Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

If coronavirus spreads, could local colleges move education totally online?

Temple University's Japan campus has moved classes online for at least two weeks; its Rome campus, closed for the rest of the semester, will begin teaching online Monday. Drexel, Temple and others are exploring the possibility of moving classes online in the United States if the virus spreads.

Hady Kahy, a professor at Temple University's Japan campus, teaches Intermediate Microeconomic Analysis in an empty classroom, while his students watch online via a classroom camera.
Hady Kahy, a professor at Temple University's Japan campus, teaches Intermediate Microeconomic Analysis in an empty classroom, while his students watch online via a classroom camera.Read moreGeorge W. Miller III

Temple University’s Japan campus got word last week: Its more than 350 classes had to move online by Monday, a precautionary step taken to reduce the spread of coronavirus in that country.

There were some technological hiccups, but the campus of more than 1,300 undergraduates and about 250 graduate students in central Tokyo is making the transition.

“The only real problem was getting our faculty and students adjusted to Zoom,” a Web-based video conferencing tool, said Bruce Stronach, campus dean. “That’s how we are teaching the courses.”

Their experience could be a harbinger for campuses nationally if the virus, COVID-19, spreads.

Drexel University president John A. Fry said in an announcement to the campus Monday that the school was working “to assess the feasibility of moving undergraduate and graduate courses online if necessary.”

Other local colleges, including St. Joseph’s University, the University of the Sciences, Temple, and Chestnut Hill College, said similar discussions were underway.

“We are conducting some advanced training in online learning applications for faculty over spring break,” said St. Joseph’s spokesperson Gail Benner.

At USciences, a determination will be made on each course, said spokesperson Jenna Pizzi, noting that classes that involve clinical experiences or laboratory time would be difficult to conduct virtually.

And executing such a move on Temple’s main campus serving tens of thousands of students would be a huge undertaking, pedagogically, technologically and administratively.

“It’s never been done before,” said spokesperson Ray Betzner. “But we would do everything we possibly could to make sure students didn’t miss any of their education."

Such discussions are part of larger efforts on campuses to update or create pandemic plans. Fry said Drexel is prepared to quarantine students who may be exposed or infected, though he said there are no cases at Drexel. (There are no cases in Pennsylvania.)

“Empty rooms and suites in our campus residences have been set aside as student quarantine locations, and we have the infrastructure in place to fully care for these students,” Fry wrote in his campus message. “We can scale-up these programs if needed.”

Chestnut Hill College also is readying a quarantine area, and the school has delivered containers of disinfectant wipes to every classroom, said spokesperson James Barry. Its counseling center is looking at how best to help students manage anxiety that could be caused by a pandemic.

The University of Pennsylvania has established a task force to review and update pandemic planning procedures, provost Wendell E. Pritchett said in an email to campus.

» READ MORE: Two college students — one stuck in Wuhan, one who made it back — on how coronavirus is affecting their lives

How to deliver instruction on shuttered campuses is part of the discussion in the region. While most campuses have some online courses, scaling up dramatically would take work.

Drexel University English professor Scott Warnock last month advised NYU Shanghai how to move courses online.

“You can have a really engaging class experience in many ways,” said Warnock, who has taught online writing classes and leads the Global Society of Online Literacy Educators.

The use of message boards, like Slack, can allow for robust discussions, he said. He’ll often post provocative prompts to get students started, he said. Professors also can provide voice feedback or audio visual feedback on student papers.

He understands not every instructor wants to teach online and some will struggle with how to duplicate the interactive seminar experience.

» READ MORE: As the coronavirus spreads to Europe, so does concern on local college campuses

“But if your campus is shut down, at least you can still provide students with an educational experience,” said Warnock, also director of Drexel’s writing program.

Drexel, he said, is probably in a better position than some others because of its emphasis on instructional technology.

Temple’s Japan campus plans to teach courses online at least through March 16, Stronach said, and that could be extended. Japan has more than 250 cases of the virus and remains at a level-two alert, meaning older adults and those with chronic medical conditions should postpone nonessential travel there.

It’s not the first time the Tokyo campus has shifted online. It made a similar move in 2011 following an earthquake and tsunami.

The campus remains open, and many professors are teaching from their empty classrooms. Some students also are working in the library or lounge, where they can access WiFi but keep their distance from others, he said.

“The whole point of canceling in-class class is social distancing,” Stronach said.

Some courses, such as sculpture and theater, have proved more challenging than others. The university is still trying to figure out how to give students time in the art studio, he said.

“At some point, the theater class has to practice their art,” he said. “Those are things we are still talking with faculty and students about.”

George W. Miller III, the campus’ associate dean for academic affairs, said it was challenging to train all professors to teach online so quickly. But they ironed out most problems last weekend and remaining difficulties, he said, probably will be overcome with the help of students as they become more accustomed to using Zoom and the learning platform Canvas.

This week, he sent tips to Temple’s Rome campus, which shut for the rest of the semester last week and will go online with classes Monday. Moving online will allow students to complete their education on time, he said. Campuses are learning, too.

“We are developing a whole new tool kit our faculty can employ,” he said.