The Move to Online—Getting It Done

Written by
Lois Elfman

Jun 9, 2020

Jun 9, 2020 • by Lois Elfman

In the wake of COVID‐19, colleges and universities moved their classes to online platforms. Some academics have previous experience teaching online courses, while others lacked home computers capable of handling Zoom or other necessary programs.

Given the necessity of making it work, some schools provided faculty with training and equipment so that students are getting what they need. In this article, two administrators discuss how they helped their institutions equip faculty and serve the student body.

The Reality of the Situation

“While the move online is something our faculty has been really phenomenal at doing, it is different than having a course predesigned to be online,” says Dr. Amanda Moras, associate professor of sociology and associate dean for student success for the College of Arts and Sciences at Sacred Heart University CT. “Even for me, where I've offered courses online before, the transition is still different than when I set up the online structure.”

SHU opened a center for excellence and innovation in teaching this past year. When the announcement came about the move to online courses, the center was open for walk‐ins. Librarians and instructional design staff were brought in to assist. Following the move to online, the center continued providing support services.

To successfully execute the transition to remote learning, Dr. Genyne H. Boston, associate provost for faculty affairs and academic initiatives at Florida A&M University, has been working with administration, the university's IT team, deans and other administrators who are directly responsible for faculty. FAMU faculty is across the spectrum in terms of experience with online teaching and learning.

“We have those who teach regularly in some of our online programs and then we have other faculty who for the most part teach all of their classes in a traditional mode of delivery,” says Boston. “I have worked directly to address the faculty equipment needs.”

Some faculty did not have the up‐to‐date computer equipment needed to facilitate remote learning, and some students headed back to homes without internet connections. To date, FAMU has issued over 350 laptops to faculty, staff and students, with the bulk of them going to faculty. Additional equipment, such as webcams, headsets and printers, was also purchased and distributed so faculty could set up virtual classrooms at home. The university also purchased a number of hot spots (connections for WiFi).

Pivoting Online

Some of SHU's faculty had little experience teaching online courses, and they had questions about academic rigor and integrity. Moras is teaching her three courses online and working on the student success, focusing on how the university and its faculty retain connections to students.

It was “not just the instructional design piece and moving courses online, but how to let students know we're here for them,” says Moras. “How do we maintain a community of students and faculty when our students and faculty aren't on campus?”

She's worked on ways to reach out to academically at‐risk students who are struggling in one or more classes. “Email is the traditional model,” Moras says. “With courses moving online, there's a monumental amount of email each day. In this moment where we're trying to be as tech‐savvy as possible, we're actually asking our faculty to call the students.”

Boston assisted with making sure faculty received relevant training with the Zoom platform. There has also been additional training on the learning management system Blackboard to facilitate discussions and office hours.

“We did provide on‐site training the week of spring break for our students in mid‐March. We had an entire week of scheduled training for faculty to be able to come in and get brushed up on utilizing Blackboard or become well acquainted with Zoom and how to use that for remote learning and instruction,” says Boston.

For those who were relative novices to online instruction, which includes some long‐time faculty, team members from the Office of Instructional Technology were available for advice and support. Training included direction on a methodology of conversion for some of their traditional modes of delivery so lessons could be delivered in a remote manner.

Zoom allows for the creation of virtual classrooms, so FAMU professors are approximating the classroom experience. Blackboard has a discussion board feature, which lets students engage with one another. Boston says an upside is that it's improving students' writing skills.

Some SHU courses are being held virtually in WebEx chat rooms. Given bandwidth issues, some students turn off their cameras and microphones. Moras says professors have described it as teaching into a void, but the faculty are finding ways to make it work. Other faculty are teaching asynchronous courses, which means the materials are posted and students access them when they want, and then hold office hours via WebEx.

“I keep my WebEx window open for a couple of hours a day, and students pop in and out,” says Moras. “That mimics the idea that I'm present and available when you need me.… With our faculty, we're emphasizing communication and availability, and that may mean different things.”

Online tutoring and writing support continue to be available for SHU students. Students can also interact with one another through WebEx.

Ongoing Development

FAMU spring finals will be posted through Blackboard. For the health sciences, Boston says the university has identified specialized vendors that do test proctoring for comprehensive exams, particularly in areas like the pharmacy, nursing and allied health sciences.

“It's one of the things we have worked through to make sure that students are still attaining the skill sets that they need. But we're also taking the precautionary measures needed to make sure that we're not putting our students in harm's way as they may be participating in internships at pharmacies and hospitals or nursing internships that may be taking place at hospitals,” says Boston.

The format for SHU spring finals will be determined by faculty as appropriate. Moras says her courses will have online written essay exams. Some courses will have set exam times, and the web browser will lock down so students can't use other windows while taking the exam.

FAMU has decided the A term (May 11 to end of June) and C term (May to August) of summer sessions will be delivered remotely. The B term (end of June to beginning of August) will likely also be taught remotely.

There will be summer courses offered online at SHU, and details for registration are being worked out. Moras is creating systems to help students pick their courses as well as navigate internships and do career planning and thesis planning.

“It's a new normal for everybody,” says Moras.