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Completing College Classes Online Due to Coronavirus

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Has your college shut down the campus and sent you home or told you not to come back after spring break? If so, you're probably going to be participating in online instruction, perhaps for the remainder of the term or semester. Obviously, this isn't how you expected to finish this year of college. But, as they say, it is what it is. And what it is is a real mess.


In any event, if you find yourself in this situation, you may be wondering what online teaching is all about, how it's handled and what it's like to attend college by computer. That's what I thought I'd explore a bit today, just in case you didn't know.

The Shift from In-Person to Online Courses

Of course, you can always do a web search for details about online college instruction. That's what I did. What I discovered was mostly articles about "online degrees," which isn't what you're going to be experiencing during your college's shutdown. You're not going to be getting an online degree; you're going to be completing classes that we're previously in-person on campus prior to virus-driven closures.

My searching did turn up a long, comprehensive article focused on the virus-mandated shift to online teaching. Colleges are going completely online amid coronavirus spread. How will that even work? by Anna Orso, Susan Snyder and Gabrielle Houck. It comes from The Philadelphia Inquirer on March 12 and notes, "News about the coronavirus is changing quickly. Go to inquirer.com/coronavirus for the latest information." That part about news "changing quickly" is a huge understatement. I can hardly keep up with what's happening about how this pandemic (if you believe it is a pandemic) is affecting our world, and I'm at my computer most of the day.

So, let's take a look at how collegiate online teaching is handled. I'm hoping that this information will help you prepare for it, in case you're one of the uninitiated. The Inquirer article begins with a personal anecdote:

Before spring break, Mark Rimple, who teaches a historical music class at West Chester University, collected his students' Renaissance-age instruments for maintenance, assuming he would return the lutes, viols, recorders, and sackbuts (funny-looking trombones) when the students returned.

But they won't be coming back for class. Rimple will have to come up with another mode of instruction.

"It's not going to be ideal for the students," he said. "But it's the only option we have right now."

Rimple's challenge is one that college faculty who lead classes in hands-on, real-time, aural and visual participation -- vocal, instrumental, painting, photography, etc. -- will face during the shift to online instruction. For example, how would a piano instructor arrange for his or her class to hear (as a group) a classmate's performance of a Chopin etude or, in Rimple's case, a Dowland consort and then facilitate immediate class comments about the performance?

The article continues:

Professors and instructors across the country are grappling with how to teach courses to thousands of students who will spend the next few weeks learning exclusively online after dozens of schools ranging from small schools to major universities have announced they're asking students to leave campus and finish courses online as the coronavirus spreads.

Universities are now working to drastically scale up their online offerings using technological platforms that have never been tested at such high usage levels, all while trying to accommodate students without access to high-speed internet or unlimited data.

Moving on to Other College Examples:

West Chester, the largest school in the Pennsylvania state system, was the first major university in the region to announce it is moving to virtual learning for the remainder of the semester. Temple, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Delaware followed suit Wednesday as officials in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware announced new cases of the coronavirus and the World Health Organization designated the spread as a global pandemic.

Some schools, including Villanova, Penn State, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore, will move learning online and reevaluate at a later date. The campuses will remain open, but all students who can go home are being asked to do so. Earlier this week, Rutgers, Princeton, Rowan, and Stockton also announced transitions to remote learning.

In an email to the Haverford community, school president Wendy Raymond acknowledged officials are "traversing uncharted territory."

"Though we have endeavored to anticipate likely problems and questions," she wrote, "the operational plan is a work in progress and will no doubt require refinement and modification over the coming weeks."

Most schools already use a variety of tools to deliver education online, including learning-management systems that allow for instructors to communicate with students, post assignments, archive notes, and manage discussion forums.

This is where we learn about some nuts and bolts of online teaching:

One of the most popular tools is Canvas, a cloud-based platform used by major schools including Rutgers and Penn State. Some other colleges "self-host," meaning they manage their own server. Among the most popular platforms is Blackboard, which has both self-hosted and cloud-based offerings.

Schools that self-host are more likely to see glitches in the coming weeks, said Phil Hill, an education technology consultant and partner at the California-based firm MindWires. Hill said cloud-based platforms like Canvas are "built for scalability," but "any campus that is hosting these systems" could face challenges related to heavy usage.

He also warned that even cloud-based platforms aren't a panacea — some schools are recommending instructors communicate with students using Zoom [check here for how to use Zoom], the videoconferencing platform. Zoom is also popular for people who work from home, another group that's skyrocketing in size as communities work to limit social contact amid the spread of the coronavirus. "[Zoom] is getting such heavy usage," he said.

Officials at Blackboard [explained here] said any institution's ability to rapidly scale up their systems depends on what was in place before. The biggest concern "is the pace with which these institutions are moving online," said Brent Mundy, senior product director of Blackboard Learn. He said the platform can handle the influx, but the biggest problem for schools will be "their ability to train faculty, reorient students, [and] retool their help desk."

Instructors should avoid simply moving their courses online by posting videos of lectures and keeping assignments largely the same, higher-education experts said. Cathy N. Davidson, founding director of the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center CUNY, said instructors should try to offer "synchronous" learning, in which students in a class are online at the same time and responding to material in real time

The article continues with some excellent comments by other college faculty members and administrators. One practical solution suggests that faculty offer telephone and Skype-type office hours in addition to online contact. This may put additional time pressures on faculty who normally have a routine "rhythm" to their contact with students, although a silver lining may be that "office" hours could be handled from home instead of on campus.

What about Tests -- Particularly Finals?

… Penn announced it plans to conduct final exams online, as will Drexel, which is on a quarter calendar and has final exams next week. Emma Frandsen, a freshman at Drexel, said her biggest concern about moving exams online is that professors will anticipate cheating and make the tests more challenging.

Hopefully, this is where school honor codes will earn their keep, although I'm sure that concerns about cheating are valid.

Miranda Russo, a [Drexel University] junior, agreed, saying, "Ethically, I don't think it's right to make all exams online because that encourages students to utilize outside sources, and gives them an unfair advantage as opposed to students in other quarters."

Amy Slaton, a professor of history at Drexel University, comments on "notions of rigor" in a time of such mass community uncertainty:

"One possible approach is just to really encourage thinking that says, 'It's not the amount of content that we provide, it's the quality of the pedagogy,' " she said. "If the school covers less, that is really OK. We do not need to disadvantage students with conventional notions of what counts as rigor. We can be more flexible than we tend to be."

Summing up, at least from my perspective, it could turn out to be that this time of "distance learning" may benefit from a "less is more" approach, where focusing on a smaller portion of information might be like savoring a special meal slowly, facilitating a better "taste" experience and data "digestion." Also, Slaton's allusion to flexibility no doubt anticipates the need for creative approaches and innovative solutions to college life under these unprecedented circumstances.

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