Online Overnight

Coronavirus containment measures have caused schools to switch many classes from face-to-face to virtual—often in a matter of days. What do administrators and faculty need to know to make the switch?

Online Overnight

Denise Loyd, associate professor of business administration at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, teaches in one of the school’s online studios. (Photo courtesy of Gies College of Business)


AS THE COVID-19 coronavirus swept around the world over the past few months, universities in every country began shutting down campuses and moving to virtual classrooms. For many professors, teaching online is a new experience that they never expected to have to master so quickly. For tips on what they should keep in mind as they make the transition, BizEd talked to representatives at two schools that recently made relatively rapid investments in in online teaching—and one that has had a significant virtual presence for decades.

The Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign announced in early 2019 that it would discontinue its full-time in-person MBA to concentrate its resources on delivering the program online. Here, dean Jeffrey Brown and associate dean Brooke Elliott share what they learned from the changeover.

At ESMT Berlin in Germany, the school went from having no online presence to launching a blended program with 80 percent of its classes being delivered online, all within one year. Nick Barniville, associate dean of degree programs and director of the EdTech Lab, draws lessons from the school’s transition.

The Kelley School of Business at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, has offered MBA classes online since 1999. Today, Kelley Direct has about 2,000 students in its online programs at any given time, says Ramesh Venkataraman, associate dean for information and instructional technologies and chair of Kelley Direct MBA and MS Programs. He offers insights from the school’s wealth of experience.

While they all think that—with the right tools and sufficient support—faculty can make the rapid response to virtual teaching, they’re also looking ahead to what might play out once the crisis is over. “Administrators shouldn’t judge the quality or potential of online education generally by some of the less-than-desirable experiences they will have over the next few months,” says Brown. “With the appropriate investments, they can deliver a super high-quality experience for faculty and students, but that doesn’t happen overnight.”

But when the move does happen overnight? Here, they answer our questions about how schools can make the transition as seamlessly as possible.

What’s the biggest challenge for schools moving classes online very quickly?

Barniville: The current situation is more about crisis management than moving to online education in general, so the biggest challenge for schools will be communicating with students to explain what they’re doing. I think the important thing will be for schools to engage with the student body before they transition to online. They should make this a community action rather than a one-sided decision. The more students are involved, the more likely it is schools will have buy-in for whatever decision administrators make. The students will let them know what’s working and what isn’t, as long as schools are very clear in communicating about what’s in their power to achieve.


"Many students have never learned online before—or if they have, they might have learned through YouTube or social media channels. Clear communication is a must."      —Brooke Elliott, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign


Elliott: Faculty and administrators should envision the students’ perspective. Many students have never learned online before—or if they have, they might have learned through YouTube or social media channels. Clear communication is a must.

Further, like many of us, students likely have never faced this experience before. So, faculty should be prepared to listen to students’ concerns and offer them the opportunity to be involved in developing and improving the school’s approach to teaching and learning.

Venkataraman: From an emergency perspective, the simplest thing schools can do is figure out a way to get students access to classroom content. While it seems complicated, going online in an emergency really just requires creating the minimum viable product, or MVP. Faculty just need to go online, learn how to use videoconferencing tools, teach the class, and plan a few questions ahead of time so they can force people to interact. Today’s technology tools are so good and the tools that are available are so straightforward. It won’t be that bad.

What do faculty need to understand about the difference between teaching in person and online?

Barniville: Interactivity is a big challenge. It’s not difficult to show a talking head and a PowerPoint presentation online, but it takes some practice to convert live sessions into interactive synchronous sessions online. Faculty need to rethink the structure of their teaching plans to ensure students are engaged.

Venkataraman: The most important thing I’ve learned is that you can’t say, “Does anybody have any questions?” Even in a regular classroom, that question will get you some blank looks. Faculty must have planned interventions that will force students to interact. The easiest way is to just say, “Be prepared, because I will cold call,” or to put students in small breakout rooms and ask them to report back.


“Delivering content through an online medium requires a different approach than face-to-face. The key is for faculty not to assume they can take their standard lecture notes and deliver them through a screen."                   — Jeffrey Brown of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign


Brown: Delivering content through an online medium requires a different approach than face-to-face. The key is for faculty not to assume they can take their standard lecture notes and deliver them through a screen. They really need additional preparation to communicate effectively through this medium. Think of it this way: Hollywood and stage theaters can tell the same story, but they use different tools and approaches to take advantage of their specific mediums.

