Prepare to Move Online (in a Hurry)

Disaster and continuity planning for coronavirus now will prepare your campus for possible closure in the case of a local outbreak, Nathan Greeno writes.

March 10, 2020
 
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Around the world, nearly 300 million students have been sent home over coronavirus fears. Universities are scrambling to create plans in the event of a local outbreak, and for many, the answer is to move courses online.

Northeastern University did so for students at its satellite campus in Seattle, and the University of Washington, Stanford University and Princeton University are just some of the institutions announcing they would be conducting classes and finals remotely for the remainder of the quarter.

While a high-quality online degree typically takes months⁠ -- if not years⁠ -- to get off the ground, coronavirus is forcing many institutions to provision hundreds of online courses in a matter of weeks. For some institutions, especially those that have embraced online education hesitantly or not at all, this is a formidable challenge. If your institution is contemplating or already in the midst of a massive migration to the web, below are considerations to ensure as successful a transition as possible.

Wherever you are on the online learning continuum, start preparation now. If institutions end up closing in the event of a local outbreak, disruption to classes can result in significant financial losses for institutions and have unknown negative consequences for students who are forced to put their education on hold. Even if the coronavirus has not been found in your city yet, move quickly to set up a continuity plan and communicate it to your students and faculty. This will keep rising anxieties in check and kick the campus community out of panic mode and into problem-solving mode.

Don’t let technology stand in the way of learning. In the rush to move course content online, faculty may be tempted to turn to whatever technology platform they are most comfortable using. In a crisis situation, this can lead to a world of headaches including quality-control issues, scalability problems in the future and ultimately confusion for students. Whatever LMS or technologies your institution decides to use, make the course structures consistent. That way, students aren’t forced to learn something new every time they move from course to course and can get up and running faster.

Standardize, templatize, systematize. Simple guidelines that ensure classes run on the same schedule and centralize the location of all virtual learning content go a long way. Create a template course shell that all faculty members will use to structure their online courses. Then make sure all the syllabi, course materials and links that students need can be found in the same, logically organized location within the course shell. Although I am a proponent of innovation combined with the best learning theory, in the case of mass translation to online, standardization is key for both students and instructors.

Make it an institutional mandate long before a crisis hits. In both a preparedness mode and in the midst of a crisis, leadership must be more directive than they may be accustomed to in order to establish a universitywide adoption plan. Faculty members are often resistant to being told what to do, but remind them that in a strategic continuity plan, standardization is for the sake of the students whose education is at risk of being disrupted. The requirements are only in place to help students receive instruction and find what they need when they need it in what may be their first online learning experience, not to take away the academic freedom of the faculty.

For instructors who’ve never taught online, start with live sessions. Teaching online for the first time is daunting, especially when there’s little time to prepare. The idea that highly produced asynchronous material will just appear quickly is not realistic. Live video sessions are the most natural starting point because they create a proxy for the classroom environment. As faculty members get more comfortable in a digital setting, they’ll come to realize that incorporating other online teaching tools like chat forums, polls, desktop videos and other asynchronous content will create a more robust experience for students. The key here is to not let “production” stand in the way of continuity.

Prepare for the future with a long-term digital learning strategy. Colleges and universities that work to quickly implement the strategies above will be better prepared in a potential emergency. But the institutions that already have digitized learning content and technology have a huge advantage. These schools can easily move on-campus students into the equivalent online programs that provide the same high-quality learning experience. They may have robust online instructional design teams devoted to working with the faculty. Finally, these institutions are also likely to have external partners in place that can help them quickly build whatever additional digital content they need.

A potential global pandemic is forcing institutions to consider moving online out of necessity. Whether it affects your campus or not is yet to be determined for most. However, this recent outbreak should be a warning flag to all.

Educational continuity planning through leveraging online technology assets is a critical tool for preparedness. If done well, the result will not only be a readiness for things unseen, but also a greater acceptance of online learning on campuses. Smart leadership will build a continuity plan for the short term that scaffolds toward a vision of a more resilient, technology-leveraged campus in the future.

Bio

Nathan Greeno is senior vice president of global program strategy at 2U Inc. and former vice president of partnerships and strategic initiatives at the University of Maryland Global Campus.

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