Amid Mounting Coronavirus Concerns, Universities Shift Classes Online

College classrooms across Texas will be empty when students return from spring break. Nearly all the colleges and universities in the state are moving in-person classes online amid concerns about the coronavirus.EXPAND
College classrooms across Texas will be empty when students return from spring break. Nearly all the colleges and universities in the state are moving in-person classes online amid concerns about the coronavirus.
iStock / TheaDesign
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About 10 years ago, a winter storm passed through North Texas, covering Dallas in a sheet of ice and snow and forcing schools to close for nearly a week.

After a few days, Stephen Sekula, a physics professor at Southern Methodist University, started wondering whether there wasn't a better way to set up his class — one that took advantage of digital technology that would allow students to access course materials from home.

"That was when I learned the lesson as a young professor that it's a good idea to have a battle plan in place in case you can't come to campus," Sekula said.

With his campus shut down because of concerns about the novel coronavirus, Sekula is putting that plan to work. SMU, like nearly every other university in the state, announced last week that it was canceling in-person classes after the end of an extended spring break. When students return to class next week, all of their courses will be online instead of in a physical classroom.

Following that announcement, professors are trying to figure out how to shift classes that were designed to be taught in person into an online format — a shift Sekula made several years ago. Using a model that education leaders call a flipped classroom, Sekula began recording all his lectures for the courses he taught and placing them online. Rather than requiring his students to sit through those lectures during class, Sekula assigns them, along with reading, as homework. That frees up class time for him to talk with students and help them engage with the ideas he brought up in the lectures.

Even during a normal semester, that teaching strategy has its benefits, Sekula said. But with all the university's in-person classes being shifted online, the fact that Sekula's classes are already mostly online puts him several steps ahead, he said.

The key difference is that Sekula had time to plan the change. And there was plenty to plan: He had to prepare the lectures, record each of them, edit them enough that they looked serviceable and upload them to Canvas, SMU's online classroom system. There's no way a professor who's trying to move several classes online, all at once, without time to plan, would be able to do all that work in time, he said.

"It's brutal the first semester you have to do it," he said.

Allison McCarn Deiana, another SMU physics professor, said university officials began telling faculty members to start preparing for the shift about a week ago. Making the shift while students are gone for spring break gives faculty members a bit of cushion, she said.

McCarn Deiana said she expects lectures to be the most difficult thing to shift from an in-person setting to an online format. Most professors already used Canvas to make and collect homework assignments, post lecture notes and communicate with students. That won't change much once all of the university's classes go online. But for professors who are used to giving their lectures in person, shifting to livestreamed lectures will be tricky because they won't be able to see how students react to what they're saying and see whether they understand.

"I'm kind of of the opinion that it's a bit easier to communicate ideas in person," she said.

SMU isn't the only campus making that shift. As the coronavirus gained a foothold in Texas last week, colleges and universities across the state announced they were extending spring breaks, suspending in-person classes and moving those courses online. Campus dorms and dining halls remain open. At SMU, President R. Gerald Turner encouraged "as many students as possible" to leave their residence halls until April 5.

Over the weekend, Vistasp Karbhari, president of the University of Texas at Arlington, announced that a UTA student had tested positive for coronavirus. Tarrant County Public Health contacted people who had been in contact with the infected student and placed them in self-isolation while health workers monitored their conditions, Karbhari said.

At Baylor University, officials announced last week that spring break would be extended by a week. On Monday, the university announced classes will be online for the rest of the semester.

Ashley Nitsche, a senior from Round Rock, said she went home for a few days over spring break to visit family, then came back to Waco to take care of her cat, Zoe. Nitsche learned about the change last week in an email from Baylor President Linda Livingstone. Nitsche was excited about the longer spring break, she said, but also disappointed she wouldn't be able to get back to school and see her friends.

Nitsche said she's worried about people who have contracted the virus or are stuck in some hot spot and can't leave. She thinks the university made the right move by canceling in-person classes, but she's sorry it had to happen.

"I just wish that it didn't have to be so drastic," she said.

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