As coronavirus concerns rise in US, colleges look online for continuity

As U.S. colleges consider how the global coronavirus outbreak could affect their campuses, some are asking about how they could shift courses online to limit its impact on instruction.

That’s according to education technology companies and consultants, who told Education Dive they are seeing an uptick in those inquiries. 

“It’s happening very quickly, so it’s definitely become top of mind for a lot of schools,” said Phil Hill, an ed tech consultant with the firm MindWires​, adding that “there are a lot of schools who are sort of being forced to think about it, and they really haven’t yet,” he said.

So far, the effect on colleges in the U.S. has been limited. Lake Washington Institute of Technology, in Washington state, closed Monday and Tuesday to clean its campus after nearly two dozen staff and students were exposed to the coronavirus. Other institutions are facing pressure to cancel classes or are limiting visitor access as concerns grow about the domestic impact of the virus.

Globally, some U.S. universities have closed satellite campuses in affected areas and are suspending study abroad trips. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says colleges should “consider” canceling foreign exchange programs and asking U.S. participants to return home. 

Since the outbreak began in China in late 2019, it has spread to all continents but Antarctica, with tens of thousands of confirmed cases so far. While colleges with locations throughout Asia, in particular, had to adapt quickly to the outbreak, campuses in the U.S. had advanced warning that they may contend with it, too. 

“We’ve actually watched the questions come in as it’s moved around the globe,” said Terah Crews, senior partner at higher ed consulting firm Entangled Solutions. In the U.S., she added, “most institutions are still hoping that it doesn’t hit them, but they’re beginning to put plans in place.”

“Watch, wait and plan”

For now, schools that are reaching out are looking primarily at how to address potential short-term disruptions to instruction, such as for the spring and summer semesters, ed tech experts told Education Dive.  

That could include leaning more on video conferencing and other synchronous communications software, as well as assigning instructional designers to work with faculty on-demand if they have to move courses online, said Paxton Riter, co-founder and CEO of instructional design firm iDesign. 

Colleges are also asking about the capacity to scale up online programs quickly. “Most of our clients and institutions in North America do some level of online or blended teaching and learning or have certain classes,” said Lee Blakemore, chief client officer and president of global markets at Blackboard. “But as they think about contingent scenarios, the question comes down to ‘What if I had to move to an extreme scenario and could your systems handle the load?'”

Fred Singer, CEO of Ech0360, said his company is also getting questions about how to use the engagement tools in its video instruction platform.

“The real challenge is just making that class as close to in-person as you can make it, and that generally involves trying to get engagement up,” he said.

However, colleges quickly moving classes online in response to a coronavirus threat should aim to keep the majority of learning interactions asynchronous to give faculty members and students flexibility, said Kevin Kelly, a higher education consultant. 

Although more students are taking online classes, he noted, “there’s a pretty steep learning curve” for instructors who may have limited experience with online tools.

“I’m hopeful that they’ll be creating these communities of practice to make sure those faculty are not unduly burdened and have support,” he said, pointing to the Online Learning Consortium and ATTECS as outside options for short-term assistance.

An abrupt move online can also disadvantage students who lack sufficient internet access off campus. In response, Crews advises colleges to consider sharing course content with students in multiple ways. Instructors can start that conversation by encouraging students to reach out if they are unable to access the materials.

“This does not have to be an overly complex solution,” Crews said. “In this moment, everything is moving so fast. It’s very easy to make perfect the enemy of good.”

Kelly said programs should focus on providing timely feedback, organizing courses well, and promoting high levels of interaction among students and between students and faculty. 

At the University of West Florida, located in the state’s panhandle where hurricanes are a seasonal threat, the current situation is “watch, wait and plan for contingencies,” said its provost, George Ellenberg. While the university hasn’t yet contacted ed tech providers, he said it would reach out as needed to make sure its technology systems are prepared for an uptick in use.

As one precaution — borne in response to the 2007 bird flu outbreak —​ the college creates a place in the learning management system for every course section. “The shell exists and (faculty) can use that at any point should we need to shut down, should we need to make contingency plans, for two weeks during a crisis,” he said. “That’s really a key.”

Campuses across the country also have public contingency plans that point out best practices and tech tools available for faculty to move their instruction online.

Building momentum for online

Several ed tech sources interviewed for this story agreed that online education is a bigger part of schools’ contingency planning process this time around than in past epidemics, such as the bird flu and, a few years later, the swine flu.

That’s partly due to developments in distance learning technology and a growing acceptance of online courses among students. Crews also said college leaders who she has spoken with view climate events and public health crises that could impact their campuses as a “new norm” they need to be ready for.

Those trends may give momentum to institutions’ broader plans to offer online learning as a way to reach more students. “Contingency planning basically just really got pushed up the list to be another major driver that’s going to push schools to increase their activities online,” Hill said.

At New York University’s Shanghai campus, officials quickly realized that the impact of the coronavirus would extend beyond just a few weeks and would require fully online and, as the situation improved, hybrid instruction, Clay Shirky, NYU’s vice provost for educational technologies, told Education Dive in February. 

“Contingency planning basically just really got pushed up the list to be another major driver that’s going to push schools to increase their activities online.”

Phil Hill

Ed tech consultant, MindWires

Whether the apparent urgency to consider online options will linger beyond the latest outbreak is unclear, however. “Events like the coronavirus give you a short-term spike in interest, but this is part of a much larger trend” of growing global demand for postsecondary education that colleges will need to use online options to address, said Luyen Chou, chief learning officer at 2U. “It’s coming in a more systemic way.” 

Crews encourages college leaders to use the heightened acceptance of online programs to ask deans and faculty what they would need to offer their courses online.

“This is a perfect opportunity to really have a robust discussion at all levels of the campus about what would it mean if we had to continue serving our students,” she said, “not because we’re going online to make money, but because we’re going online to continue educating.”

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