Education in the Time of the Virus; or, Flying the Plane While Building It

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In the latest EDUCAUSE QuickPoll, we asked respondents to share their challenges in today's sudden, seismic-like shift to remote teaching and learning and how they are trying to address these issues.

Blog Image - Aircraft sitting on a laptop keyboard
Credit: Khongtham / Shutterstock © 2020

In times of crisis, community is vital. One of the best ways that communities can assist themselves is to share information and best practices. To support the higher education IT community with timely information during the COVID-19 pandemic, EDUCAUSE has initiated a series of QuickPolls: very short surveys on a key topic or challenge. Our aim is to promote the sharing of information and the best ways to address our common challenges.

In our most recent poll (conducted on April 1, 2020), we asked respondents to comment on what they see as students' greatest difficulties in the transition to fully remote access, and we published those results in the EDUCAUSE Review blog Data Bytes.1 In addition, we asked respondents to share their own challenges in this sudden, seismic-like shift to remote teaching and learning and how they are trying to address these issues. Since summarizing discursive commentary in a chart is difficult, I will try here to describe some of the patterns that emerged from the responses. Perhaps one of the best summaries of the current situation (which Phil Hill has called "Phase 1: The Rush to Zoom"2) is this metaphor, offered by one of the poll's respondents: "It's flying the plane while building it."

First, the digital divide has reemerged with a vengeance. Inadequate internet access, especially in rural areas, was clearly the #1 challenge across the responses. The decades-long neglect of providing last-mile service for rural populations is coming home to roost. Here are typical comments: "Largest problem is we have many students and faculty in rural areas with minimal or no internet access, and even hotspots don't tend to help as 4G service is also minimal" and "Less than 50% broadband availability in our area." Compounding this, unless students report connectivity issues, it is nearly impossible for support staff to know who is experiencing such issues: "We're not sure who they all are or if we can support them all in the current situation."

Obviously, there is little that institutions can do to address the lack of adequate connectivity infrastructure: "It'll take a state or nation-level effort similar to the rural electrification effort to get broadband access everywhere." And: "No real answer here to get Wi-Fi to student and staff homes in many cases." Some institutions have gamely provided what help they can: "While the campus is closed, we have made wireless available in some parking lots so students can drive in and use that (without getting out of their vehicles)." That works, provided the student has a car and lives relatively close to campus.

Connectivity issues play out in other ways: "The greatest challenge for our community college . . . students is that they are suddenly working from home with all household members (spouses, children, siblings, parents, etc.) competing for access to computers, tablets, Wi-Fi, and more. Adding to those distractions are the very real concerns over health and welfare, lost jobs, reduced wages, food insecurity, and more." And: "From what I've seen, most if not all students are under some amount of stress, some of it quite substantial. This is impacting all students, and we are doing too little to confront the issue." No doubt the experience of multidimensional stress is shared by faculty and support staff.

Quite often, the students who are facing the greatest challenges are also the ones with the fewest resources. One respondent noted the lack of "accessibility for students with disabilities and students with low income and limited personal resources and independence." Also: "Students with mental health issues are not dealing well with new ways of operating." The quantity of what is now needed with respect to the full range of student support is, at the least, daunting. Another respondent described the difficulty of "making accessibility accommodations at such scale, and with so much that is still not accessible (e.g., software, simulations, etc.)," And: "Students with learning disabilities or those with financial and emotional challenges are the most at risk at this time. Our institutions are challenged to meet the needs of these students."

The problem of sustaining student engagement is also substantial. Some respondents observed that students can go silent, leaving instructors and others "unsure if offerings are reaching all students, or if students are just floundering without complaint." The goal is "keeping students engaged and . . . in their courses until the end of the semester" so that they can cross the academic finish line.

Clearly we are witnessing a collision of instructional paradigms. On a par with the challenge of connectivity, the other nearly universal challenge is to assist faculty as they move away from their usual teaching methods to ones better suited for the current circumstances. Shifting conceptual paradigms can be difficult, even in the best of circumstances. In a time of flying the plane while building it, the challenge is formidable. Many instructors need to leave behind techniques they know and feel confident about and adopt new, unfamiliar ones.

