With the majority of college classes moved online in response to the coronavirus pandemic, hundreds of higher education institutions are going through a period of rapid transformation as students and faculty increasingly rely on technology to stay connected to each other and adjust to the new reality of distance learning.
In the first weeks of March, following an announcement by the University of Washington in Seattle that classes would only be held online for the remainder of the semester, many universities – including the entire State University System of Florida and more than two dozen colleges in Pennsylvania – announced they too would move classes online and cancel in-person events to protect students, faculty and staff from possible disease exposure. Hundreds more universities soon followed, canceling in-person classes and rallying their digital resources.
To ensure that education is disrupted as little as possible, universities are relying on digital tools — like online learning management systems, video conferencing tools and messaging platforms — to make sure students can access course materials and communicate with professors.
A silver lining
“We’re making a lot of changes very, very rapidly at colleges and universities across the country,” said Susan Grajek, vice president for communities and research at Educause, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing higher education through the use of technology.
With the rapid transition to online learning in higher education, faculty who were previously resistant to using technology to support teaching and learning, or lacked confidence to make the transition, are now gaining experience with a wide array of digital tools, from online textbooks to video conferencing software, she said.
“Maybe some of those learning curves will now be flattened, and faculty and students and the staff will be more comfortable with some of the tools and technology,” Grajek said.
Grajek also said she anticipates the current health crisis will help educators learn how to work together more effectively.
“I suspect that one of the biggest impacts … will be on the culture of higher education and its ability and willingness to collaborate across the many areas and to become more agile at making change because we’ve all change extraordinarily rapidly.”
Transformation in action
Just like at other colleges around the country, students and faculty at Davidson College near Charlotte, North Carolina, have quickly adapted to the new reality of online learning during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We pulled this together really quickly, this push to remote,” Lisa Forrest, director of the Davidson College Library, told EdScoop. “It’s really been this amazing collaboration between the different folks on campus who support teaching and learning.”
Sundi Richard, assistant director for digital learning at the Davidson College Library, said she and her team worked to ensure that the transition to online learning was as smooth as possible for faculty.
“We wanted to make the least amount of barriers possible so we put together a resource guide that started helping [faculty] think about what they wanted to do with their classes in terms of rethinking how this might look in an online environment,” she said.
But faculty at Davidson were ready to ask for help and work together, and made the transition with agility, said Kevin Davis, Davidson College’s chief information officer. In the days leading up to the college’s switch to remote learning, faculty descended on Davidson’s office for digital learning for training, he said, including about 80 percent of the university’s faculty who came to in-person training in the first week it was offered.
“College and university administration, we can sort of tend to have kind of this culture of blaming individuals for unwillingness to change … and this just sort of pointed out to me that it’s not an unwillingness, but it’s a lack of relevance,” he said.
But once moving classes online became a necessity as COVID-19 continued to spread, faculty were ready and willing to make the change, Davis said.
“I do think people are going to look at technology in a different way after this. I mean, I think they already are,” Forrest said. “Our faculty who maybe before didn’t see themselves in that environment now are recognizing that, oh, actually I do have the skills to do this and I’m doing it.”
This is part of StateScoop and EdScoop’s special report on coronavirus response. Read the rest of the report.