Remote Instruction @ Wellesley

On the one hand, the last few weeks went by so fast.. On the other, though the rapid response to the COVID-19 crisis at the College began about a month ago, it feels like we have been on this for several months. This is a recount of how we prepared for supporting the remote instruction at the College and supporting work from home (WFH) for the administrative staff and faculty.

Before I start, I want to thank the all the LTS staff for rising to the occasion, especially those who spent a lot of time and effort to support the faculty and students in getting ready for remote instruction. We also could not have done this without excellent collaboration with Prof Oscar Fernandez, Associate Professor of Mathematics and PLTC Faculty Director. The unwavering support from the Provost’s office and the senior leadership was critical in our ability to make swift decisions, something we needed to do a lot in a short period of time. And finally, the familiarity of Zoom as a tool for many already and the fact that one could easily learn and adopt played a major role. The faculty and students have been tremendous partners through all of this and we are fortunate that all of these came together at this critical time and I am happy to report that the first week has gone remarkably well and we are hoping that this will continue.

What I describe below is something that you will see repeated amongst many of our peer institutions. We have all been exchanging information and ideas on our discussion fora which was tremendously helpful. I have tried to distill only important information and as you can imagine, there is a lot to getting ready and execution.

Initial preparation

  • Quickly decide on a platform. We already had access to Google Hangout and Chat, but decided that Zoom is a better solution and signed up for enterprise license and set up Single Sign on.
  • Early in March, we had no idea what direction we are pointing with respect to remote instruction, but we assembled our own response teams and began developing scenarios and plans – No face to face classes, but students still in res halls to all remote.
  • In certain scenarios, our current network bandwidth would not have been sufficient, so we ordered equipment and bandwidth expansion (which, anyway we had planned for the Fall)  right away. It turned out to be unnecessary.
  • Based on an early communication from the Provost saying that we don’t know where we will be, but it is a good idea to be prepared for remote instruction, we began preparing for workshops in collaboration with PLTC.
  • Our faculty workshops began during the week of March 9th and the first few were held as in person meetings in a computer lab. These were packed! This was the time when everyone was worried about the COVID-19 crisis and trying to practice social distancing. We listened and split the attendees up into multiple spaces and eventually moved to Zoom training in Zoom!
  • The Provost also held the Chairs meeting in academic council which provided the space needed for social distancing, but a significant # of chairs decided to join via Zoom. It was a big success and made people feel confident. Though we were promoting the use of “Raise Hand” in Zoom itself, it was funny that several attendees really raised their hands 🙂
  • We also needed to be sensitive to the needs of the students, so we started to take stock of the hardware devices that we can lend to the students in case it is needed.

After the announcement

  • The announcement came the week prior to Spring Break and the break was extended to two weeks.
  • Soon after the announcement that we will be moving to remote instruction, we shifted gear to actively supporting the students. They had 4 days to vacate the res halls and go home.
  • We ran a quick survey to gauge the readiness of students in terms of knowledge of Zoom, whether they had a computer and reliable internet connection where they will be spending the next few months. Significant number of students responded quickly.
  • ResLife and the Division of Student life did a tremendous job leading this effort and we collaborated with them in identifying students who did not have a computer to use for remote instruction and provided them with an appropriate device, either a windows laptop or a Chromebook. In some cases, we just were unable to find solutions and recommended that those students stay back. This included the student heading back to remote locations with no reliable internet connectivity and no reliable cell signals (like a remote island in Maine).
  • Several other indicated unreliable or no network at all due to financial constraints. We pointed them to the ISP resources whereby certain qualified students could get 2 months of free internet. We also ordered several Verizon MiFi devices. We suggested to the students to first go home, explore other options and if nothing worked and they can be sure that the signal from Verizon was strong, we would mail the MiFis. We did this for a few students. Because of the extended Sprint Break, we had time for this.
  • We created a “Zoom Room”, an ongoing meeting room for extended periods of time every day for several days for students to join and ask questions. It was staffed by an LTS staff member at all times. Several students joined, but mostly to just check if they were able to join. Not many questions. One thanked us for all the work we were doing. That made my day!
  • We continued remote workshop for faculty. In total 300 faculty attended these workshops. We also learned of several follow up Zoom sessions within academic departments, led by faculty who had Zoom expertise already, which went to boost the confidence of the faculty. Nothing like collaborating and learning from a peer!
  • After the workshop, we created a “Zoom Room” for the faculty, which was well attended.
  • We ordered webcams, headsets and Wacom tablets for faculty to borrow and several faculty members borrowed them.
  • Did the same for Administrative staff who needed to begin working from home. This turned out to be a non-issue and most were well prepared to work from home. We have unlimited VPN licenses, but we had originally allocated only 255 IP addresses for VPN, we expanded that and we adjusted the VPN split tunneling configuration to vastly reduce the traffic to campus network.
  • Library Collections was fielding a reasonable number of requests for digitization that was being serviced as quickly as possible. We continue to service these requests with a staff member going periodically to service the requests.
  • We ran a survey of the students about which timezones they will be joining the classes from and linked it to the class lists for faculty for them to plan ahead of time.
  • We fielded a range of pedagogical questions, most of which were answered with possibilities and equivalences and in some cases everyone agreed that certain things are just not possible. We suggested the use of an iPad or Wacom tablets for freehand writing for those who needed it and we suggested possible solutions for ensemble music in consultation with our peer institutions. We suggested protocols to use to manage discussions…

