Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Colleges are going completely online amid coronavirus spread. How will that even work?

Universities are now working to drastically scale up their online offerings using technological platforms that have never been tested at such high usage levels.

Professor Karin Keefe (on screen) teaching Introduction to Academic Discourse to a student who was using the wifi in the student lounge.
Professor Karin Keefe (on screen) teaching Introduction to Academic Discourse to a student who was using the wifi in the student lounge.Read moreGeorge W. Miller III

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.”

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.

» READ MORE: Philly schools bought hand sanitizer with no alcohol to fight coronavirus. Teachers are concerned.

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.

» READ MORE: Coronavirus makes public events and even private gatherings risky, experts say

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, 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 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.

She warned the next few weeks “won’t be perfect.” But offering additional collaboration for students is “one simple thing you can do with very limited technology to make it a little better and a little more human so [students] don’t feel alienated.”

» READ MORE: Coronavirus leads hospitals to plan for surge in patients while urging sick doctors to stay home

As for the technology? “The systems aren’t remotely designed for this quantity of response,” she said.

Amy Slaton, a professor of history at Drexel University whose scholarship focuses on equity in education and technology, said online learning can easily default to a “very top-down kind of model, where faculty provide material as if students are empty vessels."

She recommended instructors offer telephone and Skype office hours in addition to being reachable online.

Rimple, president of the faculty union at West Chester and a professor of music theory, history, and composition, said the university is working through how to offer some learning experiences, including clinicals, choir, and science labs.

“We’re going to have to meet these one-by-one and come up with solutions the best we can,” he said, noting that the school has given professors two weeks to prepare. He estimated more than half of professors at West Chester have done some form of online teaching in the past.

John Baker, CEO of D2L, a Canada-based company that owns the cloud-based learning-management platform Brightspace, said the company has “no trouble" scaling to meet the needs of “100% of our clients going 100% online,” but they’re working now with clients to develop more advanced methods of instruction, including proctoring exams online.

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.

» READ MORE: Philly St. Patrick’s Parade organizer is ’100% at peace’ with cancellation (even though he thinks people are overreacting) by Anna Orso, Updated: March 11, 2020- 2:05 PM

Miranda Russo, a 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.”

But any unfair advantage has less to do with testing and more with access, some experts said. Slaton said we tend to assume online education is “more democratic," but, she said, “there are a lot of ways the coronavirus emergency is going to make those inequities more pronounced.”

She said colleges must accommodate students without access to high-speed internet or unlimited data plans. Some platforms, like Brightspace, have off-line modes that would allow a student in theory to use public internet access to download lectures or assignments and then view them later while they’re off-line.

Slaton also noted students with disabilities could have additional challenges, as some platforms don’t automatically have features like closed captioning or audio transcription.

She encouraged institutions of higher education to reflect 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.”