Duke Kunshan University (DKU) in Kunshan, China, was one of the first US-affiliated institutions forced into lockdown due to its geographical proximity to the origin of the Covid-19 outbreak.
While students and faculty were celebrating Chinese New Year in January 2020, Covid-19 began to take hold in China. Many students and faculty were off campus, spread across China and the world. With travel restrictions in place, it was clear that classes as normal could not resume.
With just three weeks remaining of the third term of its bachelor’s degree program, in February 2020, DKU decided to finish the semester online rather than cancel it. This gave the university two weeks to transfer its entire programme online.
This case study documents the decision-making and implementation of this rapid move to online in a fast-evolving situation and what lessons were learned.
Planning for moving online
DKU is a relatively new institution, having been set up in 2013, so its faculty are innovative and willing to try new things, perhaps more so than their counterparts at other more traditional institutions. There was a sense of how important continuing to operate would be to the future of the institution and a real desire to be responsive to students, who were clearly unsettled by the crisis. Finishing the semester was considered an obligation.
Since the only option was going online, faculty and staff worked to get their courses organised to do so as quickly as possible. The university had to make some key decisions to support the effort.
For such a speedy implementation, DKU decided to rely mostly on technologies that were already in place, which meant faculty and staff were familiar with them.
All faculty were already using DKU’s learning management system (LMS), Sakai. Additional Sakai functionality was rolled out, along with training, to meet particular needs. This included faculty using forums to communicate and share best practices. Sakai became a repository for updates, FAQs, announcements, important resources on online pedagogy and how-to guides.
For video conferencing, DKU chose Zoom. This required a new, previously unavailable license in China as well as training and support for faculty and staff.
Students, staff and faculty use WeChat for informal communications, but it was rejected as the university’s key communication channel, partly for security reasons.
However, WeChat was an effective way of checking in with students who faculty noticed were not engaging with or responding to other means of communication. It was used for getting in touch when other methods failed.
DKU accepted that it would not be possible to replicate its on-campus experience exactly but looked at ways to use technology to continue offering effective and engaging teaching and learning.
The DKU team was very concerned about treating students equitably. But with every student facing a different situation, this required trade-offs such as the amount of synchronous versus asynchronous teaching.
Zoom allows for synchronous video conferencing but there were concerns about relying excessively on synchronous meetings due to the varied time zones across which faculty and students were located.
Coordinating synchronous meetings would have been extremely difficult and would have made universal participation challenging. There were concerns some students might not have access to the required internet services and that equitable access would be harder with synchronous classes.
So, asynchronous elements were given particular attention.
But faculty worried that asynchronous work might be more isolating and believed more synchronous interactions would improve the student experience.
This was a trade-off and may have resulted in a different decision if the students had been less geographically dispersed and had more consistent internet access.
Lessons on technology and pedagogy decisions
Students and faculty wanted more ways to engage and connect with each other.
It was found improvements in technologies, including the VPN, enabled more students to have access to the tools needed for synchronous instruction.
Students were therefore encouraged, on returning for the fourth semester, to participate in live sessions. But if they could not make it live and watched it later, there would be no grading penalty.
As students reported challenges with motivation, faculty examined their pedagogy and realised the limitations of some practices, including lectures online, that allow for no immediate engagement with students. In response, staff looked to replace long lectures with more digestible teaching structures and seminars.
Helping the faculty get ready
To help faculty prepare, the support team started with their learning objectives for their courses. As a young institution, DKU had an advantage – all syllabi were standardised and courses were developed with an emphasis on course design to accomplish specific learning objectives.
Moving online didn’t mean designing a new course but finding different ways to meet the learning objectives.
Faculty were already comfortable with backwards course design – working from learning objectives to course structure – having received training in it when joining DKU through a learning innovation fellowship programme.
DKU implemented a syllabus approval process – which would perhaps be difficult to put in place at more traditional institutions – that focused on embedding learning objectives and active learning into courses. The support team also worked with faculty on getting things started in the first few weeks, so the task would not seem insurmountable. With everyone kept informed via Sakai, faculty had one place to go for information, avoiding a constant deluge of emails.
A discussion forum was set up to encourage faculty to post questions, get help and share anything they wanted to with colleagues.
In using Sakai to communicate early on, faculty who were less familiar with the learning management system got to know it, preparing them to use it for their classes.
To help faculty prepare, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) at DKU ran webinars on topics including:
Best practices for communication
Interaction and building community online
Effective online class sessions with Zoom
Building online community: student engagement with content, instructors and peers.
Faculty assistance for specific needs became an issue as well. A system was set up for submitting a help request, and the tech team triaged the responses, as well as sharing the information more broadly.
