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How DKU transitioned all its classes online after coronavirus shut down its campus

In January, Duke Kunshan University announced that classes would be canceled until Feb. 17 due to the rapid spread of coronavirus. Most students who weren’t from Hubei went home. Those who stayed at DKU could live on campus, but the administration would not let them leave. 

The DKU emergency preparedness task force emailed the DKU community Jan. 30, informing them that all undergraduate and graduate courses were to go online. Courses shifted to being entirely online Feb. 24.

The Chronicle published a story March 6 detailing DKU students’ reactions to their university going online. Today we look at how the online transition came together.

In three weeks, an entire campus moved its classes online. 

“There were a lot of people up at all hours,” said Noah Pickus, associate provost and senior adviser at Duke and the dean of undergraduate curricular affairs and faculty development at Duke Kunshan University. 

Although the top administrators at Duke and DKU were the ones who made the call about moving classes online, he said the transition process involved coordination among DKU’s academic affairs, information technology department, student affairs and the registrar. He noted that the IT department had the toughest and most important job—developing the online infrastructure to connect hundreds of students and professors scattered around the globe. 

“The IT group was heroic,” Pickus said. “If you didn't have the IT team really driving this, then nothing else would’ve been possible.” 

Currently, 65 faculty are teaching 60 courses to approximately 1,700 students, Pickus wrote in an email to The Chronicle. Next quarter, 75 faculty will teach 73 courses to around 1,700 students. And some of these courses have multiple sections.

Pickus described two key decisions that guided the transition: the online classes had to be of the highest quality, and they had to be equally accessible to all DKU students. 

“We can't disadvantage students who don't have the same level of access to the technology,” Pickus said. 

The latter would prove to be a challenge since students live in 40 different countries and have varying degrees of Internet access. 

Aryan Poonacha, a first-year from Bangalore, India, is one such student whose Internet connection is not reliable. 

“Although it's nice to be home, online classes here are very inconvenient due to my Internet situation,” he wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “I can't attend the live lectures because of Internet issues.” 

Instead, he watches recorded lecture videos when he has a stable Internet connection and contributes to Sakai discussion forums. For his weekly one-on-one Chinese tutoring, he goes to a nearby cafe for a better WiFi connection. Tutoring isn’t mandatory, but he explained that it’s his only opportunity to practice speaking Chinese.

Pickus said they encouraged faculty to use “asynchronous” teaching methods—not live video sessions—in order to accommodate students like Poonacha who don’t have stable connections. 

If a professor did choose to do simultaneous video sessions over Zoom, a teleconferencing service, then they could not be mandatory. In order to increase accessibility, the live Zoom classes only last an hour and meet twice per week. They’re scheduled to best accommodate those on the eastern coasts of the United States and China, where the majority of students and professors are located. 

The online program’s rollout has gone remarkably smoothly, Pickus said. Many classes use a mix of recorded lecture presentations, Sakai discussion forums, essays and synchronous sessions. Now that the system works for 80-90% of students, the administration can focus on communicating with students who have limited access. 

“Each one is a very handcrafted individual situation,” Pickus said.

He explained that the administration connects with each student to find a solution that works for them. However, Poonacha cited DKU’s safety measures and its reliable Internet connection for online learning as reasons why he wishes he hadn’t gone home.

“I do regret not staying on campus despite the outbreak,” Poonacha wrote.

Students and professors are impressed with the quality of online learning

Imagine having a 7 a.m. class twice per week. For sophomore Samantha Tsang, that’s her life. She wakes up around 6:50 a.m., goes downstairs to get coffee and then logs in to Zoom for her classes.

Tsang has been impressed with Zoom’s audio and video quality and can tell that professors put a lot of energy into making online classes as equivalent as possible to an in-class experience. She also appreciates the flexibility that comes with asynchronous learning methods, such as recorded lectures and posting in forum discussions. 

“I think students are adjusting well,” said Selina Lai Henderson, assistant professor of American literature and history at DKU. 

Even though she prefers synchronous Zoom sessions since they’re more interactive, Henderson also noted that some of her California students have to wake up at 4 a.m. to attend them. 

Lincoln Rathnam, assistant professor of political science at DKU, attributes the positive response to a growing restlessness that students and professors felt during the three weeks between evacuation and the start of online classes. 

“I think that by the time we actually did start, there was a huge desire to get things moving,” Rathnam said.

The biggest challenge for him and his colleagues has been trying to identify in advance what aspects of the material students won’t understand. Online learning requires more diligence in preparation, he said. He spends extra time writing explanations of terms and concepts and looking for supplemental materials to help anticipate students’ questions. 

“And then if people have more specific concerns,” Rathnam said, “then you can deal with them in the emails that you get.”

Rathnam pointed out that for most professors, this is their first time teaching online. 

Henderson sees it as a challenge and opportunity to join an increasingly globalized and technologized world. 

“This really gives me an opportunity to see what online learning and teaching is like,” she said. “It creates a very unique space for interaction out of a very extraordinary circumstance. And that in and of itself is valuable.”

Pickus views the transition to online classes as purely an extension of DKU’s larger mission. 

“DKU was set up on purpose to try out new and innovative ways of teaching and learning,” he said. “Doing radically different things is why we built DKU.”

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