The Intersection

Moving to Online Instruction

April 1, 2020

Updated: September 14, 2020


As institutions of higher education (IHEs) consider whether to reopen their physical campuses across the country, many administrators and teachers are attempting to keep coursework up and running by transitioning to online instruction. However, the capacity of schools and professors to adapt to an online learning model in a short amount of time varies greatly by IHE.

The Challenge

The degree of challenges faced by institutions of higher education (IHEs) during the transition to online instruction will depend on the extent to which the school has already implemented distance learning programs. For some IHEs with established frameworks and support systems for online instruction, the transition may be relatively smooth. However, for IHEs that have not implemented online instruction at scale, the transition will involve a number of hurdles. These include:

Coursework with Significant In-Person Components

Certain IHE coursework, such as laboratory-based science courses and courses that rely on hands-on demonstrations of equipment, contain portions that are difficult or impossible to adapt to an online learning environment. Many IHEs cancelled such courses for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester, but have not yet developed contingency plans for how students will eventually complete these courses.

Equity Concerns

The shift to online learning will pose equity and access concerns, especially for the following groups of students:

  • Students with disabilities. IHEs without existing online learning platforms will have to use alternative or free systems that are “low-tech” and do not provide accommodations such as media captioning and audio description.
  • Students without broadband access. For communities that do not have broadband access, many features of new IHE online learning platforms – such as video conferencing – will not work with a dial-up connection.
  • Students without a personal laptop. For students whose only personal device is their smartphone, some features of new IHE online learning platforms may not be functional on mobile. It will also be more difficult for these students to complete certain coursework assignments, especially if social distancing measures continue the closure of public spaces with computing options, such as libraries. 

Capacity of IHE Information Technology Support Staff

As many IHE instructors attempt to convert their courses into online learning models, all at the same time, there will be a significant spike in demand for IHE information technology (IT) staff support. Many instructors will need guidance on their options for learning platforms, assistance setting up platforms and transferring course materials, and ongoing troubleshooting as they familiarize themselves with the new models. Although IT staff capacity will vary by IHE, many IT departments will not be prepared for the surge in demand that will be caused by campus responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Standardization and Quality Control

As IHE leaders oversee a move to online learning, they will have to make decisions about how to conduct oversight of this transition. There will be a tradeoff between encouraging widespread adoption by giving discretion to instructors, and ensuring a standard level of quality across an IHE’s online course offerings. Many instructors may be familiar with a particular online learning platform (e.g. Zoom, Slack, WhatsApp) and could transfer their courses to the most familiar platform most quickly and easily. However, having courses offered across a variety of platforms makes it difficult for both IHE leaders and students to keep track of changing logins, course requirements, and information produced on learning progress.

Policy Considerations

For IHE Leaders:

Gather and Share Resources for Instructors and Students

  • Create an online space for instructors to submit resources they found helpful in managing the transition to online learning.
  • Post a dedicated site for professors with official resources from the IHE on guidelines for establishing online learning platforms.
    • Indiana University has set up a Keep Teaching page with resources for instructors – a model that has been replicated by a number of institutions.
  • Create a separate student-facing site with information on how to navigate the transition to online learning.
    • The University of Central Florida has created a Keep Learning site for students with recent campus updates, instructions about how to set up online learning, and answers to Frequently Asked Questions.

Work to Increase Capacity of IT Support Staff

  • Request estimates of current IT staff ability to handle surges in demand.
  • Work with local IT support staff organizations to establish partnerships that can be used to help with the transition to online learning.

For State Policymakers:

Establish Programs to Increase Broadband Access

  • Dedicate resources, potentially in partnership with utility companies, to increase the reach of broadband internet access and set up Wifi hotspots in communities with low access.
    • Many states have set up websites with information about internet service options and resources for people and students who have been affected by COVID-19.
    • The site from the North Carolina Department of Information Technology has an interactive map with information about internet service provider coverage and free public Wifi access points.

Remove Potential Barriers to Adopting Online Learning

  • For states that have specific approval processes to grant authorization to provide distance education programs, state leaders should consider issuing temporary waivers of such requirements for IHEs that have been affected by COVID-19.
    • The U.S. Department of Education has waived similar distance education requirements at the federal level.

← Click to access The Hunt Institute COVID-19 Resources & Policy Considerations Page

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