Columbia University Low Library

A man walks past Low Library on the Columbia University campus on Monday. The New York university is moving classes online starting Wednesday after a person connected with the school was suspected of having coronavirus. The university announced Tuesday that the person tested negative for the fast-spreading disease but will remain in quarantine for two weeks.

The hot new buzzword in higher ed is "social distancing," or the practice of staying the heck away from other people in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19, aka the new coronavirus.

A handful of U.S. colleges and universities have leaned way in to social distancing by canceling their face-to-face classes for a week or three and moving instruction online. Some schools have banned large on-campus gatherings such as meetings, events and conferences.

On Tuesday morning, Harvard University became the first institution I'm aware of to take social distancing to the extreme. The Massachusetts school asked students to move out of the dorms by Sunday and not to return to campus after next week's spring break. A few others followed by afternoon. Expect more to follow Harvard's lead over the next few days.

If the idea behind social distancing is to eliminate large gatherings, moving classes online seems like a logical step. But no one can say it's an easy or uncomplicated step, especially when it's happening so quickly. Higher ed can be called lots of things, but "nimble" usually isn't one of them.

I touched on the possibility of online classes in the story I wrote Monday about how higher ed is dealing with the coronavirus threat. Both N.C. A&T and UNCG, which resumed classes Monday after spring break, are preparing to move classes online should events warrant.  (Key point: No school in North Carolina has said it would cancel in-person classes, but a lot are preparing online classes just in case.) Here's the website that UNCG has assembled for its faculty. UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Charlotte have something similar. The Charlotte Observer wrote about UNCC's "course continuity plan" here.

I can't overstate what a big deal this potential change is. Universities have held face-to-face classes for literally centuries. The professor-lecturing-to-students is a foundational part of the academic experience. Outside a handful of online-only schools or growing number of online classes and programs at bricks-and-mortar colleges, the classroom lecture remains pretty much intact.

That said, it's important to note that none of these online degree programs or online universities were put together during spring break week. It's also important to note that there are plenty of professors out there with no experience teaching online courses, which are a different animal than the traditional way of teaching. As UNCG's how-to for faculty put it, "simply recording yourself lecturing for hours and moving it online is not ideal."

A&T and UNCG, like other schools, will use their current learning management systems as the basis for online instruction if they suspend face-to-face classes. Blackboard (used by A&T), Canvas (UNCG), Moodle (GTCC, App State, N.C. State), Sakai (UNC-Chapel Hill) and other online LMS programs generally let professors post assignments and course materials in text, audio and video formats. Students can take quizzes and exams online and get their grades online, too. It's the logical foundation for this temporary online world.

But this Chronicle of Higher Education story (paywalled) notes that moving classes to the virtual realm comes with a lot of potential downsides:

Internet access may be a challenge, especially for students and faculty members in small cities and towns, where service can slow when everyone is trying to use videoconferencing at once, said Daniel Stanford, director of faculty development and technology innovation at the DePaul University Center for Teaching and Learning. Stanford also worries about how to replicate the learning formats, such as laboratory work, in which being physically present is central to the experience.

Another question is institutional capacity. Are colleges generally prepared to support thousands of instructors’ moving quickly from in-person to online teaching?

“In a word, no,” said Flower Darby, director of Teaching for Student Success at Northern Arizona University. “I don’t think most institutions are equipped to handle a situation such as this, in which more demands are made of the technological infrastructure and you need a lot of qualified people to help.”

Here's a related point from a Harvard professor who has written a book on the struggles of low-income students at rich universities:

Higher ed is on the verge of major disruption that will try the patience of everyone involved. Best case, holding all classes online is higher ed's way of helping to flatten the coronavirus curve. Worst case? Let's not go there just yet. My only hope is that this temporary social distancing doesn't morph into a more permanent educational distancing.

P.S.: All y'all please wash your hands.

Update, 4:45 p.m. Tuesday: Here's yet another ripple effect of colleges moving classes online, and it's economic. As Bloomberg reports, small towns that depend on college business could be hurting if students go home and visitors don't come.

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