As the response to COVID-19 intensifies across the US and Canada, higher education institutions are responding by shifting classes online and adjusting pedagogical expectations en masse. Comprehensive tracking of campus closures and academic library responses provides an essential birdseye view of the sector’s response to the pandemic and there are a wealth of resources and case studies about best practices but what is it like to be part of this unparalleled ad hoc experiment in distance education in real-time?  

In today’s first dispatch from the #covidclassroom are instructors’ and students’ experiences on-the-ground, including navigating the tactics for making the transition online, balancing teaching, learning, and research, and the academic supports they are relying on along the way. These accounts are based on remote interviews that I conducted on March 14 and 15. We will continue to tell stories to help the higher education community understand emerging practices, needs, and gaps in this unprecedented situation.

Dr. Ela Przybylo, Assistant Professor at Illinois State University 

Illinois State University extended March break to give instructors time to transition to remote delivery for their classes between March 23 until at least April 12. Campus offices and buildings are remaining open but all university staff who are eligible to work from home are being encouraged to do so. There is a process in place where students can request to stay in on-campus housing due to extenuating circumstances. The library remains open with adjusted hours and services for faculty who need to put new materials into online course reserves, while group student rooms are closed and events are cancelled. 

Ela is an Assistant Professor in her first year working at Illinois State and she is teaching an upper-level undergraduate course on Digital Publishing and the Digital Humanities for the English Department. She’s had to enact her plan to shift to remote instruction while conducting her own research abroad over spring break. The COVID-19 pandemic is evolving so rapidly she is unsure as to whether she will even return to Normal, Illinois before the end of the semester. 

Her plan for making the shift to online instruction is still evolving but will likely focus on additional individual written reflections submitted directly to her instead of setting up synchronous class meetings or asynchronous discussions between students. She is focusing on keeping her course expectations as simple as possible because she is most concerned about the structural pressures her students are facing and does not want to be an additional source of stress. Not only do students have to navigate the idiosyncrasies of their various instructors’ approaches to moving courses online but they also have to contend with housing uncertainties and the general stress of the pandemic. 

While she has been offered support for making the transition online through her department, the center for teaching and learning, and the library, she has not found those necessary due to her designing her class at the outset to be mediated through the university’s classroom management platform, ReggieNet. The prevalence of online information materials and support services through the library has also put her at ease.

Hanne Collins, Graduate Student at Harvard University

Harvard University is transitioning to remote instruction for March 23 and is encouraging all staff to transition to working remotely whenever possible. Students have been asked to not return to campus after Spring Break with exceptions made for extenuating circumstances. The library remains open for Harvard ID (HUID) holders but there are new policies in place for non-Harvard affiliates visiting collections. The Library is reducing in-person group meetings and staff are still expected to work on-site if they are well. 

Hanne is in the first year of a PhD program in Organizational Behavior at the Harvard Business School. Her income, which is exclusively through her graduate school funding, will not be affected by COVID-19 disruptions. She is still awaiting instruction from her professors on how the transition to online instruction will work for the seminars she is taking. Due to broader communications from the university about the remote technologies already available she anticipates a fairly seamless transition, including by leveraging the potential for synchronous meetings through Zoom. 

Her biggest concern is accessing materials for a course where the professor has been requiring students to personally photocopy their readings week-to-week via course reserves in the library due to copyright restrictions. Her plan is to rely on an informal network of students who have taken the course previously who have shared their copies of readings in the past with her. 

Hanne anticipates that her research will be far more disrupted than her courses. Her lab plans to continue to hold their regular meetings remotely but in-person data collection has been suspended. Some studies can continue through online data collection but there are also shifting priorities to ensure maximum responsiveness to COVID-19. 

Hanne lives off-campus and is experiencing some challenges shifting to online-only work. Her bedroom has poor Wi-Fi connectivity, which means taking classes and meetings in a shared space with another student. She will also be helping to care for an infant as her locally-based relatives are now juggling remote working and childcare responsibilities.

Tristan Leutheusser, Undergraduate Student at the University of Toronto

The University of Toronto  transitioned to online instruction as of March 16 until the end of the semester. Starting March 17, selected libraries will remain open, with limited hours, social distancing measures, and restricted to only U of T users. Student residences remain open. Canadian universities are further along in their semester than most U.S. institutions so there are only several weeks of classes remaining before exams.

Tristan is a second year undergraduate student majoring in Astrophysics. He is currently enrolled in Galaxies and Cosmology, Thermodynamics, Multivariable Calculus, and Electricity and Magnetism. Over the weekend he received messages from all of his professors about their plans to transition to online instruction, all of which follow similar patterns in their approach. The university’s learning management platform, Quercus, will be used for streaming lectures, holding remote office hours, and delivering materials. He’s also received a number of communications from the university about other elements of policy, including an adjusted process that makes documenting and requesting absences due to illness significantly easier, and about extended deadlines for dropping courses. 

The biggest source of ambiguity for Tristian is how exams will be coordinated. His courses are heavily weighted towards the final exams and his professors have acknowledged that it is still being determined how they will be delivered remotely. Due to the nature of the course content Tristan anticipates that significant adjustments will need to be made to maintain the academic integrity of the exams, which could make them significantly easier or harder than in years past. 

While many parts of the campus are reducing services or closing, Tristan feels that he is relatively unaffected. He lives off-campus with a roommate and thinks that he has a good set-up for working online. He’ll miss going to the gym but has a plan to workout at home. He won’t need the library because he only relies on textbooks. He doesn’t access any other university services.

Alberto Gelmi, Instructor and Graduate Student at CUNY 

All 25 campuses in the City University of New York System (CUNY) remain open, including libraries, except for at the Graduate Center. However, as of 8pm on March 15 CUNY Central has mandated that no personnel should come to work on Monday. There is currently an instructional recess and classes will resume March 19 through remote delivery. Students who need laptops for their coursework at Guttman can take out laptops for the remainder of the semester

Alberto is a graduate student at the CUNY graduate center, and he teaches a small upper-level Jewish Studies course at City College, “Italian Jews and their Communities,”  which had to cancel a much-anticipated study abroad trip to Italy. His own research to an archive in Sicily later this summer will also likely be postponed. Alberto is also a fellow at Guttman Community College in the Writing Across the Curriculum program, which involves him working with faculty to design assignments for their composition courses. Guttman will allow Alberto to work remotely but the method of communication is still being determined. 

With his City College course Alberto is planning on “starting easy” and iterating as he goes. For the next two weeks he will record lectures as MP3 files and create an accompanying Google form for students to answer prompts about the lectures. He has chosen this method because he is concerned that CUNY’s learning management platform, Blackboard, may crash due to increased volume of use. The video conferencing component of this platform, Blackboard Collaborate, has limited functionality for synchronous two-way communication relative to other platforms that CUNY does not subscribe to, such as Zoom. Alberto has also already had one student express concerns about using up their personal data as they transition to online-only courses and so he is trying to keep connectivity pressures on his students low. 

Over time Alberto plans to explore other approaches to recording his lectures and determining how remaining deliverables of his course, such as the final presentations, will be adjusted. He has also focused on building up a fail-safe method to maintain contact with his students, including collecting phone numbers, secondary email addresses, and establishing alternative approaches to communication, including creating a WhatsApp group to chat collectively.

In addition to connectivity issues Alberto is also concerned about how his students will access academic support services, particularly the writing center. He hopes to see in the days to come that the options for accessing the writing center remotely are built out adequately because essay season is coming soon and he does not want his students coming to campus anymore.