By Matthew Rascoff
In recent months, almost every university in the world has shifted to emergency remote teaching—a kind of “first aid” for higher education in a pandemic.
When the Chinese government closed all higher education institutions in early February, Duke Kunshan University (DKU) in Kunshan, China, was among the first universities to make this switch.
A sister to Duke University in North Carolina, DKU is a startup institution with about 600 undergraduates in two classes. A joint venture with Wuhan University, DKU faced an enormous challenge in its crisis response.
How Duke Kunshan University adapted
Under normal circumstances, our Online Duke team would spend months building an online course using the principles of backward design. In the midst of a public health crisis, though, we didn’t have time to do this.
Over three weeks in February, we managed to transfer Duke Kunshan’s courses to remote delivery. That turned out to be an early drill for an even greater challenge that Duke and thousands of other educational institutions would face the following month, as the Covid-19 epidemic spread to the United States. In support of this effort, Duke’s Learning Innovation team and DKU’s Center for Teaching and Learning quickly partnered with Coursera to implement the Coursera for Campus platform for DKU.
Emergency remote teaching—not online learning
We call what we’ve been doing the past few months “emergency remote teaching” because it doesn’t represent the full potential of online learning. We accelerated processes that would usually be more deliberate and collaborative.
As we continue to adapt, university leaders should be careful about how we frame this work for our communities. We don’t want to set the online learning world back and risk a backlash by letting faculty think this is what online learning really is.
Five lessons from transitioning to emergency remote teaching
Still, this massive worldwide challenge can help pave the way for more robust, flexible teaching models. We should all be taking notes as we go through this transition together.
Here are five things we have learned so far at Duke that may help colleagues facing similar crises.
- Over-communicate with stakeholders. We built three websites—one each for faculty, students, and staff—to provide information about Duke’s transition. We wanted each group to have a place where they could get the information they needed.
- Give clear guidance. Our usual mode of engaging with instructors is consultative. In this case, we were more prescriptive. There wasn’t time to develop collaborative solutions, and instructors were under so much stress that they appreciated straightforward steps.
- Help instructors curate content. At Duke Kunshan, we’re using the Coursera for Campus platform to accelerate the development of courses and to offer co-curricular learning experiences that complement courses. We encourage faculty to repurpose modular content—sometimes called “courseware”—from trusted sources such as Coursera for Campus.
- Give students opportunities for self-directed learning. At Duke Kunshan, we’ve opened the whole Coursera for Campus catalog, which consists of 3,800 courses, and we’re seeing a lot of self-motivated learning across the disciplines. At Duke, thousands of students have signed up for Coursera for Duke, with access to Duke faculty-created courses.
- Mix synchronous and asynchronous learning experiences. Because our students are located all over the world, we can’t rely entirely on live sessions. We record live sessions and share them with students who can’t participate.
These approaches got our faculty and us through the spring. Over the coming months, though, higher education must move beyond emergency remote teaching. We have to figure out how to scale learning design to offer better learning experiences than what was possible this spring. And we have to do this for millions of students worldwide.
The Duke Learning Innovation team is hard at work on this project, which we are calling Flexible Teaching. We look forward to sharing what we develop with the Coursera community and the wider world.
The occurrence of a public health crisis, even those of this magnitude, is predictable. We don’t know how this one will end and what form the next one may take. But there are surely more challenges coming for higher education. To be better prepared, and to make our institutions more resilient to inevitable shocks, colleges and universities need to be technologically adept, agile, and resourceful.
For more lessons from Duke’s transition to remote teaching, like how to motivate your team or the importance of triage and feedback loops, tune into this on-demand webinar: Education and coronavirus: Practical steps for taking learning online.
Matthew Rascoff is Associate Vice Provost for Digital Education and Innovation at Duke University.3