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Remote Possibility

Remote Possibility

7 days. 69,525 students. 6,600 new courses. How UCF leaned on more than two decades of online learning expertise to shift the entire university to remote learning.

Summer 2020 | By Maureen Harmon

On Jan. 21, 2020, the state of Washington identified “patient zero” — the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States. By early March, Washington claimed the most cases in the country, and the University of Washington moved all its classes online after a staff member off campus tested positive.

Tom Cavanagh was paying attention. The vice provost for digital learning at UCF had begun monitoring early on what UW — a public research university similar to UCF but with nearly 20,000 fewer students — would do.

“They were the first university to make that decision,” says Cavanagh. “And that’s the one that got our attention.”

Cavanagh could see the coming tide. Should COVID-19 begin an eastward creep — and there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t, having first been identified in China before moving through Europe and into the states — more than 69,500 UCF students would be finishing the semester from home. He gathered his team, and they worked to create a website with resources for faculty should UCF need to follow UW’s lead as the virus spread through the U.S. “The plan was to build a website and just keep it offline,” says Cavanagh. “And then should something happen, we would press the button and make it go live.”

But the tide came quickly. “By the time we finished the website, we were already pushing it live — maybe a little sooner than we would have been comfortable with — because the Board of Governors had made a decision while we were on spring break to go into a remote instructional mode,” Cavanagh says.

The Board of Governors’ announcement came on March 11, only five days after UW made its decision. Remote learning at UCF was set to begin on March 18. That meant the team that usually supports 200,000 credit hours for online learners had to be ready to support 700,000 credit hours — or an additional 6,600 courses — in about a week. The website couldn’t launch soon enough.

“Clearly, we’ve had to scramble, but we had all the pieces in place. We knew you had to have student support. We knew you had to put in place, immediately, all kinds of support mechanisms for a large population of faculty to make this rapid transition.”
Charles Dziuban, director of UCF's Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness

But Cavanagh and his group had history in their corner. With more than two decades of embracing online learning, and 87 percent of UCF students having taken at least one online or blended course in 2019–20, moving students out of the classroom and onto the internet wasn’t uncharted territory. UCF dove headfirst into an area it had been perfecting for 24 years.

That website quickly became two: “Keep Teaching,” a website for faculty with workshops, lectures and tips for getting a traditional class off the ground online; and “Keep Learning” for students, with links to information about proctored exams, announcements and notifications, and guides to Zoom.

UCF was simply better prepared than schools that have bucked the online learning movement, says Charles Dziuban, director of UCF’s Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness.

“Clearly, we’ve had to scramble,” Dziuban says, “but we had all the pieces in place. We knew you had to have student support. We knew you had to put in place, immediately, all kinds of support mechanisms for a large population of faculty to make this rapid transition.”

Imagine, he says, trying to pull this feat together with no online learning background or data — information that UCF has been collecting for years. “The trauma of it — of really coming to terms with the fact that you have to do this from scratch, and you really do not have the infrastructure in place. That’s the difference between what UCF has done and what other institutions are grappling with,” says Dziuban. “To be sure, other schools have done a phenomenal piece of work in getting this done. But it’s not the same.”

Remote learning at UCF was set to begin on March 18. That meant the team that usually supports 200,000 credit hours for online learners had to be ready to support 700,000 credit hours — or an additional 6,600 courses — in about a week.

That’s not to say it was easy. Or that UCF’s faculty, students and staff didn’t face challenges. But UCF knew, from experience, that it could be done and that it could be done well. After all, UCF had seasoned online faculty, online course designers, tech experts and an entire center — the Center for Distributed Learning with its nearly 90 employees — ready to bring the rest of the university on board this ship that had no choice but to sail.

Throughout March and April, the center handled 692 individual faculty consultations; nearly 1,400 faculty tuned in for Zoom training; more than 2,500 watched YouTube training videos created to assist them in converting their traditional courses to an online learning environment; and the Keep Teaching website brought in nearly 10,000 views.

Faculty members were encouraged to be flexible and creative. And the professors took that to heart. Dissection of a honeybee over Zoom. Kitchen-safe lab experiments next to the home microwave. A faculty member tackling complex data and statistical problems on her glass shower door with a dry-erase marker. Young entrepreneurs pitching ideas to corporate partners in video calls. Dance performances in the garage. It all just kept moving forward.

For Serena Rojas, a student in the Rosen College of Hospitality Management, being at home in her own kitchen worked just fine for her. Rojas, who lives two hours from campus, isn’t new to online learning. She is a typical UCF mixed mode — or blended — learner, taking about four courses online each year so she can work while earning her degree.

“I have the comfort of cooking in my own home with my tools,” says Rojas. “I also got to cook what I enjoy eating.” Rojas coordinated her cooking assignments with her parents, so they wouldn’t overlap in the kitchen. She even incorporated her father’s fried rice recipe into an assignment, uploading images of her dish to show the final product and creative plating.

