How these central Ohio institutions adapted to crisis

Laura Newpoff
Franklin University was ready for online learning when the pandemic hit.

On March 6, 2020, Otterbein University was hit with a malware attack that took its computers, phones and systems offline. Actions as simple as swiping into the cafeteria were suddenly impossible. Of the services affected was the ability to access Blackboard, a learning management system for students and faculty that allows for online and blended courses.

It would be an understatement to say the timing couldn’t have been worse.

Within days of the attack, universities across Ohio, including Otterbein, suspended in-person classes and sent as many students home as they could following the onset of Covid-19. The push toward remote learning happened immediately. Otterbein had to scramble.

Kathryn Plank, Otterbein’s associate provost for curriculum, teaching, learning and mission, says faculty and staff immediately pulled together and bought burner phones and set up remote hot spots. The Academic Support Center created resources for students to learn online, faculty revamped coursework, the Center for Teaching and Learning held hundreds of workshops and practice sessions for remote learning and the information technology office purchased more equipment — such as cameras that could broadcast teacher lectures from classrooms — and software and Wi-Fi were updated.

By March 16 classes resumed and students were able to finish the spring semester in a virtual world.

“Everything had to be redone,” Plank says. “But so many people came up with so many creative ways to keep things going. (The situation) opened up possibilities we hadn’t thought of before. As they say, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ ”

Creativity to adapt to remote learning is a theme among universities across central Ohio when it came to their pandemic response. Here are highlights about how they persevered in a virtual world.

In the months that followed the news of Covid-19, Otterbein employed a number of tactics including moving to alternate spaces, using new technology, encouraging student involvement and being thoughtful about student workload and well-being.

Alicia Rich, assistant professor of biology and zoo science, designed a remote seminar that brings in experts from all over the world for students to interview via Zoom each week. After the university shifted its wildlife rehabilitation practicum to a remote format to avoid spreading Covid-19 or cause an outbreak at the Ohio Wildlife Center, the department purchased motion-activated wildlife cameras and shifted the class to teach students how to use cutting-edge technology to monitor animals remotely.

Plank says a fall survey found that students were generally satisfied with the summer semester and how courses were revamped. Embracing online learning was seemingly easier for them, she says, than the social isolation that came from missing campus life, sports and social activities.

Similarly to many other institutions, some of the faculty at Columbus State Community College had no experience conducting courses online. But all of them, even adjunct faculty, had experience using Blackboard, the vehicle the school uses to disseminate information like syllabi and grades to students, including in-person learners. That eased communication during a time of heightened uncertainty.

Martin Maliwesky, Columbus State’s associate vice president of academic affairs, says administrators heard quickly from faculty that Zoom was being well received. The school bought Zoom licenses and it became its preferred virtual option.

Martin Maliwesky

Columbus State was keenly aware that not all students had access to the same technology tools outside of campus, especially those from rural areas, and responded by finding a vendor to buy retooled mobile phones that students could use as a mobile hotspot if Wi-Fi wasn’t available. The school also repurposed and made available some of its internal hardware to faculty and students.

“It was one of the greatest successes we could attest to,” Maliwesky says. “We went from 30 percent of course delivery being virtual to 100 percent overnight, and we were able to build out our summer schedule and then fall and spring to each time make it better and more understandable.”

Ohio State University developed a set of sites that became the center of its educational strategy during the pandemic. Keep Teaching, Keep Learning and Keep Working provided information and resources to keep all areas of the school operational, offer mental health support and foster a sense of belonging.

OSU also embraced Zoom, and platform usage increased 2,350 percent after spring break with 47,000 meetings taking place per week. Usage of Canvas, the school’s learning management system, soared by 333 percent during the crisis. Requests for tech support also jumped by 271 percent, prompting the university to quickly train 40 volunteers to work the help desk. The school also built more than 40 online workshops that received more than 10,000 views.

Liv Gjestvang, associate vice president of learning technology, says faculty members helped students make the transition. She was impressed by Nicole Kraft, associate professor in the school of communication. “She went to campus and took pictures of different spots and made them available as Zoom backgrounds,” Gjestvang says. “It allowed them to feel a sense of connection with campus.”

Liv Gjestvang

“She stepped away from her academic charge and really stepped into that space (of) ‘How are you doing?’” Gjestvang says. “I saw a lot of faculty doing that.”

For Franklin University, the pivot to online learning was perhaps the least dramatic among local universities. President David Decker says 90 percent of students were learning online before the pandemic, so its infrastructure was well developed. The school quickly saw a role, however, in helping other institutions make the shift. Many, he says, had no previous experience with online education.

David Decker

Through its International Institute For Innovative Instruction Franklin provided a series of webinars for community college faculty and academic leaders across Ohio.

“Most of the schools that had not previously been involved in online higher education were really thrown for a loop by this,” Decker says. “We wanted to contribute to help our colleagues understand that online higher ed has its own pedagogical principles, its own technical principles and assessment principles that are followed to design courses properly. That increases satisfaction among faculty and students during a time when they are going through a huge adjustment psychologically.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.