Responding to COVID-19 [video]

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Two higher ed IT leaders discuss their institutions' response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Gerry Bayne

Jack Suess
Vice President of IT & CIO
University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Cynthia Golden
Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director,
University Center for Teaching and Learning
University of Pittsburgh

Gerry Bayne: So I'm with Cynthia Golden, who's Associate Vice Provost and Executive Director at the University Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. Thanks for joining us today, Cynthia.

Cynthia Golden: Hi Gerry.

Gerry: And I'm with Jack Suess as well, Vice President of IT and CIO at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Thanks you guys for talking to me today. I know you guys are under a lot of pressure right now. So we've got this situation with COVID-19. Here here in Bloomington where I'm at Indiana University, they suspended people coming back from spring break, and I think they're pivoting it to move a lot of classes online. I'm wondering what's going on with you guys and what the strategy is at your institutions right now and how you're supporting that strategy. Let's start with you, Cynthia.

Cynthia: Okay, I can start. So it was back, I guess about the end of February when the university started putting out some information about social distancing and saying that we're monitoring the COVID-19 situation and I was looking at my calendar the other day, it was on March 11th that we made the decision that we were gonna shift to remote teaching. And we're doing that effective March 23rd. So what we did at Pitt was we took last, this week, the week that we're in to help everybody get ready for the shift to remote teaching. The decision was made during spring break. So what the university did was advise students not to come back and let them know that this week would be a week where their instructors were getting ready to communicate with them and to work with them in a remote teaching capacity. So we've been at this for a little while. And one of the things that's been really helpful is, you know, we're keeping websites updated, you know, we are trying to get as many people, employees, faculty staff to work from home as possible. And although the campus is still open, because we still have some students on campus, a lot of the services have really been curtailed.

Gerry: How about you, Jack? What's going on over at UMBC?

Jack Suess: So it's very similar to what Cynthia is describing, right? We ended up having some emergency management meetings, probably the week before, I think we were probably, met on March fifth and we were told at that point that we should begin making plans, that we would be going online by the 23rd. That had not been formally announced, but it was sort of an informal piece. We ended up meeting then the following Monday on the ninth and at that point, it was announced that, in fact, that was going to be the plan that was coming out of the system office. And so we used that week of the ninth, which had students and faculty and staff there to really sort of launch an effort around, how are we gonna do business continuity? And how are we gonna do academic continuity? And the good part of this is that it's kind of ironic, we had been thinking about the fact that we hadn't really done updated academic continuity efforts and so really, starting last year in December, we began talking with the Provost office about doing some tests and starting to reinvigorate that effort and we had done a few presentations in the early February timeframe to the Deans. Now this was before we expected that we were gonna have the situation that we had now, but it has, was helpful in that we had started planning for this type of effort earlier and so it was really around not coming up with a plan but more or less jumping into the planning efforts that we had already started and so what's been interesting in this, though, for us has been that what we didn't anticipate is the situation where we're now at a point where in Maryland, you can't have more than 10 people gathering and it's expected that we're going to, we thought we would be able to at least provide more support for faculty at least meeting potentially one on one with faculty to help them if they had questions. We're on spring break this week but we don't know whether that's gonna be possible or not and so we're trying to sort of understand we have a meeting later today to find out what the new guidelines and it's what's interesting is every time you have a plan, the guidelines end up coming out two days later that cause the plan to have to be.

Gerry: Contradict .

Jack: And so you, we have mostly gone virtual for all of our support at this particular time. But we're hoping that we can have some latitude to be able to work one on one with some faculty. We know that where this is gonna really show up is next week we start class, this week, that week of the 16th has been Spring Break week for us, we start online classes on the 23rd. I think the first time a few faculty go to do this, they're gonna run into more problems than they anticipated. And so we're expecting that we're gonna need to be thinking this support level. The other thing that we're sort of waiting to happen is right now, the USM guidance is that we're online for two or three weeks, we haven't made the call that we're online the rest of the semester. I'm expecting that that's gonna be announced this week. And I think once that shoe drops, that we're gonna be online for the entire rest of the spring semester, that's gonna cause some faculty who might have thought they could, you know, mitigate their ways through this for two weeks, we've still got another our semester ends, May 15th, May 14th, something like that and then we have finals, so we still have six or seven weeks left, where we're gonna have to be able to be teaching and so we're expecting that this last part is gonna be a little crazy the first, the last two weeks the last week of March and the first week of April.

