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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.

Adrienne Patton was a Reporter for Broadband Breakfast. She studied English rhetoric and writing at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She grew up in a household of journalists in South Florida. Her father, the late Robes Patton, was a sports writer for the Sun-Sentinel who covered the Miami Heat, and is for whom the press lounge in the American Airlines Arena is named.

Education

Libraries Must Be Vigilant To Ensure Adequate Broadband, Consultants Say

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Stephanie Stenberg via Internet2

April 7, 2021 – Libraries should monitor their broadband speeds and ensure they are getting quality connections, according to library consultants.

Carson Block from Carson Block Consulting and Stephanie Stenberg of the Internet2 Community Anchor program told a virtual conference hosted by the American Library Association on Tuesday that it’s time libraries take a closer look at how they are getting broadband and if they are getting the speeds they are paying for. If not, they said they should re-negotiate.

Block and Stenberg shared details about the “Towards Gigabit Libraries” (TGL) toolkit, a free, self-service guide for rural and tribal libraries to better understand and improve their broadband. The new toolkit helps libraries prepare for E-Rate internet subsidy requests to aid their budget cycles.

It also has tips about communicating effectively between library and tech people since there is a gap in knowledge between those two groups. The TGL is supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Gigabit Libraries and Beyond (GLG) to improve the toolkit and expand throughout the United States. In addition to focusing on rural and tribal libraries, now urban libraries will be included for support.

During the event, a live poll showed all participating attendees said they “very infrequently” had technical IT support available in their home libraries. Stenberg said this confirmed TGL’s findings that libraries need more tech and IT support, as the majority of respondents in previous surveys gave similar concerning results.

To really emphasize the need for adequate broadband and support at libraries, another question was asked to live attendees about their current level of expertise around procuring and delivering access to broadband as a service in their library, assuming that the majority of attendees worked for libraries. All participants said they possess “no experience” trying to get broadband in the library.

Common issues that are to blame include libraries with insufficient bandwidth, data wiring or poorly set-up networks. Old and obsolete equipment also contributed to bad Wi-Fi coverage.

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Education

Schools And Libraries Look For Solutions With $7 Billion In Federal Help

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot from SHLB event

April 6, 2021 – In a webinar last week hosted by the Schools, Health, and Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB), panelists discussed opportunities schools and libraries have to better serve their communities with the recent $7 billion provided through the American Rescue Plan, a $1.98 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden on last month.

Laura Cole, director at the BiblioTech public library, shared how a successful pilot program with Southwest Independent School District made a goal to provide digital access to 100 students. To date, 62 students had broadband installed with the remaining still being worked on. The project was done to act as a proof-of-concept for digital connection expansion in Bexar County, Texas, where broadband access rates are low. Though the program’s success has caused it to be extended through December 31, 2021, Cole said she recognizes that there needs to be a more permanent solution to close the digital divide in all areas where people lack internet.

At the Brooklyn Public Library in New York City, Selvon Smith, president of information technology and chief information officer at the library, said that collaborative programs with the New York Public Library, Queens Public Library, and the New York City Department of Education were able to provide thousands of free hotspot devices for the entire school year to under-connected people. The organizations created a “Bookmobile Wi-Fi” program that was comprised of three vans and one truck stocked with laptops and outfitted with Wi-Fi antennas.

And it’s not just libraries that benefitted from the $7 billion provided through the American Rescue Plan. Rajesh Adusumilli, assistant superintendent for information services at Arlington County public schools (APS), said his organization worked to address student connectivity needs throughout the pandemic. The rollout of the 1-2-3 Connect Me pilot program was a core part along with maintaining Comcast’s Internet Essentials Program sponsorship and continuing to provide devices and wireless access hotspots at Arlington’s public schools.

This pilot program was financed by the Virginia governor’s Fasttrack Broadband Funding program, and is an extension of broadband services off of the APS and county-owned fiber network.

It uses technology on the Citizens Broadband Radio Service spectrum band, which has allowed private networks solely meant for students. It allows for students to connect to the APS network from home so they can continue distance learning instruction and access APS resources. It also can save money as it does not require the county to build additional fiber to create the extension.

Now, all Arlington Public Schools are set up with wireless access, with 99.2 percent of all APS students having participated successfully in synchronous learning activities.

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Education

Lack of Awareness Sees Michigan Schools And Libraries Miss Out on E-Rate Funding: State Coordinator

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Joe Polasek taken from his LinkedIn page

March 30, 2021 – Despite expanded funding for the E-Rate internet subsidy program for schools and libraries, the Michigan State program coordinator said there’s an awareness problem that is causing those institutions to miss out on money in the state.

“I don’t know any school or library that feels they have enough funding,” Joe Polasek said at the “Connecting Michigan Communities: Digital Education in Michigan” event, hosted by Connected Nation Michigan.

The E-Rate program is based on free and reduced lunch eligibility reported by schools and can support schools’ recurring or one-time service costs for internet. In some cases, the program can cover up to 90 percent of an internet service bill, something Polasek would like to see more schools and libraries take advantage of in his state.

There have been recent legislative proposals to extend the E-Rate to cover internet subsidies to the home.

If a school or library qualifies for E-Rate funding, it can then use money that would have gone toward paying the internet bill for other needs like technology or education improvements.

While a growing number of schools are eligible in the program, the need to push libraries to qualify is even greater. Three years ago, 50 percent of Michigan libraries were participating in the E-Rate program, said Polasek. Libraries need to be aware of the benefits and help available to them in accessing much-needed funds and filing proper paperwork to qualify.

To date, Polasek said efforts to raise awareness of E-Rate funding have grown steadily, which has culminated in nearly 65 percent of libraries now receiving E-Rate funding.

Polasek’s role as a state coordinator is to facilitate the application process for prospective schools and libraries. He made it clear that he cannot actually file the paperwork on behalf of the applicant, but he is there to answer any questions and educate.

The verification process for E-Rate can be tricky to handle, he said. Confirming that the student count and discount rate are accurate is important because money is on the line.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story said that the E-Rate program was recently expanded to cover subsidies to the home. The story has been corrected to say that various legislative proposals have been introduced to achieve that. As it is, the E-Rate program is based on free and reduced lunch eligibility reported by schools and can support schools’ recurring or one-time service costs for the internet.

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