Given the time-zone challenges, it was important to have help available 24/7. With staff at Duke University in North Carolina and DKU located on opposite sides of the world, this proved relatively simple. The 24/7 assistance was important because small problems for individual faculty or students could prevent them participating.
Helping the students get ready
DKU held webinars for students and their families so that they could understand how the university was moving forward.
This allowed students to ask questions and hear from other students about their concerns. It was an efficient way of communicating and reassuring students about the options going forward.
The Sakai site was again the repository for all information and announcements. It included detailed how-to guides on using various tools, links to IT support, tips for taking online courses and a forum for students to ask questions and troubleshoot.
As at any residential university, academic courses are just one part of the educational experience. DKU worked to make other services available online as well.
DKU worked to make services associated with student well-being available away from campus.
For mental health support, the counselling team offered online individual sessions as well as group Zoom sessions.
Physical education classes such as synchronous yoga, Pilates, t’ai chi, boxing and other workout sessions continued online.
Faculty office hours
Moving faculty office hours online was a simple adjustment. Each faculty member holds two hours of office hours online each week.
Zoom rooms were created for peer support. The rooms were open 24/7 so students could drop in and help each other. There were set times when the rooms were staffed. The writing centre also had individual appointments for students.
Given the unique circumstances, the administration decided to be as accommodating as possible to individual requests. Students have been given more flexibility to drop courses or take on additional coursework. For some students, extra work was not just manageable but helped stave off boredom; others were granted leaves of absence, with little financial or academic penalty, when the change from in-person to online did not work for them.
Student and faculty surveys
While careful not to create additional work for faculty and students, DKU has surveyed both to evaluate how the transition to online has worked and identify areas for attention going forward.
During any crisis, communication is always key. There are many channels, and not everyone needs to know everything. The most important thing is to coordinate the communications that are taking place and make it extremely easy for all parties to find the information they need.
Creating a high-level emergency task force is helpful with one person put in charge of coordinating communications. They must not be a bottleneck. Instead, they must make sure someone is paying attention to the overall communications at any one time.
Getting students the resources they need
Because students and faculty had left campus for a holiday, many did not have their computers or course materials with them. Everyone could communicate thanks to smart phones, and DKU worked to make sure everyone had access to computers. This involved mailing laptops to some students. Not all students had access to adequate internet services at home, so DKU made financial arrangements to supplement services for students who needed this.
Access to the online program requires a VPN, which slows down internet access. This made the use of some resources, such as multimedia, more difficult.
There have been challenges for instructors who assigned printed course materials and books since some students didn’t take them on holiday. Some electronic content could not be accessed due to licensing limitations, although the publishers have tended to be liberal about allowing access.
Faculty have sought materials that could be accessed online, if not already available through the LMS. Coursera made all its 4,000 courses available to all DKU students and faculty. Faculty could use modules, videos or any other materials for their online courses.
Students who wanted to could also take Coursera courses as a way of continuing to learn while at home. While these were not credit bearing at DKU, they gave students an opportunity to keep learning on their own.
Evaluation online was challenging with closed-book exams creating academic-integrity issues not faced with in-class exams.
Faculty responded in a variety of ways, from writing closed-book exams that were timed and designed so that using course materials wouldn’t help much to offering open-book exams and using evaluation methods that involved writing more and submitting materials.
Class participation is also difficult to weight in important ways when access to video is differentially available. Going forward, and with more time to prepare, DKU has investigated invigilating options for high-stakes exams.
Faculty teaching subjects reliant on labs found it more difficult to accomplish learning objectives online, particularly in the short term. With time, investment has been planned in online versions of labs to accomplish similar objectives to in-person labs. One solution involved focusing on coursework and later doing the labs when back on campus. This was not ideal, but some science courses were already taught this way and it allowed students to continue their learning and not postpone these courses.
Student isolation and motivation
Students reported that it was difficult to concentrate on the course materials. It was not unexpected the situation would cause stress for the students. They had hoped to be on campus with faculty and peers but instead were at home and isolated.
DKU faculty were not just dealing with moving to an online format but dealing with their students finding themselves in a stressful situation – for some, a crisis. Otherwise strong and motivated students were finding engagement difficult. Faculty and support teams worked to help students engage by increasing their responsibilities for the classes and increasing peer-to-peer interaction.
Kevin Guthrie, Catharine Bond Hill, Martin Kurzweil, Cindy Le co-authored the case study for Ithaka S+R, part of Ithaka, a not-for-profit organisation that works to advance and preserve knowledge and to improve teaching and learning through the use of digital technologies. This case study was adapted from the original feature published by Ithaka S+R.