If you visit the campus of the University of South Alabama in Mobile, you know immediately that something is different. Parking lots are empty, classrooms, offices and dorms are locked, and most obviously no students are about. While the physical plant may be a location on a map, a university is its people — its students, faculty and staff. Without its people, a university is just a group of buildings and parking lots.
In early March, students at the University of South Alabama left campus for their annual spring break. As the Coronavirus pandemic spread, the university leadership team began daily meetings and the difficult decision was made to transition all students to online classes until April 20th. The initial date was soon extended until the end of the spring semester in May. Leaders continue to meet as the pandemic situation remains fluid.
The transition of traditional classes to the online environment was the primary challenge faced by the university. Although difficult, South was better prepared than many other universities. The University Innovation in Learning Center manages and provides support for a number of software programs that are used in the online environment, including Sakai and Canvas (learning management systems that incorporate lecture materials, assignments, grading, communication and other classroom activities), Panopto (a program used for lecture capture and video management), Zoom (a remote video conferencing service) and other tools that do much to replicate the traditional classroom experience.
Of course, software programs and platforms are only tools; success in the online environment requires faculty who are dedicated to driving the process. The University has multiple degree programs that are offered completely online, and we are fortunate that many of our faculty have extensive experience teaching in this environment. The campus spring break was extended one week to give the faculty the opportunity to incorporate the changes necessary for teaching online. Numerous seminars, workshops and meetings were conducted (almost all using distance-learning technology) for faculty and staff. The online environment for all students began March 23.
Faculty, for the most part, can perform most of their jobs from home, as long as they have a home computer with adequate internet access. For administrators and support personnel, there are both practical and logistical challenges. Although a number of administrative functions may be handled remotely via email and a VPN network, some require a physical presence. Scheduling and monitoring off-campus work also can be an issue.
Classes are but a part of a student’s life. On the academic side, many students are involved in experiential activities as a part of their degree requirements. These co-ops, internships, laboratory courses, practicums, research projects, studio performances and study abroad are an important part of the learning experience. Finding alternatives in a distance-learning environment is part of the transition. Also, higher education is a continual process — the academic year moves from fall to spring to summer classes. Registration and student advising for future terms is an almost ongoing process. These activities too are also being transitioned. Future class schedule development also is an ongoing activity.
Then there is the other side of student life — housing, university and intramural athletics, Greek life, part-time jobs, and all of the other things that students cram into their daily activities. The cancelling/rescheduling of some activities is an easy process; for others, the changes are more involved. Campus leaders are working to make these transitions.
The uncertainty of the pandemic’s course remains. A return to “normal” may take a couple of months or much longer. One thing is certain. The University of South Alabama faculty, staff and administrators are committed to give our students the best experience possible during this unprecedented time.