The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on Wednesday, March 11, 2020.

The ramifications to society, to higher education and to us as human beings are immense and changing daily.  This particular virus is highly contagious without showing any symptoms. This makes it extremely difficult to contain.  It can also manifest very differently from younger to older, becoming much more severe for elders especially for those with underlying conditions.

Mitigation strategies mostly consist of canceling any activity where groups of people gather.  Synagogues and churches, sporting events, and concerts were the first to go. Now, Harvard and other schools are canceling classes and sending students home until this all shakes out.

If you work for an institution that has already canceled classes or moved to online learning, you are not alone.  If you are a part of an institution that still hasn’t decided on how to tackle this, you aren’t alone either. But the trend definitely seems to be erring on the side of precaution with more and more school closures every day.

There are a variety of things to think about when moving to distance learning.  It may feel overwhelming and more of a “forced march,” but it helps to keep calm and break this down into manageable chunks.  

Distance learning doesn’t have to be complicated, especially during this time.  Your first line of defense can be something as simple as a videoconference session.  For a small class size, if you have existing infrastructure to support video conferencing, it has a low barrier to entry.  

Even if you don’t have existing infrastructure, you can obtain a variety of free or low-cost video conferencing solutions for a short term solution.  Cisco Webex conferencing services has a page of resources devoted specifically to education customers.  Zoom videoconferencing also provides a link for their education customers.   Google said last week it’s offering free access to its Hangouts Meet video conferencing service and all its G Suite and G Suite for Education collaboration platforms. Vendors realize what a challenge this has become and are being proactive in helping the learning community surmount this challenge.

Professional organizations in learning are also scrambling to provide help with this transition.  The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) is offering Ten Strategies for Online Learning During the Coronavirus Outbreak”.

Part of their suggestions when moving to online learning are:

  • Break learning into smaller chunks.
  • Be clear about expectations for online participation.
  • Provide immediate (or at least frequent) feedback through online knowledge checks, comments on collaborative documents and chat to keep students motivated and moving forward.
  • Include virtual meetings, live chats or video tutorials to maintain a human connection. 

If you are fortunate to work for an institution that has instructional design staff who can assist with moving your classes to formal, distance learning modules, by all means, leverage them.  But this solution takes some time, and the ability for institutions to ramp up a solution such as this may vary. 

Inside Higher Ed recently published Planning for Coronavirus With Fewer Resources This article raised a variety of “softer” issues that may raise their head during this time that is not simply “how do we teach and test online?”

Issues like students may not have access to tech or sufficient communication plans at home.  How will students with disabilities fare in an online setting? Or how will we replicate a “high touch” environment for students (and staff) who are experiencing being remote for the first time?  Chat solutions can go a long way in keeping everyone connected and learning, so we will need to master that.

The Inside Higher Ed article calls out things like potential food insecurity and lack of monetary resources may also factor into this outbreak, depending on how long this goes on.

In fact, the article states students’ needs might actually increase.  Rebecca Anne Glazier, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock says, “I think students will have a harder time finishing the semester because these changes will be so disruptive.”  

And let’s not forget teachers and administrators.  Is your own home tech able to support you if you have to teach from home?  What is your plan for coverage if you become ill?  

And lastly, even if you can teach successfully, how will you test successfully?  Do you already use an online proctoring service? If so, leverage that. All remotely proctored testing vendors are doing their best to install and ramp up schools all across the country that need access to these services. Honorlock is offering a special short-term agreement and pricing for those needing online proctoring services during this time.

One thing we can be assured of is this won’t be the last disruption we see.   If you lived through last year’s Snow-mageddon in 2019, it was a bit of a dry run for coronavirus.  Those schools impacted by that weather event are probably a leg up on the impact of COVID-19. Whether it is a weather event or global pandemic, distance learning and remote testing solutions should be a tool in your educational toolbox to rely on in time like this.

Remember, if there is one thing we all do well, it’s helping one another when the going gets tough.  So take a deep breath, cough into your elbow and wash those hands! It doesn’t have to be perfect at first, and that’s okay.  It will get better.