With campus closing down and reports of coronavirus ramping up, two small departments set about the Herculean task of helping faculty move from in-seat classes to remote learning.
When the call was made to move classes online because of coronavirus, Kathy Zellers and Lyda McCartin, Ph.D., were ahead of the curve.
In mid-February, Zellers, director of Instructional Design and Development (IDD) was continuing a project she’d been working on for some time — restructuring staffing and hoping to hire for two vacant staff positions. Her team supports faculty in the design, development and delivery of online courses and course components, and they were building some courses and finishing a few others.
Down the hall in Michener Library, McCartin (professor in University Libraries) was
about six weeks into her new role as interim director for the Center for the Enhancement
of Teaching and Learning (CETL). The department had been without a director for a
lengthy period so, in addition to gearing up for the annual Teaching and Assessment
Symposium, she was working to revitalize the CETL team and create a new strategic
plan for CETL’s 2030 vision planning.
Two weeks later, planning had taken on a whole different meaning.
Hitting the Ground Running
“I’ve been an instructional designer and a project manager for 15 years, and I’m a
certified project manager,” Zellers says. “That means that I’ve been steeped in that
whole idea of doing a short-term plan.
“In mid-February I was following the news. I was worried about the world, but I wasn’t worried about Colorado or UNC at that point. But on February 26, I heard that Zoom had lifted the 40-minute limit because of COVID-19 in China. It was also that exact same day that we had the first case of community spread in the United States, and so those two things together exploded in my mind, and I thought, ‘This is going to be an issue for us.’”
Zellers immediately began working on a plan. “The next week, I introduced it to my staff, and we started working on it. March 4 we had the plan done.”
The following day she posted that plan to SharePoint in the Instructional Design and Instructional Technology (IDIT) meeting, and sent it to her boss at the time, Dallas Everhardt, executive director of Extended Campus. He pulled her into the academic and distance technology subcommittee meeting.
“I pushed to present that plan so that I could say, ‘Look, this is what we think we should do,’” Zellers says. “I think people were surprised actually, and so everybody just let me do it.”
“Or grateful,” McCartin says. “Surprised and grateful, and they were just like, ‘Go ahead.’”
Zellers says that having a plan like that is part of being an instructional designer working in online education. “My job is to find a way to help people understand how you can leverage online education. Too many people think, ‘How can we overcome the problems online education presents us?’ That’s where they’re coming from when they think about online education — it’s not as good.
“The fact is, online education is beautiful for many things, and one of the things it’s beautiful for is if people for some reason can’t come to the university. As an instructional designer in this field, you kind of have this plan in the back of your head, thinking that you might be called on someday, and that was the case. I just thought, ‘Let’s make this happen.’”
While Zellers’ team was focused on the plan for moving classes online, McCartin began to research resources, contact peers at other universities and develop a crisis plan that would support IDD’s work and assist faculty through the process.
“On March 9 I was in Nashville, when Vanderbilt closed its campus. I hopped back on the plane to Denver knowing that we were about to go remote.” McCartin says. “With CETL not having a director for so long, it meant there was no crisis plan. There was no thinking about what one might do, how one is going to support IDD and what they need. That just didn’t exist.”
She reached out to higher education colleagues who had gone through crises ranging from the SARS virus to shootings on their campuses, and learned how they walked faculty through the process, and worked with their IDD and IT teams.
“I spent three days just researching what kinds of resources were important, and then creating those resources for the UNC context, and sharing those with Kathy.”
On March 11, President Andy Feinstein made the official announcement that classes would be offered mostly online for at least the two weeks following spring break (March 14-22), with a two-day break on March 23 and 24 for faculty to prepare for the transition. Those two weeks would eventually extend to the end of the semester.
From March 11 through 16, CETL created an emergency remote teaching website, the Emergency Remote Teaching Toolkit and a FAQ. “We put up resources about virtual office hours, remote advising and talked with faculty about emergency remote teaching versus an online course.”
And that difference — between emergency remote teaching versus an online course — would become a key part of the effort to support students and faculty in the face of an unprecedented situation.
Rising to the Occasion
Meanwhile, Zellers and her team were working with Canvas data provided by Information, Management and Technology (IM&T) to see where they’d need to focus first. Canvas, the Learning Management System (LMS) UNC uses for online courses, allows teachers to communicate with their students, post content for classes and assess student performance through assignments and exams. Some faculty were already using Canvas, but many had not used the platform before.
