Clarksville, TN – On a quiet afternoon in early March, Austin Peay State University (APSU) director of Distance Education Amor Moran gathered her team and told them to start drawing up a plan of attack.
Colleges across the country were beginning to move all classes online due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, and while Austin Peay State University still remained fully open, her office needed to be prepared for such an unprecedented event.
“We support any online or digital education that Austin Peay State University wants to take advantage of,” she said. “Anytime anyone wants to use educational technology in their classes, we’re there to help.”
If Austin Peay State University moved completely online, then every faculty member and student across campus would potentially need their help. Moran, who spent 10 years as a weather officer in the U.S. Air Force, knew her team had to be prepared for this crisis scenario.
“We started planning right away,” she said. “We got the team together and said, ‘If this were to happen, let’s write out everything we need to do and who would work on it.’”
Her team – made up of instructional designers, lab technicians and technology support managers – went to work on what they called Operation Govs Go Digital, putting in long hours to make sure the University was ready to transition completely away from traditional, on-ground teaching. Then on a Friday morning, the announcement finally arrived – beginning on March 23rd, APSU was going fully online.
“We got the word from Austin Peay State University, and everyone was able to pivot quickly,” Moran said. “We launched the plan, and it helped us execute quickly.”
Prepping faculty for the change
In a typical year – which this isn’t – the Distance Education Office supports faculty with tools such as Zoom for bringing in guest speakers and Turnitin, a plagiarism detection service. Last March, the office helped 479 faculty members use these tools, but by March 23rd, that number was about to go up.
Before moving to online classes, the University canceled instruction for a week, and Moran’s team took advantage of that five-day head start.
“We really wanted our faculty to get trained first,” she said. “We put all our resources online at www.apsu.edu/godigital. It showed how a class would look online and all the technology we offered.”
“We did a Zoom webinar, and it had lots of participation,” Moran said. “We recorded them all and put them all on the website.”
The instructional designers also made a generic class shell on D2L, APSU’s online learning management system. That’s where all of Austin Peay State University’s online classes live.
“It let those faculty who didn’t know where to start to import their face-to-face classes to an online setting,” she said. “It said, ‘put your discussion board here,’ ‘put your activity here.’ It was like plug and play.”
The office also found faculty mentors – those who have used the office’s tools successfully – to help professors who needed more assistance. In March alone, Distance Education saw a 22 percent increase in requests from faculty.
After training faculty, the office then launched the student side of Operation Govs Go Digital. Students were more comfortable with the online format than the faculty, but they still required plenty of assistance. Distance Education offered similar webinars and resources, while also calming fears about services such as online proctoring. This is a secure service that is able to monitor students while they take tests.
But another issue suddenly arose. Online education only works if you have a computer.
“Some of our students lived in places that didn’t have access to computers or the internet, and that was something we never planned for,” Moran said.
Distance Education already had a small-scale laptop loan program, which provides a few computers to students each year. With the University going online, her office quickly partnered with APSU’s COVID-19 Task Force to find any unused laptops on campus that students could borrow for free.
“I remember Dr. (Chad) Brooks running to almost every room on campus, finding every spare laptop to bring to the library,” she said. “That was something we weren’t prepared for, but we were able to pivot and get as many laptops as possible.”
Distance Education also purchased and loaned MiFi tablets to students in rural areas with limited or no internet access. A MiFi is a wireless router that acts as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. This spring, the office distributed 198 laptops and 25 MiFi routers.
‘We have a lot of talent’
In March and April, APSU Distance Education also experienced a 326 percent increase in help requests from students. The team, Moran said, saw the situation as an opportunity rather than a challenge.
“We knew we had done everything we could to set everybody up as best as we could,” Moran said. “I had a great group of people working for us. We have a lot of talent, and I told them this is our time to show the university and community how much we want to support them, what our skills are.”
The department’s student workers didn’t have to return to their jobs once the pandemic hit, but many of them continued to work remotely to support the mission. All this helped make the transition from on-ground classes to online classes, halfway through a semester, as painless as possible.
Austin Peay State University’s COVID-19 Task Force is currently developing plans to resume on-ground classes on campus this fall, and Moran said her office is prepared to take on a new phase of Operation Govs Go Digital.
“We’re looking to be more innovative, like working with departments to create blueprints for high-enrollment classes,” she said. “I think we did a pretty good job this first time, and now we’re looking at how we can make it better and easier. Instead of showing how to use the technology, we’ll say, ‘here are the best practices. This is what students respond to well.’”