UO jumps into remote learning with passion and innovation

The beginning of any academic quarter typically brings a flurry of activity, but as the spring term gets underway this week the University of Oregon campus is unusually muted.

Any sense of emptiness, however, is an illusion. The campus community has not disappeared – it has merely dispersed. In extraordinarily challenging times, the UO has quickly adapted and gone remote.

In keeping with state’s “stay home” orders and to protect the campus community during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, the UO is modifying its operations and providing remote classes.

As UO faculty members, graduate employees and students come together for the first sessions of the new term, they are not connecting in any physical lecture halls or laboratories, but strictly in virtual space.

This fast-moving experiment, necessitated by extreme circumstances, is bringing out creative and innovative teaching approaches and challenging instructors and students to move outside their comfort zones.

“I am tremendously proud and encouraged by the resilience our faculty have shown in rising up to meet these unforeseen challenges,” said UO President Michael H. Schill. “The faculty and staff are moving with lightning speed to ensure that our students educations’ stay on track and that their dreams aren’t dashed by this terrible virus.”

Across the university, employees have worked to put in place the structure and systems necessary to support all students. The university has a large incident management team dedicated to COVID-19 mitigation, and status updates are regularly posted to the UO’s coronavirus information page.

With the suspension of noncritical campus operations, one of the biggest steps was laying the foundation for more than 1,000 instructors to quickly transition to remote work, using technology to deliver their classroom lectures, discussions, office hours and other face-to-face course content over sometimes-vast distances to a widely dispersed student body.

“Foundationally, it was a big technology challenge,” said Jessie Minton, vice provost for information services and chief information officer. “On very short notice, we had to scale up to accommodate 2,182 faculty members and graduate employees and around 20,000 students at the UO moving their teaching and learning to a remote model, as well as over 3,000 other UO employees now working remotely who support our mission."

To this end, the university has implemented the videoconferencing application Zoom across campus, allowing real-time instruction as well as counseling and health services via telemedicine. The UO also implemented virtual computer labs and upgraded its virtual private network, the service that allows faculty members, staff and students to securely connect to certain mission-critical tools and services from off campus. Instructors also have tools and support through Canvas, the university’s online learning management system.

Beyond the technology hurdles, human challenges remain. Remote instruction will be a big adjustment for most UO faculty members and students.

Patrick Phillips, provost and senior vice president, asked faculty members to take every step possible to help students maintain solid connections to the university.

“As mentors and teachers, it is incumbent on us to find new ways to maintain connection with our students in this challenging time, so as to build the resilient community that we seek,” he said.

Janet Woodruff-Borden, executive vice provost for academic affairs, urged instructors to be mindful of the anxiousness that many students were experiencing and of the need to make their classes feel engaged in the initial weeks of the term.

“Some students might not have consistent access to the internet, and international students who are studying remotely from home might be in a different time zone,” she said. “Additionally, some students with disabilities or medical conditions may encounter barriers with remote instruction that were not apparent in in-person classes.”

To help guide instructors through the process of planning and delivering their course content remotely, the Office of the Provost has prepared an academic continuity website. To help students navigate through the unusual circumstances, resources are being maintained by the Division of Undergraduate Education and Student Success and the Graduate School.

Throughout its schools and colleges, the UO has faculty and staff members with expertise in the area of online education, a specialty unto itself. Many instructors need to retrofit their course plans and materials – in some cases, to create entirely new course plans and materials – in the span of only a couple weeks.

Faculty collaborations, tip-sharing and peer-to-peer advising have played a key role.

“In English, a wise prof has set up a departmental online-teaching listserv to trade tips and everyone is trading hints and expertise, lots of great collaboration,” said Martha Bayless, a professor in the Department of English.

Bayless has four years’ experience teaching classes online. She also helps other faculty members new to the process.

“I try to get other profs to take away that online teaching is a superpower,” she said. “The initial setup can be a bear, but running it is simple and very manageable.”

Her main advice for beginners? Keep it simple.

“Our students may be working from a home with few computers or with limited capacity,” she said. “For your first lessons, I wouldn’t recommend trying for synchronous teaching, when students all have to be online with you at the same time. Save that attempt for some calmer time.”

Sung Park, a senior instructor with the School of Journalism and Communication, began creating online video tutorials in 2013, when he was at the University of Ghana on a Fulbright. Returning to the UO, he continued to record and use these videos in his Gateway to Media course.

He acknowledged that remote learning has some shortcomings – “there’s a lot of front-end work, and technology can fail” – and that it would require a pivot for many faculty members.

“With any disruption, there is always innovation,” Park said. “I’m looking forward to figuring out solutions for the future of education and to see how we can give students a better experience. It will help us design better classes both in person and online. I’m hoping for some pleasant surprises during this process as we try to tackle the challenges.”

By Jason Stone, University Communications