Remote Instruction

  • First classes began on 3/30 and some of us were watching the progress on the back end with Zoom’s analytics (which is fantastic). We were off to a great start based on the analytics.
  • We had asked faculty if they would like an LTS staff member to join their first class, just to provide a level of comfort. About 30 signed up for this. The staff members who joined these classes reported no issues.
  • We had only 3 tickets to the helpdesk on the first day!
  • We did have connectivity issues for just a couple of classes which we resolved as quickly as we could.
  • At the end of the first day, we ran a survey for students and faculty. Overwhelmingly positive feedback. Most were surprised by how this platform turned out to be better than expected.
  • Now we are getting questions from faculty on some of the advanced uses of Zoom, that we had intentionally avoided discussing. This is a great place to be in frankly!

Next Steps

  • We are beginning the process of implementing certain changes in Workday Student. The College announced a mandatory credit/no credit grading scheme for all sections for Spring 2020.
  • We are beginning to strategize the best way to do online registration in late April for the Fall to account for the fact that the students are dispersed across the globe. We understand that we won’t know what we will do in terms of Fall semester, but we are planning this process.
  • We are also working with a group on the logistics related to graduating our seniors. The College announced the cancellation of in person Commencement but possibly having a virtual ceremony to confer degrees. We need to figure out exactly what this means.
  • There are a lot of things related to onboarding admitted students that are being worked out as we speak.

Some Final Thoughts

  • We are thankful that our strategy to move to the cloud has helped us in this situation. Pretty much all critical activities, Email, Calendar, ERP, LMS, Web Servers etc are in the cloud and we could not have handled all of the traffic if some of these were still maintained locally.
  • The entire LTS staff rose up to the challenge in terms of smoothing the transition for students and faculty over a two week period and continue to help where and when they can. I am so thankful to have such talented, hard working and devoted staff!
  • It was an incredible experience to onboard students, faculty and staff for remote instruction and work. Some of the heart wrenching stories from students about the lack of resources is something we don’t come across normally and frankly this was an eye opener for many of us. The College’s commitment to support them as best as we can was remarkable.
  • And how they all came together, willing to accept the changes and make this a successful experience. Even some faculty who said they are not technically adept have invested the time, taken the help and have managed well. It is really heartwarming.
  • I know that currently several security and privacy issues about Zoom are being surfaced, but I would say this is the first time we have rolled out a tool in such a short time that has been received so positively. We are encouraged by Zoom’s response both in terms of information and solutions. Obviously there is no way to find out if any tool would have been adopted with such ease because of the situation we are in. My experience says no. There is something about the ease of use that has made the adoption easy.
  • Finally, remote instruction is not as much about the technology itself, but about the use of technology to replicate as much of the in-person pedagogy as possible. Based on what we have been hearing, the faculty are finding interesting ways to do it!

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