Covid-19 Migration to Online: Entering the second phase

As dozens of colleges and universities canceled face-to-face classes and moved to online delivery of these classes since March 9th (i.e. not the same thing as intentionally-designed online education), the US postsecondary system appears to already be entering the next phase.

Phase 1: The Rush to Zoom

Phase 1 could be considered as all-hands-on-deck, do whatever you can to have some educational presence for all classes online. Commenters have rightly pointed out that students’ and educators’ health and safety are more important than worrying about quality course design or even equitable access. In the EdTech world, think of this phase as Put everything on Zoom and worry about details later. Substitute Microsoft Teams or Webex or Collaborate for Zoom, as so many instructors opt for the comfort of synchronous video discussions to replace the face-to-face experience.

Promotional image of Zoom used in classroom


It is important to recognize, however, that we have yet to see the actual spike in online delivery of these classes. Thanks to the timing of the migration around many Spring Break, many schools have extended or moved these breaks, with actual online courses starting next week or the following week. This timing coincides with the end of winter term for many quarter-based school calendars, with the biggest impact thus far on end-of-term exams.

As seen from the data collected by Bryan Alexander, Ithaka S+R, et al, it is likely that the actual spike will occur on one of the following Mondays (Mar 23 or 30), more than doubling the number of emergency online courses by enrollment and by number of institutions.

I would not be surprised to hear of service disruptions for some EdTech platforms.

At the same time, it has become quite apparent this week that any view of these emergency shutdowns ad online migrations as only taking a few weeks is mistaken. We are likely at the point where the full spring term for both semester and quarter-based institutions will be delivered fully online, if at all. And there are plenty of scientific analyses suggesting that the disruptions will last at least until late Summer. The Chancellor for the California Community Colleges issues this guidance on Monday:

Most colleges in the system have already made plans to move classes online for at least the next several weeks, but Oakley said during Monday’s Board of Governors meeting that those timelines will likely need to be extended until June “at the very least.” Commencement ceremonies will also likely need to be delayed, canceled or postponed, as will large events, meetings and conferences, he added.

Oakley also said colleges “should plan for a second peak” of the virus “sometime around August or September.”

“That’s why we’re telling our colleges to really think through not just this academic year, but next academic year as well and how that might impact instruction,” Oakley said.

Phase 2: LMS Integration and Addressing Equitable Access

What I believe is happening is that we are entering the next phase, where it is no longer acceptable to ignore issues of equitable access and course design. In our work with schools we are seeing a significant shift this week in the focus on doing more than handling the pure emergency delivery. Colleges and universities are starting to more fully deal with the question of quality of emergency online delivery of courses, as well as true contingency planning.

This shift in emphasis coincides with US Department of Education guidance on Covid-19 transitions. The department has allowed blanket approvals for moves online for this term and next (essentially, through the spring) as well as relaxing of financial aid rules, allowing great flexibility for schools to respond to the emergency. What they have not done, however, is ignore issues such as accessibility for students. As CooleyEd has summarized:

Schools must ensure equal access to educational programs for students with disabilities. That basic requirement will not be relaxed in light of the COVID-19 outbreak and indeed may become even more critical as schools move online. [snip]

Online delivery: Schools that move their programs and services online in response to COVID-19 need to ensure that students with disabilities can participate in programs, activities and services in the same manner as other students. Individuals with disabilities must be able to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions and enjoy the same programs and activities as their nondisabled peers with substantially equivalent ease of use. As examples, these requirements apply to programs and services such as remote coursework or any app services, technology or other software used to provide programs and services.

While programs and services must be accessible to individuals with all types of disabilities, at a minimum, schools likely need to confirm the availability of the most common accessibility features, such as captioning video content and coursework, and confirm that screen-reader technology can be used on the school’s web content. OCR’s webinar outlines OCR’s expectations and resources with respect to online accessibility.

We are also seeing a grown movement of students asking for refunds on room & board and questioning whether they should pay full price for an educational delivery they did not agree to. Richard Arum and Mitchell Stevens noted this point today in the New York Times.

We also recognize that online formats bring their own risks. When poorly designed and bereft of genuine human attentiveness, online delivery can be disastrous for students who are not well prepared for college-level coursework. Inequitable outcomes will almost surely result if the makeshift approaches being used to weather the current crisis continue indefinitely.

In the EdTech world, think of this new phase as Make sure Zoom or Microsoft Teams is integrated with the campus LMS, and someone figure out how to do transcriptions and make allowances for low bandwidth and phone-only access. For better or worse, the modern LMS was designed to handle privacy, reporting, course rosters, and documented interactions with students. Things that are not sexy but are required by federal and state regulations, and more importantly, things that should be done as soon and as well as feasible. I am not sure how well the rushed Zoom usage will hold up when dealing with lower-income students.

It is important for institutions to quickly find ways to at least begin ensuring equitable access and questioning how to improve the quality of online delivery, even during this emergency.

Phase 3: The New Normal

This section will be short because, well, there’s a lot we don’t know. But at the very least be aware that the old normal is gone. The impacts of Covid-19 on higher education are irreversible – it’s chaotic now, but a new normal will emerge. Perhaps not for a year, but it will emerge.

If you haven’t done so, read Laura Czerniewicz’s guest post from Monday sharing lessons learned from emergency shutdowns in South Africa in 2015-17.

We ourselves had to learn new technologies very fast. For example, we had never used online proctoring for exams before and learnt how complex it is. A lot of administrative planning and organisation needed to go in beforehand, in addition to the myriad of other issues it raises. Video conferencing was the executive response to going online overnight, but it didn’t factor in unequal digital access and relative affordability of data. We generally recommended more asynchronous communication and less bandwidth-intensive solutions.

In general, the technical advice was to use existing systems, use what students have, and keep it simple. We also learned more and at first hand how our current technology offerings were experienced by academics and students in terms of ease of use and usability allowing us to reflect and plan for future needs.

In the meantime, at least we’re finding some humorous examples describing the need for quickly improving online course delivery.

At first I was afraid, I was petrified

Kept thinking I could never teach through Canvas all the time

But then I spent so nights reading the help docs for so long

And I grew strong, I learned how to get along

And I love this McSweeney’s article as well.


I will email a Word 93 version of the exam to you. When you open it, the formatting will be all messed up. Please print out the 27-page exam, complete it in blue or black ink, then take it to Kinkos and have them fax it back to me. Please complete the exam in two hours. If I understood a conversation I overheard in the hall correctly, you can time yourself with an online timer application called “TikTok.” It should be available on your mobile telephones.

It is remarkable how fast change has been thrust at colleges and universities in the past week and a half, and it is equally remarkable how quickly schools are reacting. People are pulling together with heroic efforts. But the job only gets more difficult as we enter this second phase.

Stay well.