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Universities from New York to Washington State Are Moving Courses Online Because of the Coronavirus

Adrienne Patton

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Photo of Columbia University President Lee Bollinger from January 2018 by Robert Scoble used with permission

WASHINGTON, March 9, 2020 – As the United States deals with spreading cases of the novel coronavirus, some major universities are turning to online courses in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.

Still, university-wide adoptions of online classes are still in the preliminary stages.

Columbia University suspended classes on Monday and Tuesday in the wake of a quarantined individual in the area with the COVID-19 disease.

So far, “no Columbia student, faculty, or staff has been diagnosed with COVID-19,” Columbia said in a statement.

University President Lee Bollinger announced that classes will be online from Wednesday until Friday, when the university’s spring break begins.

“Please understand that the decision to suspend classes does not mean that the university is shutting down,” said Bollinger.

“All non-classroom activities, including research, will continue,” Bollinger stated.

However, according to the university, “the events policy has been updated to strongly discourage nonessential events of more than 25 people on all of [the] campuses.”

Each respective school will decide which online programs to use, said Caroline Adelman, media relations director for the university. The video communications program Zoom is one option.

Because some classes are difficult to teach online, Adelman said the “schools will let students know about alternative arrangements for these classes.”

On the other side of the county, Washington State was the first place in the country with a significant outbreak of coronavirus infections. The state government declared a state of emergency.

There, the University of Washington Seattle campus postponed in-person classes. A staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Classes will be held online for the rest of the quarter, or until March 20.

Adapting the semester’s schedule to the growing reality of life in a pandemic

While some classes may not be able to accommodate an online platform, the university has said that other options like submitting work completed on an assignment thus far may be necessary.

In a video interview with the university’s vice president of student life, University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce said, “everyone will have a notation that their grades this quarter were done under special circumstances” in order to offset any unfair conditions.

Speaking in response to a question from the vice president, Denzil Suite, about next quarter, Cauce said, “we have a three-week period to both have a better understanding of the situation,” and to do a “thorough cleaning” of the campuses.

A smaller campus impacted by COVID-19, Washington State University at Everett, is teaching courses online until March 13.

The campus only hosts a couple hundred students and none of the faculty or student body have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Washington State had been the heart of coronavirus infections in the United States until a significant spike in cases over the weekend: Cases spiked from the low hundreds to more than 500 over the weekend, and currently stand at 607 as of 3:30 p.m. ET on Monday.

California, New York and at least five others have also declared a state of emergency.

Online tools being deployed to allow all university academics to take place online

The university will use online resources like Blackboard Learning Management System, recorded lectures, and Zoom to reach students remotely. These are programs with which many students are already familiar, said WSU Everett Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Mark Beattie.

According to the WSU website, the office of Academic Outreach and Innovation will hold training several times a day to assist faculty with adjusting their courses for an online format. “This training will discuss Panopto recording, enabling of Zoom and Blackboard, uploading files, embedding of YouTube videos, and the creation of quizzes.”

Beattie said if students do not have internet access at home, the programs have mobile applications that students could access from their phones.

The lab courses are difficult to adapt to an online environment, but “we’re working with the instructors and the lab assistants for rescheduling or doing some alternative methods,” said Beattie.

Ultimately, to transfer in-person classes to an online space, universities have to assume that students have remote access to broadband and recognize that some classes will not be conducive to an online platform.

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