“There were about 4,000 courses being offered in spring, and we had about 955 faculty teaching those courses,” she says. They divided faculty into three groups.
“We had people who had never taught in Canvas or hadn’t done anything with Canvas; we had people who had done something in Canvas,” Zellers says. The third group was faculty who were already fully online or teaching a hybrid class, so they were already set to go. Some spring courses had already finished, so the number of courses between the first two groups was reduced to about 3,000.
They reached out to each group, sorted by college, to reassure faculty and let them know what the plan would be. Each course that wasn’t already partly on Canvas had an empty “shell” to serve as the framework for the course. IDD built a template that they put into all 1,182 empty shells so that when faculty logged into Canvas for the first time, it walked them through what they needed to do and explained the tools Canvas offers for communicating with students and giving students content, as well as an introduction to assignments and assessments.
And, as McCartin explained, CETL and IDD approached each course from the standpoint that they were supporting students and faculty through a crisis.
“We needed to support faculty in doing key things with their students in order to continue instruction under an enormous amount of stress,” Zellers says.
And, where, under normal circumstances, a single course may take up to four months in development, IDD, CETL, IM&T and all faculty teaching this spring were able able to move 3,000 courses online in a span of two weeks.
To help prepare faculty to use the new shells, IDD opened up a webinar series of three webinars a day for five days.
CETL offered virtual workshops, and provided a sign-up for one-on-one consultations,
partnering with IM&T and with Koreen Myers in Human Resources.
It was an intensive work schedule for IDD and CETL.
“That weekend before spring break our team of three (Zellers, Tyler Jones and Rebecca Saunders) — and we drafted Aimee Rogers from Extended Campus — spent the whole weekend putting those templates into the shells. We reached out to everyone, and faculty stepped up and they’re greater than you ever expected,” Zellers says. “So really, at the end of the day, this is all about how faculty rose to the occasion, feeling supported. And how we were able to really make this happen. It’s humbling.”
Both Zellers and McCartin wanted to reassure faculty that even though they might need to present material differently, they could still achieve the learning outcomes they wanted for their students.
“I think probably the best webinar we gave through CETL was titled ‘Prioritizing Curriculum During Emergency Remote Teaching,’” McCartin says. “The first slide in that presentation has perfection crossed out. We’re not aiming for perfection.
“We really discussed cognitive load of the students in times of stress,” McCartin continued. “This is not a typical situation. You might have time zone differences if you’re trying to do synchronous learning (where the faculty member and student connect in real time). I think Kathy and I were in a meeting where we had a student in France who couldn’t log into a synchronous session on Colorado time.”
Student expectations and access to technology were also a key focus. Some students were sharing devices and WiFi with others in their home. It was important to help faculty recognize some of those student concerns.
To help students, IDD and CETL created a student “shell” in Canvas that students could use to transition their work online — from learning how Canvas works to understanding best practices and how faculty would connect with them, to making sure that they knew where to get additional academic support.
CETL also addressed student concerns in the CETL webinar offered for faculty. “We talked about how it was important to be in contact early with your students and ask about their technology issues. Do they have a computer or were they relying on the campus computers? And then that can determine what you can do in your class and some choices you have to make about how you want to offer things,” McCartin says.
Zellers says it was a message that dovetailed with what IDD was sharing with faculty in terms of communicating with students.
Sparking Potential for Future Online Options
Looking ahead, the impact of online coursework may have a silver lining.
“I hope that faculty can see that online learning can be very effective for the things that they were probably surprised you could do in the online environment,” McCartin says. “I worked with a faculty member who had to do role-play in a counseling class, and you cannot role-play asynchronously and you cannot really meet those learning objectives asynchronously. So, we talked through that. I checked in with her later, and she said it was fabulous.”
That shift from “How can we do this?” to “We can do this” leads to questions about potential for future options. “Can we do more offerings online in the summer because of that,” McCartin asks. “Or, we have a lot of students working full-time, so can we do more work online? Where before people thought maybe you can’t, hopefully this shows that they can.”
Zellers agrees. “I think that what people learn when they get into it is that there are some things you can do online better than you can do face-to-face, where you’re actually reaching out to your students in a much more direct way than you would if you were in a big lecture hall. I just think that it’s going to give faculty greater confidence in what’s possible.”
–By Debbie Pitner Moors