When we launched our online degree program more than four years ago, we had to rethink everything from how to explain a concept to how to do grading and assessment. We made investments, not just in technology, but in the human capital required to support this approach

What kind of technology should a school use to move online?

Brown: At the Gies College of Business, we use Coursera for hosting MOOC content, Zoom for hosting synchronous live sessions, and Blackboard for course management. As we move our entire MBA program online, we will supplement our studio capacity with broadcasts from our classrooms and even from the offices and homes of some faculty. But given the speed with which schools need to switch over right now, I would suggest schools use whichever technology they already have available and with which faculty are comfortable.

Elliott: There is significant technology that can facilitate online learning. For instance, over Zoom, people can chat, conduct polls, and head to breakout rooms. But I would recommend growing into the use of technology—that is, resist the urge to adopt everything at once. Keep it simple early on, and try out features over time.

Barniville: There are so many providers on the market offering various products. I would suggest that schools build intelligent courses on their current technology platforms while integrating synchronous teaching technology such as Zoom. Tools like Zoom even make it possible to quickly subdivide large groups into preassigned or randomized breakout groups. Faculty and administrators can spend a day mastering the functionality of the new technology, and then start delivering.


"People have been focusing on the live videoconferencing tools, but they can do a lot more by adjusting the way their courses are taught over the learning management system."   — Ramesh Venkataraman of Indiana University


Venkataraman: People have been focusing on the live videoconferencing tools—such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts—but they can do a lot more by adjusting the way their courses are taught over the learning management system. There are probably features within Canvas or Blackboard that faculty haven’t used, so they can dig deeper to learn how to run timed online quizzes, for instance. They also will use the LMS to share recordings with students. At IU, we use a video platform called Kaltura, which can be thought of as YouTube behind a firewall. Faculty can make recordings, store them on Kaltura, and link to it on the LMS.

Faculty also have to think about what technology they will use for the recordings themselves, such as Camtasia. My advice is for them to not try to be perfect in the recording. If they make an error, correct themselves as they would in the classroom. Otherwise, they’ll spend all their time trying to edit the videos to make them look like news productions. That should wait until they’re out of emergency mode.

Finally, faculty need to use technology that will get students to interact with each other. At Kelley Direct, we often allow students to figure it out on their own, but faculty should be ready to suggest tools, such as Slack, Google Docs, or shared drive. I’m not 100 percent sure faculty are thinking about this dimension—they’re all so wrapped up in thinking about going online themselves

What parts of switching to online are more likely to be difficult for faculty?

Brown: Faculty are used to teaching solo. In our world, most of the online teaching is achieved through a team approach, as we have instructional designers and videographers involved. That will not be possible for every class moving online during this period, so faculty will have to get comfortable with the technology themselves. Faculty need to expect that they will receive more student questions by email; they might consider using online discussion boards as well. And they need to think about how they will do grading and assessment. Nearly every aspect of teaching online requires a different approach than face-to-face teaching.

How can schools support their faculty as they make the transition?

Barniville: It helps if the school can give faculty tips about how to interact with students online, how to take polls, how to make sure students are actively listening, and where to position the camera and the microphone. We have a guide to teaching online that takes faculty quickly through the different things they need to consider.

Brown: Schools should immediately set up a mechanism for instructors to share with one another what works and what does not. In this space, there is enormous “learning by doing,” and it is ideal if an instructor can learn from others. Schools can share best practices, encourage faculty to talk with each other about what does and does not work, and recognize that results will differ by faculty member and subject matter. Schools must provide faculty with the resources that will help them be more effective.

And administrators must be patient. This will not be an easy transition, and some faculty will take longer than others to get comfortable.

Venkataraman: Schools can offer top-down support by ramping up training from the IT group or the learning technologies group, or by setting up an IT help desk to answer basic questions. At IU, we pointed faculty to the resources we already had at the campus level, and then we created our own. We also had regular sessions with faculty in which we answered their questions.

