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Pandemic playbook: How UITS took IU online



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If you watched recordings of all the IU-affiliated Zoom calls from March 9, it would take eight months of nonstop streaming.

If you watched all the calls from March 30, the first day of online class after the novel coronavirus outbreak forced IU’s classes online for the duration of the spring semester, it would take four years.

According to a Zoom press release, the number of daily meeting participants went from approximately 10 million at the end of 2019 to more than 200 million in the month of March this year as businesses and schools transitioned to working from home.

Zoom isn’t the only service that saw a surge in use after IU President Michael McRobbie announced classes would be online for the remainder of the semester — Canvas, Kaltura, IU VPN, IU servers and other systems have seen a large increase in usage in the past two weeks.

Dan Calarco, Chief of Staff for the Vice President for Information Technology, said his staff has been preparing for a situation like this since the H1N1 outbreak of 2009. That year they created a website, keepteaching.iu.edu, with resources in case of a public health emergency.

“I know there were about a dozen universities that lifted content off of keepteaching.iu.edu and gave us credit for it,” Calarco said. “I think that really shows how much commitment we’ve made to things like disaster recovery planning and business continuity planning at IU.”

Calarco said the University Information Technology Services staff ran a pandemic flu exercise in 2018 where 250 staff members practiced working remotely to test the functionality of Zoom and other remote systems. 

But Calarco said these preparations did not account for the extent of disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. UITS was prepared for a scenario where students would temporarily be confined to their dorm rooms, staying on campus — connecting teachers and students working and learning across the world was never part of the plan.

To prepare for online-only classes, Calarco and his colleagues held multiple workshops with more than 2,500 instructors before and during spring break about how to use remote learning technology and change assignments and teaching styles to simplify courses for students.

“It wasn’t just using the technology, but how you might go about changing the pedagogy of your course so that it’s better suited to these media,” Calarco said. 

Anna Deeds, a lecturer teaching Business Presentations at the Kelley School of Business, said that while expectations will be different for virtual presentations, the fundamentals will remain the same.

Deeds said for her presentations class, she gave her students tips on how to sit in their chairs, where to look on the screen, how to position their laptops and other best practices tailored to an online presentations class.

She said the transition wasn't particularly difficult because it was such a real world application for her class.

“We're now experiencing in the Kelley school with the Career Services office that so many companies are using virtual interviews, instead of in-person interviews," she said.

She encouraged her students to wear IU spiritwear for their first online class back and was featured on IU Bloomington’s Instagram page.

Arlene Diaz, associate professor in the IU Department of History, had several technical difficulties in her first week of online teaching. Her discussion class on Tuesday was “Zoombombed” when a random user named “Squid” joined the call and started saying inappropriate things, causing her to cut the class short. She lost electricity Wednesday after a thunderstorm, leaving her without WiFi for her Thursday class. 

She said her students — several of whom also lost electricity in the storm — were supportive throughout these circumstances. 

“I have a wonderful group of students, and we have a community in that class,” Diaz said. “I did not want that community to be lost because we’re doing this online.”

Calarco said the UITS Support Center has seen an increase in technology questions during the online transition process. Between March 9 and March 30, the center averaged nearly four questions about Zoom every hour. He added that the number of Zoom meetings increased by 726% in the same period.

Diaz said extending spring break was an important step that gave instructors more time to adjust their teaching approaches. She said she heard about one university that only gave instructors two days to prepare for remote teaching.

“I would say that overall and what I have heard from other universities, IU has done quite well,” Diaz said. 

Before transitioning to online-only teaching, the only online tools Diaz’s History of Cuba and Puerto Rico used were Canvas and Google Docs. Now, she’s added Zoom and IU Box as a back-up in case students have trouble submitting assignments through Canvas. 

“I had my doubts honestly that Canvas was going to hold up because sometimes at the end of the semester when we are turning in the final grades, it slows down,” Diaz said. “In reality, it has been working quite well.”

Despite a few teething problems during the first week of online learning, some professors said there are benefits of going through this process and rethinking teaching.

Diaz said while she does not like teaching remotely, she plans to carry some new approaches into future in-person semesters. For example, she said she improved her course by simplifying it without lowering the level of difficulty.

“Online teaching doesn’t work for everyone; face-to-face teaching doesn’t work for everyone,” Diaz said. “I would say that idea of simplifying is very important.”

Deeds said she agreed that online teaching has some advantages. She said virtual meetings are important for students to experience since they are playing a more important part in the corporate world. 

Calarco said there will still be technological difficulties ahead as IU classes remain digital for the rest of spring and the entire summer semester. He said finals week will be the next big challenge, as instructors will probably shift toward higher-concept examinations instead of questions with answers that can be easily found on Google.

Calarco said he ultimately looks forward to IU classes returning to normal.

"As much as we’re able to handle working and teaching remotely, I think there’s still a lot of value in the residential education experience, and we want to get back to that," Calarco said.

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