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Md. universities deal with challenges in move to remote learning

morgan-stateMaryland universities say they have adapted relatively quickly to their new remote learning reality, but some hiccups remain and distance learning is unlikely to become prevalent in normal circumstances.

Administrators anticipated that technology issues for faculty and students may be one of their primary stumbling blocks but have found that, for the most part, they have been able to get connected.

“We’ve been saying innovation is our guiding principle,” said Leisa Crumpton-Young, the provost at Morgan State University.

In the world of higher education, normally known for moving slowly, the change was a massive effort.

Maryland’s universities made the decision in March, before they went on spring break, to switch to remote learning for the remainder of the spring semester. That gave them at least a week — some universities canceled additional classes to add more preparation time — to get ready for the switch.

Faculty have had to come up with ways to adapt their courses to the internet, including making classes like labs and performance online-friendly. 

The University of Maryland, Baltimore, has seen the usage of its online tools explode since distance learning began. For example, the online lecture recording platform Panopto was used to record 25 hours in the first week of March. The last week of March saw 296 hours recorded.

“Generally, we are starting our third week, and things are going better than we expected,” said John Fritz, associate vice president for instructional technology at the university. “I think people are getting connected and they are working it out.”

Most university infrastructure has shifted to cloud-based services, he said, which has been key in helping to ensure there hasn’t been a significant slowdown in services.

One concern has been that students and faculty may lack adequate internet connections or the technology to participate in live video classes.

With most students at home, some rural environments lack access to broadband internet connections. 

Kenrick Gordon, the director of the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband, said rural communities in Maryland and the nation often have yet to be wired for broadband connectivity as extensively as suburban and urban neighborhoods. “If you don’t have a (broadband) internet connection, then it certainly is going to be a detriment right now,” he said, given the need for schools, businesses and organizations to have students, staff and employees work from home. 

Salisbury University said students and faculty can come to the university parking lots and take advantage of the campus WiFi from their cars as a backup if they haven’t been able to establish a reliable connection at home. 

Universities have also made laptops and wireless hot spots available to faculty and students who need them.

And while there has been a lot of chatter about so-called “Zoombombing,” where hackers get access to video conferences and disrupt them, Stephen Gange, Johns Hopkins University’s executive vice provost for academic affairs, said that has happened only once or twice at Johns Hopkins.

“I think we’ve worked hard and I know our IT group has also worked hard to institute protections in the software, changing some of the default characteristics of the software so that things like that can’t happen,” he said.

What about after the spring semester?

Most universities are preparing for remote learning to continue for at least summer classes, if not part of the fall. Adapting summer courses may be a little easier than changing the spring courses midstream, University System of Maryland Chancellor Jay A. Perman told the Board of Regents Monday.

“While we’ve not made a final decision about our summer sessions, we know that early preparation is key to a smooth rollout,” he said. “We do have that luxury for summer, which we didn’t have this spring, and so I thank our leaders for modeling what remote instruction at their institutions might look like months down the road.”

Faculty are also looking at preparations for their fall courses, including at Morgan and Hopkins.

A number of options are on the table, including finding ways to have courses available both in-person and online depending on what the world looks like this fall, said Gange, who is also a professor of epidemiology in the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Do we think about identifying particular offerings for, let’s say, the remote students that’s a little bit different from the residential students, or do we have classrooms that are set up for handling both students,” he said. “We need to make sure that whatever we go with is of the same high quality that meets our standards here at the university.”

But the traditional university experience will not be going away when the pandemic winds down, Gange said.

“The idea of a residential experience is partly the classroom but partly many other things,” he said. “Access to fellow students, to libraries, to other facilities, clearly that’s greatly disrupted and something that we hope we will be able to get back to in the fall.”

The universities have also been forced to adapt their admissions processes. Many will not use SAT and ACT scores in admissions this fall because testing sessions have been canceled.

They are also moving things like orientation and welcome packages online.

“We’re still continuing to come up with these innovative ideas that will help us with recruiting and converting those interested students to accepted students,” Crumpton-Young said.

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