But bottom-up resources have also been developed organically by a lot of our departments during this crisis. They’ve created self-help groups in which those who regularly teach online can instruct the others. I’m actually looking forward to what comes out of all these groups, because they’ll probably recommend tools I’ve never even used. People are creative and resourceful.

What if schools find it difficult to quickly generate online content?

Brown: They don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Schools like Illinois have a huge amount of professionally produced, high-quality content on Coursera that is available for other institutions to use.

Barniville: At ESMT Berlin, we’re part of the Future of Management Education (FOME) group, an alliance of business schools built around a shared technology platform. During this crisis, we’re going to be using a lot more courses that have been designed by our FOME partners. Through our platform, we can very easily identify courses that other schools have created, then cut and paste them into our own offerings. We can also rebrand the course as one of our own by changing the background and labeling the professor as “visiting faculty.”

What advice would you give for schools that decide, once the crisis is past, that they want to make online a bigger part of their portfolio?

Venkataraman: The technology is the easy part. To keep courses online on a consistent basis, faculty will need to utilize experts who can explain how to structure the online experience for maximum effectiveness. This requires engaging students both asynchronously and in live sessions.

For instance, once faculty decide to deliver asynchronous content through video recordings, they have to learn how to break one-hour lectures into smaller, distinguishable chunks of five to seven minutes. They have to learn how to create interactions with students who are not in a live classroom. Instructional designers can show them how to identify each topic they’re covering, the learning outcome they want for each topic, and what kind of assessment to do at the end of each short video.

This is a flipped classroom model, and the good news is that people who are used to flipped classrooms are probably not going to have much trouble going online.

Barniville: Long-term, schools need to consider what pedagogical approach they want to take to online teaching, because they have to build courses very differently. In the courses we’ve created specifically for online, everything is delivered in short chunks based around different modes of interactivity. The instructor might have students do something, then watch something, then read something, then interact with each other, and it’s all designed to keep the student engaged.

That kind of learning journey needs to be designed by people who know what they’re doing, and that’s not necessarily faculty. So, long-term, schools need to build expertise in instructional design and learn to build courses to achieve varying objectives—which is very different than doing things on the fly in a crisis.

Schools also would need to consider whether to build the technology themselves, work with a full-service online program manager such as Coursera, or join a consortium like FOME. But I don’t think that these sorts of decisions can be made on the fly.

Brown: Administrators need to recognize that what they do in the short run to address this emergency situation is unlikely to be the best path to a longer-term sustainable program. Over the past four years, we have invested substantial resources into e-learning, IT, and physical facilities to support online education. What we have built is quite different than just throwing faculty and students in front of a monitor and saying “go.”

Do you think the shift to online will be permanent, or that schools will revert to their traditional models once the crisis is over?

Venkataraman: I think much like the pandemic, we can’t predict what will happen. I expect it will go one of two ways. A group of schools, or individual units, will have a good experience. They’ll tell the deans, “If you decide to move more programming online, I will support you.” This might be an opportunity for deans who wanted to go online but had faced resistance from faculty. Another group will say, “I am never, never going online again.” It’s going to be 50-50.

But I do think, after this, the move to flipped classrooms will be accelerated. Once faculty have recorded all these good videos, they’ll say, “Next time I teach face-to-face, I’m going to tell the class, ‘Go watch these videos so I don’t have to talk about Porter’s Five Forces for the hundred-and-fifty-thousandth time.’” That will be the most positive outcome, because faculty will realize they can record lectures and use the classroom for interactive learning.

Barniville: I don’t think we’ll go back to where we were, because I think people will see how beneficial it can be to put some parts of education into online forms. I also think students will start demanding more online offerings.


“I think what’s stopped many schools from moving online before this is that they didn’t believe they could do it. Once they figure out it’s doable, then it’s just a matter of continuously improving delivery.”   — Nick Barniville of ESMT Berlin


I think what’s stopped many schools from moving online before this is that they didn’t believe they could do it. Once they figure out it’s doable, then it’s just a matter of continuously improving delivery.

I think the education industry was slow in terms of digital disruption, and this crisis will just accelerate the pace. But this will be a positive development for learners. They will be able to have more adaptive journeys based on their own behaviors, and their face-to-face learning will be achieved in a way that’s more efficient and respectful of their time.

Any final advice?

Elliott: Be patient—with yourself, with students, and with the process.