For centuries, university students have learned in crowded lecture halls and around small tables, encountering new ideas in face-to-face discussions with their professors and fellow students.
On Monday, the coronavirus pandemic will change that in Maryland as classes begin to go online for the rest of the semester as part of the effort to slow the spread of the virus. Colleges and universities at first announced they would switch to online classes for two weeks after spring break, but have now concluded it will be for the rest of the school year.
“That is a big step for a university like ours. We are bricks and mortar for a reason,” said John Fritz, a vice president at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Campus-based higher education isn’t completely unprepared, as many classes already rely on “learning management systems” that allow faculty to post some teaching materials and students to turn in papers online.
But the scope and short turnaround of moving the entire instructional experience online — everything — will create problems for professors used to delivering instruction in person, Fritz and others said. Completely removing the daily human interaction from learning is a profound shift.
How do you do a chemistry lab if you can’t be in the lab? How do you discuss a novel online with 15 people without losing the depth and richness of the conversation? How do you conduct a class in the performing arts?
Professors have furiously been trying to come up with solutions since Maryland colleges and universities sent their students home for spring break a week ago. The University of Maryland College Park will spend the next week training faculty for the switch, while online instruction for students begins Monday at many other schools.
The change may be unwelcome for some.
Surveys show that few faculty want to teach online, said Susan Grajek of Educause, a nonprofit higher education technology association. About half of faculty prefer to teach only face to face, while just 10% would prefer to teach online only.
“We are swimming upstream because we are working against the faculty preferences,” she said.
Students predict a wide range of responses by professors — everything from offering creative, interactive solutions to dumping all of their lessons on a platform at one time and expecting students to learn by themselves.
Ireland Lesley, a senior and president of the Student Government Association at the University of Maryland, College Park, said students’ feelings range from believing that moving to online classes will be easily accomplished to those who question how it can possibly be done. In one of her classes she was expected to spend the rest of the semester doing a group project. She doesn’t see how that can happen now.
“I don’t know what the future of my classes is going to be," Lesley said. “I think it is going to be really complicated.”
Today’s students are used to technology, of course. Nationally, one in every six higher education students primarily takes courses online, often professionals returning to school for evening and weekend courses. But one-third of all students in higher education have taken at least one online course, according to U.S. Education Department data from 2017, the most recent available.
Professors who have never taught online will learn to make it work, Grajek said. “I think we are going to see a shift in the culture of higher education," she said. "What was a bridge to die on is now something that the faculty is willing to take on for the good of the institution and the students.”
For a laboratory science class, one Hopkins professor has created videos of himself doing the experiments students would have done this semester. He plans to make them available online to his students. Other instructors are considering having students look more deeply into research about the question a laboratory experiment might try to answer, or do the analysis with a mock data set from a lab, said Joel Schildbach, vice dean in the school of arts and sciences at Hopkins.
“Our instructors have been responding by providing a deeper experience [involving] other parts of the lab,” he said.
Having a small group discussion in a humanities class can be done through video-conferencing services such as Zoom so that the real-time interactions are not diminished, Schildbach said. Having that discussion on a message board doesn’t work.
“We are trying to make sure that the core of the experience is preserved and that is the interaction between the scholar and the student,” Schildbach said.
At College Park, visual arts instructors are considering having students complete projects, create a video of their work and upload it to YouTube. Professors have created Facebook groups to share teaching ideas. Some plan to use the pandemic as a theme for art, and are asking questions such as “What has your art taught you about survival?”
One question that seems unresolved is how professors give exams when students cannot be proctored. Schildbach believes many will use a different format, such as allowing students to use outside resources to answer questions or giving exams that rely more on analysis rather than answering factual questions.
Fritz and Schildbach say that a lot of what will be happening on the virtual campuses of universities in the coming weeks will depend on everyone being flexible and creative. And they believe the experience, although daunting, may, in the end, produce new, interesting ways to teach.
“What we are seeing is true online scholarship incubating in front of our eyes,” Grajek said.
Beyond the challenge of converting to online teaching are other issues that worry administrators.
Fritz said the university believes 3% to 5% of students at UMBC don’t have internet access at home. Faculty have been reaching out to students asking what problems they may have. Fritz said as long as university buildings remain open and those students can continue to get to campus, they will have internet.
But if the university closes down completely, other solutions might have to be found. He believes many students have been using the hot spots on their phones to connect to the internet, but that is an expensive solution.
“I don’t know what the extent of student connection will be, and I don’t think anyone does,” Fritz said. “As we go fully online, it will shine a light on this.”
Another concern is how to help students who are struggling with a class, said Hopkins’ Schildbach. “The school is challenging enough even when everything is in place,” he said. “There are some very high standards and now we have some amazing complexities.”
The university’s peer-to-peer mentoring may have glitches if students aren’t on campus. Staff are trying to work through the problem. Cecilia Vorfeld, a Johns Hopkins senior, said for students in large classes the program has been essential. Losing it “might be particularly hard for students,” she said.
Overall, the move to online instruction “won’t be without hiccups," Fritz said. “But I don’t feel it is going to be a show-stopper.”
Lesley said, “I think no matter what, we will get through this as a community.”
But she and other students say there’s considerable anxiety about what will happen for the rest of the school year — not only about academic expectations, but questions such as how long campuses will remain open and whether they will go through the normal commencement and senior celebrations.
“The general sense is that this is not what anyone wanted and a lot of sadness,” Lesley said.