Dive Brief:

  • The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidance to help schools decide what steps to take in the event the new coronavirus interrupts student instruction. 
  • It also slackened requirements on how schools can use distance learning technologies to accommodate students temporarily if classes cannot meet as a result of a virus outbreak within their campus or community.
  • The guidance comes as colleges consider the use of online learning tools as they prepare for the possibility of having to cancel classes or close campus.

Dive Insight:

Among the five scenarios the Ed Department’s guidance covers are if a student is unable to start or finish a scheduled study abroad experience due to the coronavirus, or if a student is quarantined or incapacitated by the illness and can’t get to class.

It also covers if a student falls below the 12 credit hour minimum because a class or internship was canceled due to the coronavirus.

The coronavirus outbreak has spread across the globe since it began in China late last year. There have been more than 100,000 confirmed cases of the respiratory illness the virus causes, COVID-19, worldwide as of Friday afternoon, according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University

While the impact in the U.S. has been limited, with more than 250 confirmed cases of the illness, its effect on higher education has become more pronounced.

Due to outbreaks in Washington state, the University of Washington announced students will take their classes and final exams remotely on its three campuses for the remainder of its winter quarter, which ends on March 20. Other institutions have shuttered satellite campuses in affected areas throughout the globe and canceled study abroad trips. 

Online learning technologies are expected to factor into colleges’ contingency plans as they look for ways to continue instruction in the case of an outbreak.

Broadly, the department is allowing institutions to use online learning technologies to add or expand some online classes to accommodate students without having to go through the department’s regular approval process. 

It is also letting accreditors waive review requirements for distance learning programs developed to accommodate students whose classes were affected by the coronavirus. Typical technology requirements for online programs may also not apply in these cases, the department said, so long as the instructor has regular, substantive communication with students.

“In other words,” the guidance explains, “an instructor could use email to provide instructional materials to students enrolled in his or her class, use chat features to communicate with students, set up conference calls to facilitate group conversations, engage in email exchanges or require students to submit work electronically that the instructor will evaluate.”

Other allowances include permitting institutions to form temporary consortium agreements that let students complete courses at other colleges while earning credit from their home school.

The department is encouraging colleges to document “as contemporaneously as possible” the steps they take to address these and other scenarios related to the coronavirus.

When using distance learning technology to address an interruption in instruction, ed tech experts caution colleges to ensure the course remains equitable and engaging for students. That includes considering students’ access to the internet off campus and instructors’ ability to use online teaching tools. 

Institutions should also plan to have extra tech support ready and confirm that their distance learning technologies can handle an influx of users.

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