In the ever-changing world of technology, the Coronavirus crisis is a true test of the digital era and its effectiveness in everyday life.
The transition to online-only classes for colleges across the country is simply a subset of the never-before seen challenges that have become a new reality.
The Coronavirus crisis has forced most Illinois State University students off campus and back into their permanent residences.
On Monday, faculty, staff, professors and students experienced the first day of online-only classes. While most “first days” come with jitters, tensions have been especially high as the ISU community faces unparalleled obstacles.
This has left many ISU faculty members straining to ensure all facets of previous classroom-based learning can be moved online smoothly and students having to make major adjustments to their routine in the last leg of the semester can do so easily.
Tuesday’s cover — “There is no playbook. No one anywhere has ever had switch over to online only, so we didn’t know what to expect.”Amid a shifting learning landscape, @IllinoisStateU’s transition to online instruction not only presents obstacles, but also opportunity: pic.twitter.com/5SM5IZ7qZr— The Vidette (@The_Vidette) March 24, 2020
Yet, in the wake of this madness, staff at ISU continue to work through these troubling times to ensure a quality education for their fellow Redbirds outside of the walls of a traditional classroom.
Previously, it was only suggested that professors have a ReggieNet available to their students. It was not a requirement for professors.
Still, while most classes offered an online extension of the course, others did not. This has proven challenging for professors as their curriculum must become mostly transformed during the move to online learning.
English professor Jan Susina said he doesn’t regularly use ReggieNet for his classes.
“I am doing so now since it seems the most efficient way of sharing grades with students on their class assignments,” Susina said.
“It took some time transferring the grade information I had recorded in my gradebook for the first half of the semester onto ReggieNet. Using ‘announcements’ on ReggieNet seems an effective way to communicate to the class as a whole about adjustments I have made to my classes.”
At the same time, ReggieNet has its limits. There are no offerings for group video-chats or streaming.
Chief tech officer Charley Edamala said this was one of the first obstacles the university had to face when making the transition.
ISU faculty have had to move outside of the university’s resources and platform to utilize other software, such as Zoom, Google Hangout or Skype, to create a place for face-to-face learning.
Perhaps more challenging than adjusting the courses for online format has been the challenge of using new technology, like Zoom.
Susina said ISU has provided several online workshops and information to help faculty with this transition.
“It isn't just learning how technology works, which takes time, but thinking about how to use it effectively as a teaching tool under a very limited time frame,” said Susina.
“I think for many faculty and students, this will be their first opportunity to teach and learn online, and not just a single class, but multiple classes. I hope the system works as promised and students have the ability to do classes online from home."
It is Edamala’s job to see that through. He said the university has been working on the transition to online only for nearly three weeks.
They have been following other universities’ best practices and as many announcements across the region arose, he knew it was only a matter of time for Illinois State.
Edamala said he and other university officials have had a lot of time to talk through things and prepare for this transition. But even with that in mind, he said it hasn’t been easy.
“One of the biggest challenges is the unknown,” Edamala said.
Their immediate concern was not only kicking off online only classes Monday but having to register nearly 2,500 students for classes from remote locations.
Registering for classes on campus already comes with its technical issues, so he knew they’d have to put in extra work to ensure all students were taken care of. Despite these concerns, he said that as far as he knows, remote course registration went off without a hitch.
“But I have no direct access to students, so we have been keeping an eye out, following trends online and making sure we are hearing and tending to students’ concerns,” he said.
It is a hefty assumption that all ISU students have access to reliable internet at home. Some students might not even have access at all.
With public places such as coffee shops and libraries shut down, there are not very many options available for students who cannot afford quality internet. This is also a struggle for faculty who are trying to coordinate and craft a comparable classroom experience.
Edamala said one of their top priorities has been setting up support for everyone on campus. As it can be assumed, tech support has been in high demand as of late.
Director of convergent media for the School of Communication had to decline an interview as he said he has been “swamped” with the technology support portion of his job responsibilities.
While no one could have foreseen this new reality, the challenges of online-only learning are seeping into every facet of life.
When students go back home, their day-to-day lives change.
They might have to look after siblings, go back to work, or take up other responsibilities to make ends meet.
One ISU professor in the college of arts and sciences said she is trying to meet this challenge by changing her expectations of what her students will be able to achieve.
“I want to acknowledge that, while those who are in my courses are students, they are also many other things, including human beings, friends, family members, employees and students in other courses, too,” Rachel Gramer said.
“All of those things deserve time and energy, and both will be even more scarce while ISU returns to working chaos and radical change in daily practice.”
Some of the effects of these radical changes, according to Edamala, include working more closely with faculty, ensuring systems working remotely are efficient and offering the support and resources to meet the needs of all involved.
He admitted this process has been especially difficult for him.
“It’s not going to be great … but I’m a natural optimist,” Edamala said.
He said he has seen the campus community really come together through this crisis, noting that many faculty members have volunteered their knowledge to mentor less tech savvy co-workers.
Edamala also noted he has worked with people he has never spoken to before and has seen many people put aside differences to ease this process.
“When this whole crisis is over with, I think that unity will continue,” he added.