We see this when respondents note that some faculty are "wanting to make the online experience exactly like the F2F one" and are "insisting on synchronous learning." As some wrote, they are helping faculty to understand "the difference between online teaching and simply recording a Zoom lecture." And: "Many lecturers were using face-to-face tutoring approaches and have no experience with teaching or assessing online."

The difficulty of shifting to new instructional paradigms varies across institutions. Programs that were already fully online do not have this challenge, of course, and at those colleges and universities with substantial online learning already in place, the challenge is not as severe. And certainly these difficulties are not true for all faculty. One respondent noted, "Faculty and students are transitioning over to the online courses easily, with a few small hiccups along the way."

In an ironic contrast to the paucity of connectivity, another challenge arises from the over-abundance of online tools and applications. In the rush to get online, many instructors naturally reach for familiar resources and applications that fit their needs. But much like COVID-19 itself, this rapid spread of diverse toolsets can result in impossible support loads for staff. For students, faced with learning new applications for each class, this variety increases the problems associated with remote learning. As one respondent put it: "We have a course management system, but faculty are free to use whatever platform and method [is] most comfortable to them to conduct online courses. This means students have no consistency and are learning multiple systems and philosophies." Another respondent hoped for "a more standardized set of tools that can offer consistency for students." Finally, because support staff are so few relative to the need at many institutions, some faculty have received assistance from their students: "In many cases, students are trying to help out faculty who are struggling with technology [and] who are teaching remotely for the first time."

A number of respondents mentioned testing and especially proctoring, which are "very difficult to support remotely." Also in play here are device issues: "Many [students] are using Chromebooks or other mobile devices to access courses (if they can access at all) which have limitations in regards to proctoring and other applications." There are load issues here as well as respondents look for ways to achieve "reliable testing without depending on already overloaded online proctoring vendors."

As in any crisis, leadership is key. A few respondents commented that campus leaders were taken by surprise and that leadership challenges persist: "Leadership decision-making remains slow, especially in regard to faculty governance and academic leadership interests around curriculum planning, grade policy, etc." Also: "Top leaders are micromanaging each level of the organization which causes lag, communication problems, mismanagement, loss of agility."

Looking ahead, respondents worry that the fiscal challenges imposed by the crisis will hamper the ability to begin transitioning from emergency, "off the cuff" remote teaching to more deliberate online learning. "We are going to have massive budget cuts, as well as furloughs and layoffs." There are "definitely a lot of fears of long-term damage to our institution, lost revenue, retention and enrollment numbers down in the fall, profitable summer programs not happening." If this budget crisis does indeed happen, higher education institutions with furloughed staff and budget shortfalls will be hard-pressed to make significant progress toward well-planned online learning.

What might help address challenges such as those described above? "Money," "time," "more staff." Other suggestions include the following:

  • Some advocated for a kind of swirl, an interinstitutional exchange that would allow students to use resources local to their residence rather than those at the institution where they are matriculated: "Let students take equipment to whatever institution is close to them, [and later] get things back to the home institution."
  • Leadership remains vital, not just in this initial phase but into the future. One respondent suggested "some kind of regular communication from leadership. A clear plan." Another noted that "executive leadership reinforcements on cultural change" would be helpful.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the paradigmatic collision within higher education: "It's a cultural issue that is long-standing and only magnified by this crisis." Higher education is being called to meet the challenges of moving into the 21st century much sooner and more rapidly than anticipated. Colleges and universities may have no choice but to move forward—now—since they cannot safely assume that things will be back to normal in time for the 2020 fall semester.

EDUCAUSE will continue to monitor higher education and technology related issues during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. For additional resources, please visit the EDUCAUSE COVID-19 web page. More EDUCAUSE QuickPoll results can be found in this list.

For more insights about advancing teaching and learning through IT innovation, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Transforming Higher Ed blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and Student Success web pages.

The Transforming Higher Ed blog welcomes submissions. Please contact us at [email protected].


  1. Susan Grajek, "EDUCAUSE COVID-19 QuickPoll Results: Help for Students," Data Bytes (blog), EDUCAUSE Review, April 3, 2020.
  2. Phil Hill, "Revised Outlook for Higher Ed's Online Response to COVID-19," PhilOnEdTech (blog), March 31, 2020.

Malcolm Brown is Director of Learning Initiatives for EDUCAUSE.

© 2020 Malcolm Brown. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.