How to move a university online in 12 days
On March 11, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands announced that the remainder of spring semester courses would finish online, following an extended spring break. By March 23, nearly 2,400 instructors were teaching approximately 4,500 sections remotely.
While no one expected the transition to be perfect, it has been a remarkably smooth process, thanks in large part to Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies (TLOS), a unit within the Division of Information Technology. Together, TLOS, its Continuity Partners, and the Virginia Tech community pulled together to take Virginia Tech online in less than two weeks.
Laying the groundwork for large-scale online teaching support
As the novel coronavirus began to spread internationally, Sands formed an emergency working group to evaluate early information about COVID-19, anticipate its possible impact on the university, and formulate a response.
Executive Director and Associate Provost for TLOS Dale Pike was part of that group. At that time, Pike recalled, “the focus was on Virginia Tech students and faculty located in various cities around the world. Because very little was known about what would happen, we discussed many scenarios, including the possibility that we’d need to provide instruction to students who were in quarantine or support faculty who needed to teach from quarantine.”
As it became clear that COVID-19 would likely impact Virginia Tech’s operations in the near future both in Blacksburg and abroad, TLOS wanted to ensure that if the university decided to reduce on-campus operations, faculty would have a strong support system and the tools they needed to succeed teaching online.
Pike worked with TLOS leaders to prepare. In late February, TLOS revisited their standing Continuity of Instruction website, which until then had primarily existed to help instructors needing to move course content online during snowstorms or other routine schedule interruptions. The site provides best practices and resources for creating course materials, producing real-time and recorded lectures, and conducting online office hours. TLOS elevated the visibility of this site, and began planning for more.
"With our adoption of Canvas, Zoom, and Kaltura in recent years, Virginia Tech had established a strong technical foundation for instructional continuity,” said Quinn Warnick, TLOS interim deputy executive director. "Similarly, faculty have been deepening their digital fluency and building their confidence in online environments through TLOS's professional development offerings. When COVID-19 arrived, we immediately began to see the fruits of those efforts."
12 days to get Virginia Tech online
Following President Sands’s March 11 announcement, faculty had exactly 12 days to convert course materials to an all-online format, as well as prepare themselves to teach from remote locations instead of campus classrooms.
While helping faculty design engaging, accessible online courses is a core function of TLOS, doing this for thousands of courses in such a short time period was unprecedented. Pike said, “As we began conversations about the amount of help that might be needed, it quickly became evident that our normal strategies for helping faculty with online teaching would not scale.”
Pike and TLOS staff met immediately to discuss next steps. The plan they developed included three main components:
1. Deliver workshops to help faculty maximize competency with Virginia Tech’s key online teaching tools; Canvas, Zoom, and Kaltura.
Twice-daily in-person and online sessions were offered during the week of extended spring break. After classes resumed, and as the university implemented social distancing measures, workshops were offered online only.
During the first two weeks, workshops focused on the basics: how to convert course materials to digital formats, how to host a class on Zoom, how to record a lecture using Kaltura, and how to add captions to videos. Once classes resumed, workshops were added to address more-specific needs, such as how to maintain student contact in a remote setting, best practices for conducting tests and quizzes online, and how to conduct a thesis defense on Zoom. TLOS has since added workshops for testing and grading on Canvas and for creating engaging, effective online content for summer courses.
TLOS learning technologies specialist Dan Yaffe, who led several of these workshops, notes that participants were focused on their students’ ability to succeed in an online environment: “They wanted the redesigned class to be as easy to access as possible, with minimal confusion or roadblocks,” said Yaffe. “Faculty were also considering students who might not have internet, a webcam, or a computer. They were willing to put in extra work to help their students get what they needed.”
2. Organize a cadre of Instructional Continuity Partners.
To address the dramatically increased need for online course design support, TLOS started the Continuity Partners program, recruiting departmental faculty, administrators, and IT personnel who were already experienced with online teaching to serve as consultants.
Nearly 150 people in departments and offices across the university signed up within just a few days. The Continuity Partners have been crucial in helping TLOS extend its capabilities and continually fine-tune efforts during a rapidly changing situation.
“The Continuity Partners offered a direct line of communication to instructors and provided hours of consultations, training, and technical support. They gave freely of their time and resources to help in this crisis,” said Marc Zaldivar, director of professional development curriculum and assessment for TLOS, who helped coordinate the Continuity Partners program. “They provided TLOS with the information we needed to respond quickly and effectively on issues that would have been overwhelming without their support. What this represents to me, personally, is Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim spirit: this community comes together — strongly — when called.”
3. Provide robust online resources and ongoing support.
To supplement workshops and Continuity Partner consultations, TLOS built a new Canvas site, Moving Your Course Online, with resources to guide instructors through the entire online teaching process: setting up a course home page; hosting student presentations, labs, and other course activities; grading assignments; and more.
Just before classes resumed on March 23, TLOS published a special edition of its traditional “TLOS Top Ten,” which provided tips and reminders for instructors with a focus on accessible course design and delivery.
In addition, TLOS continually updated its shareable resource, Online Teaching Support in Response to COVID-19, adding links to teaching, learning, and technology resources from other university groups as well as posting the current list of Continuity Partners.
Making accessibility a priority
From the outset, TLOS recognized that faculty might need additional help ensuring their courses met the unique accessibility requirements of an online learning environment.
In addition to helping educate instructors about online course accessibility during workshops and consultations, TLOS expanded its use of Ally, a Canvas-integrated tool that can be used to assess and improve the accessibility of course content.
“Timely access to accessible instructional materials provides universal benefit, regardless of ability,” said Mark Nichols, senior director of universal design and accessible technologies for TLOS. “Resources like Ally, Grackle Docs, Zoom, and the Keep C.A.L.M. Caption On campaign have helped personalize the learning experience and reduce barriers for thousands of students within these new and dynamic learning environments. The Division of IT and Virginia Tech’s Campus Accessibility Working Group have been instrumental partners in helping us improve the digital accessibility landscape in response to COVID-19.”
Throughout this endeavor, TLOS maintained constant communication with departmental IT staff, 4Help, and groups in the Division of IT to quickly identify and address potential problems, and to learn what practices resulted in the best learning experience for students.
While the most intense phase of the transition to an all-online academic environment has passed, TLOS remains committed to supporting Virginia Tech faculty and staff as the semester continues. Workshops are ongoing through the end of April, and consultations will continue by appointment.
“Over the last several weeks, many people did an astounding amount of work sharing information and soliciting feedback and participation — and waking up and doing it all again the next day,” said Pike. “The TLOS team certainly came together and did an amazing job, but the work we have done would have been impossible without the tremendous contributions and support from individuals and units across campus. Our faculty, our IT community, and our graduate teaching assistant community all pulled out the stops and spent many hours moving courses online.”