Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Universities Go Online in Response to COVID-19

We don’t know when a pandemic might strike, but we can be sure of two things.
Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist.
Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate.
This is the dilemma we face, but it should not stop us from doing what we can to prepare.
– Mike Leavitt, Former Gov. of Utah and
Secretary of Health and Human Services, June 13, 2007
According to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker, there have now been 121,061 confirmed cases of COVID-19 world wide with 4,368 deaths.  In the US, there have been 1,039 with 29 deaths.

Several US universities, including the Universities of Washington, Stanford, and Harvard, have or will be moving classes online.  Others may follow.  As things stand this morning, the University of Utah has not yet done this, but is reviewing the feasibility of doing so and is encouraging faculty to consider new methods of teaching to limit potential exposure in the classroom.  Below is the official statement issued by President Ruth Watkins on Monday, 9 March.
We are not cancelling on-campus classes at this time, but we are reviewing the feasibility of moving large enrollment classes to online formats in place of in-person instruction. University Teaching & Learning Technologies has developed a Canvas “Fast Course” for activating online class environments and embedding lectures and class announcements that will be updated by the end of business today (03/09). Please encourage your faculty to consider new methods of teaching this semester to limit potential exposure in our classrooms.
If we were to move online, which I would support given the seriousness of rapid COVID-19 spread, a possible positive outcome would be greater exposure of our faculty to online pedagogical techniques and teaching tools.  However, we should not fool ourselves that (a) the faculty are prepared to teach online with so little prep time, (b) the quality of instruction will not suffer, and (c) all courses can be taught online.

Fully online course delivery can work very well for some types of instruction with proper planning and course design.  More commonly, a mixture of in-class and online techniques enhances instruction, with the weighting of that mixture dependent on the topic and content.

Some of our faculty are trained and well prepared for online course delivery.  Others not.  For some, a rapid shift to online is a bit like taking a Tour de France cyclist and asking them to become a Nordic ski racer in a week.  They might have the cardiovascular engine, but they need to learn the technique and they have to train a new set of muscles.  I am in the early stages of designing an online course.  It's not the same as developing an in class course and it takes time to learn the tricks of the trade.

There are other classes that just cannot be taught well online.  I am thinking specifically of hands-on lab classes.  Even the weather forecasting class that I am teaching will suffer some.  I have no doubt that I can teach it online, but in most instances the students will not have access to the same software, computer power, and internet bandwidth that we have in our computer lab, although I can make efforts to see if they can replicate some of it on their laptops or home computers.

Finally, while we think of students as tech savvy and having access to whatever device they need at all times, this is simply not the case for many.   Some may not have access to reliable internet (at my house, the internet is up and down all the time!).  Some may not have access to the computer resources for completing class tasks efficiently (it is definitely an advantage for weather forecasting to have a big monitor or multiple monitors).

These are not arguments against moving to online delivery.  As we have seen in Italy, it may take drastic measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 and reduce strain on the health system.  If it must be done, it must be done.  I see some potentially positive outcomes if we move online in terms of broader faculty engagement with online teaching tools and techniques.  However, we should recognize that this is going to be a major challenge.

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