America’s universities have gone to great lengths to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on their students. Institutional response has ranged from evacuating dorms, offering tuition refunds, forgoing semester grades, closing campus tours and flat-out cancelling graduation ceremonies. While drastic times do call for drastic measures, perhaps the most profound, long-term shift can be seen in the attempt to suddenly deliver hundreds of thousands of academic courses online, in a matter of weeks.
The change makes sense; campus environments are especially vulnerable to the spread of the virus because of the close proximity of students, faculty and staff. But it’s not an inexpensive transition—costs associated with the sudden shift to online courses and potential loss of revenues tied to student enrollment and tuition can be devastating for institutions. It should be no surprise that Moody’s just downgraded its 2020 outlook for higher education from “stable” to “negative.”
As such, many have been watching closely to better understand how institutions of higher education have been making the pivot both quickly and effectively. Last week, I started sharing the perspectives of those in higher education as part of a multi-part series on the role of online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This week, I talked with Dr. Jim Ptaszynski, vice president for digital learning for the University of North Carolina System Office. Prior to his role in the UNC System, Jim spent 20 years leading the worldwide higher education strategy for Microsoft, which has helped him bring his tech-savvy to this system-wide response. The System’s interim president, Dr. William Roper, is a former White House staffer and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Given Jim’s background in innovation and access to brilliant epidemiology minds, I was excited to hear from him about how UNC is coping with this “new normal.”
Alison Griffin: How has COVID-19 affected the 17 universities in the University of North Carolina System and how has the System responded?
Jim Ptaszynski: The changes brought on by COVID-19 are unprecedented. In a matter of weeks, our institutions have had to rapidly adjust: suspend all travel, withdraw international students and move to a system of online course delivery for institutions that, for the most part, conduct face-to-face instruction. The UNC System has over 250,000 students, 15,000 full-time faculty and 30,000 staff members. We had 50,000 classes this spring semester that needed to move online in a matter of two weeks.
In response to the need for quick action, we put a call out to our faculty members to understand their precise needs and design a solution. Many institutions have developed websites that provide guidance to faculty who want to navigate their courses online, but our faculty needed something that was more foundational, almost like a “bare essential” guide to teaching online during a crisis. Their challenges were those of practice. They were asking questions such as “How do I communicate with students online,” “How do I do it now, in these unprecedented times? What technology do I use? Where do I begin?”
To answer these questions and provide them with the guidance they needed, we built “Moving to Alternative Instructional Formats,” a digital resource created by the System in ten days. In the first hour this resource was available online, it was downloaded 1,000 times.
Griffin: Online learning seems to be a natural response to ensuring continuity of learning. What challenges did campus leaders and faculty face as they attempted to quickly stand up programs and courses?
Ptaszynski: The majority of our faculty are not well-experienced in online education, but they are experienced educators. They interact with students in a traditional, face-to-face environment. We needed to quickly put mechanisms in place to support the transition to online, which is quite a lift for the system and a change in the way faculty engaged with students. We started by putting together academic continuity websites, offering training online and establishing virtual office hours.
We also ran into issues in ensuring that students had access to computers and the internet once they left campus. Even after we prepared faculty for the transition, we were presented with other unexpected challenges that needed to be resolved. Right now, we are exploring how we can get computers from state and university surplus offices, recondition them and provide them to students. For internet access, we are filtering and advising students on donations made by internet providers such as Spectrum, which has offered free access to broadband and WiFi for students for two months.
We had to build backup plans for our backup plans. For example, even though we were able to stand up sophisticated courses online, we also put learning materials on a website and informed students about where they could be found. We also encouraged faculty to download copies of their materials to a hard drive or print them out because we knew there would be tremendous, simultaneous demand on our servers. We looked at the response from many angles to ensure students could successfully stay connected to their learning experience.
Griffin: Even with all of those backup plans and contingencies, you still had to find a way to provide faculty with the confidence to make the shift to online instruction, quickly. How did the System facilitate this quick training?
Ptaszynski: You are right. There was a transition that faculty had to make on behalf of students to ensure the continuity of learning. But, there was also some training that we realized we needed to offer our faculty. In addition to the support offered by the UNC System Office of Digital Learning, faculty were given access to content from LinkedIn Learning as a primer for the range of technology and software that is most commonly used in today’s virtual classrooms. Any university would have a tough time sourcing such a wide range of content needed to prepare faculty to the online environment. That resource filled the gaps, allowing us to incorporate free courses around the basics, such as how to use popular tools like Zoom or Canvas.
Griffin: How have faculty responded so far? Are there trends across faculty and how they are using the training platform?
Ptaszynski: We worked very closely with a number of faculty groups that made this a positive experience across the academic community. We worked with faculty assembly and faculty development centers on each of the campuses to help identify the resources that were most needed. By involving these groups of faculty stakeholders, we heard the faculty voice throughout the process and could then work with LinkedIn to design or identify courses to offer.
To date, the feedback from faculty has been positive, and they are mostly gravitating towards two types of learning content. First, faculty who have never used a Learning Management System (LMS) use the resources extensively to get a basic understanding of how platforms such as Moodle or Canvas work. Second, for faculty to teach as they have always done—but now remotely—requires a mastery of video conferencing technologies. Many of our faculty have been watching courses about how to use Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
Beyond supporting academic content delivery, we see a lot of our faculty and staff are gravitating toward courses that provide them guidance and best practices for how to work remotely. It takes certain skills to thrive in a virtual environment, and many across our system have found that lessons on time management or how to lead virtual meetings are just as important as understanding technology tools.
Griffin: Are other members across the institutions using technology in a new way to engage with students?
Ptaszynski: Absolutely; in fact, our vice president for student affairs, who has been focused on continuing to nurture mental health support programs, wants to support students who are now off campus. We have been working on a HIPAA-supported version of Zoom, since it requires a separate license than the normal conferencing technology. But, the demand for connectedness by staff—and faculty—is a great example of how these resources are being used outside of the academic experience.
Griffin: What’s your sense of faculty’s interest in continuing to teach online?
Ptaszynski: Time will tell. This pandemic is not a good experiment in whether online learning will be embraced by all, but it’s a good time to take stock of the positive and the negative. Some may see the benefit of incorporating online learning elements into traditional classroom activities. Others may look forward to going back to the way things were. It’s too early to tell and I would welcome the opportunity to be a part of more robust discussions about the efficacy of online education and its staying power across our system.
At Microsoft, teams would always do a “post mortem” after shipping a new product or project. I’d love to do one here, and find out what we all learned from this experience and how we can improve both the online and seated classroom experience for students.
It’s important to note that this isn’t a permanent change for the system; as it stands now, we are moving courses online as a way to deal with a public health crisis. We believe there will always be a need for the campus experience, and we understand that there will naturally be some faculty, staff and students who are anxious for the opportunity to return to that model.
This is a watershed moment for higher education. We all need to demonstrate patience and kindness with each other, as we all grapple with and adjust to this urgent challenge and work through the process of supporting our staff, faculty and students.
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