Cynthia: You know, we're in a similar situation, although our semester ends towards the end of April, so we don't have as many weeks left and when the university made the announcement we said that this was gonna go through the end of the semester. So we're already going down that path and last week was our Spring Break Week. This week we have no classes being offered and we're working with the faculty to prepare for remote teaching. And what we've done this week to kind of help everybody get ready is we've been offering starting Sunday, we're offering virtual office hours with our instructional design and instructional technology consultants. And then we're offering web based workshops that, we're using Zoom there, we're offering them as webinars. And we've had hundreds of faculty join those and those are workshops on the you know, kind of the basics, getting started with online teaching the basics with Zoom. And so what we're doing anticipating is what you just said Jack, is that next week, we'll move from, you know, this kind of broad set of opportunities for faculty to you know, learn together on these webinars and virtual office hours to more individual consulting to help faculty get going. Because it's our classes officially start Monday all online.

Jack: Yeah.

Cynthia: All remote I should say because that's been a really important distinction for me in all of this is what we're talking about is you know, remote online teaching and or I shouldn't say it that way. Maybe I just temporary remote teaching because we're not gonna be able to build beautiful, perfect online courses you know, in a few days and what we're trying to do in my center is really recommend to faculty, you know, we look at, you know, the kind of the simplest and easiest way to be effective and to really take a step back and consider alternatives to maybe alternatives to a high stakes final exam or, you know, if you're teaching a small seminar course, you know, you can use Zoom and you can have the same kind of discussions that you might have been having if you were all sitting around the table. Lots of things like that. So one of the things that we did that I thought was really useful was we immediately back in it seems like a long time ago, but it wasn't but, you know, March 10th, 11th around that time, we started building Web pages and we've had a couple iterations of them since then, but we've been really trying to organize the information that faculty might need and kind of get it out there in a way, you know, what do I do first? What do I do second?

Jack: Exactly.

Cynthia: What do I do third? And that's where the community has come handy, because I know that my folks have, in building our pages, they've looked at, you know, what other schools have done to get ideas, they've shared the kinds of things that we've been doing and I think the community has been a just like a good sounding board and also really a, you know, a resource, just for sharing ideas. We've had a lot of stuff going back and forth in the early days, a week ago, you know.

Jack: Well, one of the building on that, I mean, one of the things that we have picked up as we have had, UMBC is a very collaborative type of place. And so generally I've been thrilled with the cooperation that we've gotten from the faculty. I'm sure like in any subgroup, there's gonna be a handful that are gonna go kicking and screaming and gonna have challenges and be upset, but generally everyone is recognizing this is just a unique situation and we've got it and we've got to do what we can do.

Cynthia: Right.

Jack: To get through it and but one of the areas that was interesting is sort of reaching out to some of our student leaders and realizing the apprehension and concern that's going through with them and what they're hearing from other students. And so one of the things we're really also trying to do is prep and develop resources for our students and to create a webinar to be helping students to be preparing, to be moving into this environment. We think of students as being, you know, incredibly facile with technology and generally, they're a pretty good with a lot of things but this is an environment that they've never had to learn in, most of our students.

Cynthia: I agree.

Jack: And so trying to be thinking about how we can support them in this and I agree with you wholeheartedly, you know, the one thing we're not doing is going back to faculty and saying, "Well, you know, "you've got to completely rethink your course." Well, you know, you can't do that halfway through or 75% through the course and say, " I'm gonna completely tilt it." But we have been talking to them about different models of assessment and different ways that they can be thinking about some of the the ways that they look at this last part of the course that may make it a little easier on both them and the students to be able to get through but to your point, though, where I've really gained from, you know, some of the collaborative efforts that have been going on have been some of the things for the community, like seeing all the resources happening for students being able to get internet or thinking about how we can be providing the fact that devices may, you know, right now students often require specialized software that they go to our labs to be getting access to. So we had a virtual desktop environment that was okay. And it might have gotten at most 100 simultaneous students using it, but it's not gonna scale for what we need to go with. And so we're now coming with a, we had been in the process of standing up the new VDI environment for students. And so we were able to accelerate that over the last week. And we hope that that's gonna work a lot better because it'll allow students to even use their mobile device to be accessing some of the tools that we need to be able to give them access to but that's been one of the areas that, you know, sort of caught me by surprise at first as I was thinking, we spent a lot of time on faculty. But then realizing, oh, okay, we have to be supporting our students as well, is one that we've now sort of tilted and we're also thinking through how we'd do that.

Cynthia: Yeah, one of the things that's happening right now, like today and yesterday, you know, the day before is that we're seeing, you know, offers from various vendors.

Jack: Yeah.

Cynthia: And sorting through, you know, all of those publishers and you know, figuring out how to get them to work or what we should pursue right now and what we shouldn't pursue right now. That's a real challenge for us at this moment. And the other thing that I would say that has been helpful to us, has been the connections we've had set up with the schools already. We've got, I think, 16 or 16 separate schools here at Pitt plus regional campuses and, you know, I talked with the Deans and asked everybody to identify, you know, a remote teaching contact on their campus or in their school and we've been doing daily, you know, communications with that group, which I think has made a real big difference.

