Going off the tracks – What happens when a university goes from high-touch to Digital under Social Distancing?

By Richard Eichen


Most senior technology and operations leaders understand the mechanics and support impacts of the new highly-remote user base, but what about the sudden transition from high-touch to no-touch from the user’s point of view?  In a university setting, that’s the educators and students, and both groups feel ether ‘cheated’ or thrown into the deep end of the pool.

To see how university educators and students are handling the change from in-person to remote/Digital teaching, I asked several professors who teach primarily face-to-face. The questions included institutional preparedness, student experience, coursework/teaching style, and administrative overhead. As an odd coincidence, in the April 24 New York Times, there is an article ‘Transforming Higher-Ed’ which confirms our findings, below:

Q: How prepared was your institution for mass online instruction?
A: Some institutions have been planning on weather and other short-duration events for 20+ years. The challenge was multi-month instruction of previously in-person courses. In one instance, the institution has not yet set a start date for the Fall semester. Some instructors have relied much more on their internal IT units, both for support and infrastructure, and some institutions, like any other organization, are doing better than others. Since the online platforms are SaaS /Cloud-based, there should be minimal additional IT overhead.

Some institutions seem more concerned with getting through this semester than the longer-term impacts on student and educator satisfaction levels. More than one educator felt they were given only a few days to reinvent their world after years of successfully teaching a body of coursework. More than one used the ‘diving into the deep end of the pool’ metaphor.

Q: How prepared were the students?
A: Most students have access to both a laptop and broadband. Some institutions issue a standard tech kit to each student, much like the commercial world. Some students do not have reliable (or have slow) broadband, and so have ‘listen only’ access and type questions into the online platform’s (ex: Blackboard Collaborate or Zoom) chatbox. In some cases, one laptop is shared between the student and siblings (parents as well), and scheduling can become an issue. Therefore, some sessions are recorded or presented multiple times, resulting in more work for the educator, a source of frustration. Where there is more than one campus, including some inner-city locations with a broader student demographic, students download the online platform’s app onto their phone and participate that way, including, in some cases, writing entire papers.

From a student’s perspective, are they getting the expected ‘bang for their buck’ if they have ‘listen-only’ or a less than expected experience, and will this affect enthusiasm (and the university’s reputation) if this continues for many more months? Before this enforced experience, only about 20% of students took an online course, and 75% feel they are not getting a quality experience (NYT, 4/24).  Some have asked for lowered tuition.  The educators we contacted said they could ‘feel’ how their many of their students were only making the best of a bad situation and not sure for how much longer once this semester is over.

Q: How is the curriculum/coursework adapted to online learning if it was previously in-person?
A: There was some frustration, a feeling of getting through the semester, making the most of a weird situation. It was more than typical remote work experience, understandable given the high-touch, high-personal fulfillment aspects of teaching. The educators had to immediately adapt their in-person coursework to a new, and undesigned, online experience in only a few days. Professors have been creative in changing their style, coursework, tests, and schedules. Some made downloads of reading material and discussion questions available for those students who cannot participate fully via technology, making for more prep work and less instruction time. Educators have the additional strain of engaging each student during a class to ensure they are paying attention as they cannot visually scan a room to see who is hanging out in the back. Worse, some lamented that they could not see many of their students, instead, seeing those student’s initials solely on stadium views. There was a level of detachment that educators do not like.

The platform can drive the teaching style, which can grate on the educator’s personality and what they know works. Some now emphasize fewer instructor lectures, more group discussions, and opportunities for questions. Others conduct the class as they usually would, including letting students become the presenter. Since a room is tough to ‘read’ when everyone is 2 inches tall (or just initials), there is added pressure on the educator to make sure students are engaged, which may include re-explaining or changing the delivery in near real-time.

One professor felt entirely translating face-to-face instruction, and class dynamics are almost impossible and feel they are now more information sharers than real educators, with a reduction in their satisfaction. It also raises the risk of not getting good student reviews.

Q: What is the administrative overhead resulting from the switch to online reality?
A: Staff meetings are held via Zoom or WebEx at their regularly scheduled times, often with better attendance than usual. Otherwise, there is not much additional admin overhead. Several said that once this crisis is over, there should be meetings inside their institutions to explore curriculum, culture, group adhesion, and other considerations in case this mass exodus recurs.

In sum, at the university level, based on this admittedly small sample, it seems instructors and institutions prepared in-person course delivery for a few days of occasional remote instruction, but not for an entire semester. Professors experience some stress and frustration at having to adapt material and work schedules in near real-time. Students are not having their expected experience and feel ‘cheated.’ Post-crisis, institutions should think through the lessons learned, including the evident but also educator and student satisfaction, ‘relationship management,’ and identification with the institution itself. Universities need to ask at what point, with all institutions using the same platforms, do they become a commodity purveyor of information, hurting their brand, value proposition, and pricing.  IT groups will need to rethink their mission and value proposition as their users will now be highly experienced in Zoom and other SaaS-based platforms, much like their commercial counterparts. They might want to explore providing a well designed, collective experience by offering a Virtual Desktop.

Stay safe.