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With the virus continuing to spread, we’re urging faculty who have on-site classes to find other ways to get through the semester. We don’t have plans to close the campus at this point, but the prospect is plausible enough that preparation seems in order.

It’s more than “just move everything online.” We have Canvas shells for all of our courses, so the platform is there. We have a team of instructional designers in the teaching and learning center to help folks build the online backup, so the support piece is there. Many professors have experience teaching online, so for them, the territory is familiar.

But it isn’t that simple.

Some professors have never taught online. In some cases, that’s a function of what they teach. For instance, the Automotive Tech courses have a classroom component in the beginning, but they quickly move to the service bays and/or transmission room. I don’t want a mechanic who has never touched a wrench, and neither does anyone else. The culinary courses are similar, in that sense; part of cooking at scale is developing facility with the tools. Those courses don’t lend themselves to an online conversion as easily as, say, a history course might.

In other cases, the root of the absence from online teaching is some combination of philosophical objection and technophobia. (In my experience, the Venn diagram of those two groups shows a lot of overlap.) As long as online instruction was optional, these folks took a pass. And that worked for a long time.

The virus, though, may shift the discussion. It’s entirely possible -- again, we’re not there yet, but possible -- that the traditional classroom may become unavailable for a while. At that point, the choice isn’t between online and on-site; it’s between online and giving up. Even if you hold philosophically that online isn’t quite as good as the classroom, it’s a whole lot better than nothing. The usual philosophical objection becomes moot. Technophobia is a harder nut to crack, but given the rate at which technology has advanced, it’s possible that some folks who were scared away by clunky early versions of learning management systems may be pleasantly surprised when they see the current versions.

Never let a crisis go to waste. Lee Skallerup Bessette noted on Twitter over the weekend that the virus, paradoxically enough, may give online education a chance to win over some skeptics. She’s right, if optimistic. Good online teaching requires a lot of preparation; this adjustment is being made on the fly. Managing expectations will be a key element of making it work.

I’ve asked faculty to prepare plans for alternative ways of reaching students, fully expecting that “I’ll put my stuff on Canvas” will be the most common answer. But I’m curious to see what other methods come to light. Although I wouldn’t have chosen this way to get there, we may come out of this experience with a larger repertoire of techniques and some useful reflections on what worked and why. Among other things, we may learn very quickly how large the digital divide is among students now. My anecdotal impression is that most students have at least one connected device at this point, even if it’s only a phone. Whether that’s true may become clear soon.

Or not. Warm weather and hand washing may prevent the worst, making these preparations merely redundant. Honestly, I’d prefer that outcome. But even if that happens, there may be real value in the exercise of preparing on short notice for a shift of venue. We may discover some things we wouldn’t have discovered any other way. I didn’t ask for this and don’t want it, but it may be a good learning experience for the college anyway.

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