Jack: Now, that's a great idea, actually. And we had something similar but it's at a much smaller scale, then what you're doing, we had been working with departments and we had this faculty ambassador program, where we were giving a small stipend and the faculty ambassadors were working on some things that we were doing around our shift from Blackboard to Blackboard ultra, but we were able to quickly engage the ambassadors within their department to also be academic continuity experts and so they've been reaching out and helping some of the other faculty and that really, and if nothing else, they can just give us input.

- As to this person needs help and can you reach out to them? And so that kind of network is, I think absolutely essential in these crises to be able to know that people can be looking out for each other and sort of sharing where somebody needs help.

Cynthia: That's very, that's absolutely right.

That's great stuff, you guys. I really appreciate it. I actually heard the other day that, yeah, somebody said, "Don't call it online learning, "because we're pivoting awfully quickly. "And we don't wanna be judged as this is our online learning "offerings," right?

Cynthia: That's right. And you know, we've got online programs that have continued, they didn't stop, they're you know, they're moving right along. And what, one of the things I worry about is that both students and faculty will get the idea that some of this temporary approach that we're using to certain teaching or temporary approach to online teaching is gonna be viewed as good online learning and that, you know, that's why when I was using temporary online teaching, as a word for, a phrase for a couple days, and then I saw some other university when I was poking around, was using the same thing and that made me feel better .

Gerry: Right , right. So how difficult has it feeling to pivot? It sounds like you guys are really working in an environment where everybody is on board and everybody is trying their best to do their best. What's been the most difficult part of pivoting towards this online strategy? Is there is there any technical support, like in terms of servers in terms of any sort of like, scaling things?

Jack: So I think one of the interest, so I can sort of speak in looking at this from a USM a system perspective. And one of the worries that I have is that the schools with the most resources and the best environments are going to make this transition much, much better than the schools that are under resourced and don't have the same sort of capabilities. And I think that's a concern to me because it just sort of aggravates the already challenging parts of digital inequality that we sometimes have across different systems and so I think that's a piece that we really as a community need to be figuring out how we can ultimately be building out the resources to be helping each other and part of the reason I think we're, I think EDUCAUSE is really gonna be helpful in something like this is we don't know that this isn't going to be the world in the fall and you know, what we really have to be able to do is quickly come to grips in the early June time frame with, what are the lessons learned? And now how do you get ready to be able to do it better for the fall? Because hopefully it won't be necessary. But if it is, we need to be able to sort of help all institutions and I think some of the less resourced institutions, what we're seeing, they're just having a much harder time and so we're trying to reach out and help some of them in the system. But there's just you know, they didn't have a video conferencing solution, site license, they didn't have other tools site license and so as a result, you know, this shift is just a harder one to be making and that's one where I think collectively, the community needs to sort of share some best practices and understand how we can take advantage of, you know, helping everybody to be in a better place come to the fall semester. I don't know what you think about that Cynthia or not, but.

Cynthia: I know I think you said that very eloquently, Jack. I share that concern and I do think that that's a role for EDUCAUSE. You know, the smaller, less well resourced institutions are always the ones that suffer and so how we can provide, you know, even the lessons learned piece, I think, is really critical. I've been every day, I don't know, I started doing this on the weekend but I have been keeping kind of a daily log of what we've done, the things that have come up, you know, just so that we can look back on it at a later time, whether it's to update our own, you know, continuity plans, or whether it's to share with others, you know, things that we know might be helpful in the future should we have to deal with these situations because, you know, even if we do come out of this and have a normal semester next fall, one of the things that I think a lot about is the condition of our planet, and global warming and you know, a weather incident could put us all, you know, in a situation where not everybody can come to campus for several days.

Jack: Yeah.

Cynthia: It's happened here before in Pittsburgh, so.

Jack: Yeah, I know, I mean and that was what was originally starting the ac-- our academic continuity effort was about every six or seven years, we got a blizzard and then we're closed for a week but I also just sort of think that it will be, this is such a major event. I don't think we can fully process it yet in the context of what it's going to mean. But we have to also be prepared to be really pulling out some of the lessons learned from that and I think to the extent that we can help share these lessons learned. This will be a great opportunity for the community to be able to sort of quickly get up to speed in ways that in the past would have taken, you know, years of experimentation, if you think of it that way.

Cynthia: Yeah, I agree, yeah.

Gerry: I think that's a great place to end here for a quick interview of where we're at right now. Yeah and I very much appreciate your time, Jack, Cynthia and we'll check in again with you and see how things are going as this progresses.

Jack: All right, thank you.

Cynthia: Thank you.

Gerry: Thank you.

Jack: Bye.

Gerry: Bye, guys.

Cynthia: Bye. See you guys.