done at many colleges so students can rewatch later. So now professors can just make the recordings without an audience and post them online. “Our campus is still open, so technically if they wanted to come to campus and record it in front of an empty classroom they can,” she says. In practice, though, she expects that most will record lecture videos in their homes or campus offices.

Is That Online Teaching?

Many online leaders this week are stressing that this kind of instruction should not even be called online teaching—and that mature online programs typically involve careful planning and techniques, rather than just phoning in a lecture video.

Thomas Cavanagh, vice provost for digital learning at the University of Central Florida, says that he’s heard the term “remote delivery of instruction” as a way to describe what is going on now during the coronavirus. The university has long been proud of its online programs, and he says professors must typically take a “rigorous” 10-week training course before they teach their first online course in those programs.

“We’ve won awards for our online teaching. That’s not what we’re doing here,” he says. “When our faculty develop courses, it’s like something at the Culinary Institute of America—gourmet meals. Right now we’re trying to feed an army a nutritious meal in the cafe. It’s not like it's going to be bad, but it’s not the same thing.”

Cavanagh says his college has been working for the past couple of weeks to prepare for this virus-prompted switch, and they built on existing plans for when classes are canceled for a few days due to threats of hurricanes hitting the area.

What is he most concerned about as they head into a shift to online teaching at his campus after spring break ends?

That, he says, depends on how long classrooms remain closed.

“The direction we’ve gotten from our system office is we’re looking at two weeks,” he says. “That’s about four class sessions. If that’s the duration and the scope that we’re talking about, I think that most faculty and most students can deal with four Zoom sessions to get through that period,” he said, referring to the videoconferencing tool that many professors plan to use to hold live video sessions.

If things go longer, that becomes a tougher challenge.

At Vanderbilt University, officials have already decided that classes will move online for the rest of the semester.

There, the teaching and learning center feels ready for a more extended period of online teaching. Instructors have access to the necessary websites, tools and training sessions to prepare for online teaching.

“For a good chunk of faculty, that’s what they need,” says Derek Bruff, director of Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching. “They already use Zoom for research collaborations, and they’ve done screencasts” for presentations. And there’s a smaller group of professors who are well prepared and excited to try new things, he added.

“What we’re learning is we also have a lot of faculty that are really nervous about this,” he adds. “They’re not comfortable with the technology.”

His staff reserved some large rooms on campus to hold mass training sessions for some of those faculty members, but then university leaders announced a ban on all gatherings larger than 25 people, so they’ve been working to find ways to hold enough trainings to help everyone that requested it.

Bruff expects that plenty of unexpected challenges will arise on Monday when the online classes begin. “Until then it’s going to be a lot of high anxiety on campus,” he said. “There are a lot of unknowns.”

Anticipating that, he said that a dean has made new funds available that some professors can use to hire a graduate student to help them move their course online.

At the University of Central Florida, officials are trying to get in front of other potential problems as well, such as making sure the newly-online courses are accessible to students with disabilities.

Cavanagh said he got approval for a budget to do extra captioning for some video lectures, for instance.

Some observers have wondered whether COVID-19 will be later seen as a “black swan” event that changes higher education practices in unexpected ways.

Cavanagh thinks that for many institutions, it might spark a move to more online learning.

“Some schools like Amherst will go back to being Amherst and probably not think too much about it,” he said. “But many campuses that have not been serious about thinking about online learning as a strategy are going to be a little bit more serious about it.”


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