The toughest part? Self-evaluation. Without a chef at her side, Rojas had to get real honest about what she did right and where she could have been better. “I had to understand this is what I did well, and this is what I didn’t do well,” says Rojas. The perks? Mom’s input. “When I was plating some of the stuff, my mom was like, ‘Let me get out the nice plates.’ ”


Cavanagh wants to be clear here: There is a big difference between the online learning models that UCF has embraced over the last 24 years and remote learning — courses that were originally scheduled to be classroom, hybrid or primarily distance learning but were provided remotely due to the coronavirus. UCF’s structured online learning model requires faculty to participate in 10 weeks — or a minimum of 80 hours — of training and to work with course designers and instructional designers who help them create a valuable online learning experience for their students. Remote learning? That’s a different beast built out of necessity. That’s where shower door dry-erase boards and Zoom lectures come in.

“Students have told us, time and time again, of this online learning environment, ‘You’re making education more convenient. You’re reducing the logistical demands for getting an education. You’re increasing my learning flexibility’ … We’re committed to that.”
Charles Dziuban

One thing the two have in common is access. That’s how the online model blossomed at UCF, now considered an expert institution when it comes to online learning. U.S. News & World Report ranks UCF among the top 20 schools for an online degree, and the Center for Distributed Learning has been racking up awards for its work since 2003, including a Digital Learning Innovation Award from the Online Learning Consortium in 2018.

“UCF leadership has been committed to extending this opportunity for students to continue their education outside the purview of the traditional university,” says Dziuban of the move to embrace online learning back in 1996. “They were responding to the needs of new lifestyles of students who are working; students who are underserved; students who have all kinds of demands on them, for whom it would be burdensome to make that commitment to be full time on campus.”

Right now, access is defined by terms mandated by state governments, but Cavanagh also points to students with families and full-time jobs who want to further their education. And there’s also a generation of upcoming students who are used to interacting, socializing and working online. And as he looks to the future, access may quickly encompass students who want to be close to home or who want the option of avoiding crowded spaces in a post-pandemic world.

For people like Dziuban, it will be fascinating to watch COVID-19’s impact on the online learning space — even after a vaccine is created to combat the coronavirus. “Students have told us, time and time again, of this online learning environment, ‘You’re making education more convenient,’ ” says Dziuban. ” ‘You’re reducing the logistical demands for getting an education. You’re increasing my learning flexibility, and you’re creating for me online technology to enhance learning. You’re creating an extended learning environment for me.’ We’re committed to that.”

That commitment means resources put toward course development and structure (it takes much more than a Zoom account to deliver a course specifically designed for the online environment) and consistent evaluation and assessment. All these tools were put in place at UCF through the Division of Digital Learning as well as the Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness. Since 1996, Dziuban says that students at UCF have consistently reported that they experience increased interaction in their online classes and that the quality of that interaction empowers their learning. Students who engage in blended learning classes (a combination of face to face and online) achieve success (a grade of C or higher) at a 3 to 4 percent increased rate over other course modalities. And digital courses produce success rates comparable to face-to-face offerings for women and minorities.

Cavanagh predicts that faculty members’ experience over the last several months will increase their interest in teaching online — even for those who once believed a quality education could only take place in a physical classroom or lab. Through remote learning, they now have seen only a glimpse of what’s possible in a true, fully designed online course.

“We have seen demand for training of faculty to teach our regular online courses just explode,” says Cavanagh. “Typically, our training courses hold about 40 people, and we do that three times a year through our flagship faculty preparation program. We have almost 200 requests for this summer alone already.”

Data from UCF has long supported students’ demand for online opportunities even before the public health crisis. Distance learning has fueled UCF’s growth over the past several years with online and blended courses accounting for half of all student credit hours during the 2019–20 academic year.

Demand for faculty training in online instruction has risen 150%

In addition, the exposure to new online learning tools — though necessary right now — will likely stick around.

“Whenever we’ve put faculty through faculty development, have them teach online, and expose them to some of these educational tools and technologies — and they get used to using them — it fundamentally changes the way they teach face to face. They don’t abandon those electronic tools in a face-to-face environment completely,” says Cavanagh. “So I can see faculty that go back to being face-to-face instructors, still incorporating methods of online learning in their courses where they might use the learning management system to post announcements or share their syllabus or use Zoom to bring in a guest speaker. We may have had kind of a high watermark in demand for online learning, but I don’t think the water level is going to settle back to where it was before.”

As has been the case for years in the online learning world, UCF will watch, learn and grow from the remote learning experience — already continuing through the summer.

“We have been surveying both faculty and students through this period, asking faculty members, ‘How did it go? What were the pain points? What were the positives? What is needed for you to ramp up and make your instructional and learning lives better? Having done this, what can we learn?’ ” says Dziuban. “Because the reality is, we have no idea what’s coming — but we’ll be ready for it.”