UW Information Technology

May 28, 2020

Shifting thousands to remote classes at breakneck speed

 Team working by group video call. Pc screen view six people.
The UW had a scant few days to prepare to go fully online — a massive undertaking that took intense collaboration.

By Ignacio Lobos

When tens of thousands of students and faculty switched to remote classes in March to help curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the teams that support the teaching and learning experience worked at breakneck speed to smooth the transition.

The UW was at the epicenter of the first reported cases of coronavirus infection and became the first major University to go fully online, an unprecedented move quickly followed by other universities across the U.S.

What happened was far from easy, or even ideal for the 60,000 students and several thousand faculty members across three campuses. The move came after the first announced case at UW, and after consultation with public health officials and in an abundance of caution to protect our University community. The governor shortly afterwards issued school closures across the state, followed by his Stay Home, Stay Safe order banning gatherings and closing many businesses.

To support the University’s transition to remote learning, staff in the Office of the Provost’s Academic Technologies (AT), Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), and UW-IT’s Academic Experience Design & Delivery (AXDD) teams assembled a plan and a path — in about a week’s time.

If I had to come up with a word that explains what we have all been going through, it’s resiliency. – Jason Smith, AT Multimedia Consulting Lead

“It really shows the resiliency of our faculty and students to be able to adjust like this under so much pressure. It wasn’t easy, but they’re teaching online, and we are all so honored to be a part of that, and to be able to support that work with our partners,” Smith said.

But even while most academic courses were able to be offered remotely spring quarter, the University’s decision to move fully online wasn’t without repercussions. Some students withdrew and others have not been satisfied with remote learning. Some faculty members have struggled with moving their classes online.

But most are adapting to remote learning on a massive scale, signaling that the UW won’t allow imposed isolation to get in the way of its commitment to education and student success.

Making critical decisions on the run

The sudden crisis showed just how critical to instruction the UW’s core enterprise-wide online teaching and learning tools have become since they were acquired and deployed over the past several years.

While their use had increased steadily among faculty and students, Panopto lecture capture and Canvas, the UW’s learning management system, had not been universally adopted. That is, until the virus hit. The numbers of people who transitioned to Panopto and Canvas have been staggering.

So, too, has been the adoption of the Zoom video conferencing platform, which has grown exponentially thanks to the herculean efforts of the teams in AXDD and AT to make Zoom Pro freely available to all students, faculty and staff at the UW.

Increase in Zoom usage by UW users over 3 quarters
Autumn 2019
(Oct 1 – Dec 31)
Winter 2020
(Jan 1 – Mar 29)
Spring 2020
(Mar 30 – May 15)
Meetings hosted 58K 188K 513K
Hours of meetings 264K 906K 2.4 Million
Meeting participants 355K 1.2 Million 4.4 Million
Zoom hosts 22K 60K 94K

Other tools were also added to the mix. AXDD partnered with CTL to quickly search and adopt a remote proctoring service before spring quarter’s midterms, choosing Proctorio.

The rolling out of Zoom as an enterprise solution didn’t come without problems. The tool has been criticized for being too lax on security, and some classes have reported serious cases of “zoombombing,” intrusions by unauthorized people who have disrupted the learning experience.

AXDD and AT staff responded to needs and concerns from UW users with a series of updates to make Zoom safer for teaching and learning. They collaborated with Zoom to implement enhanced security and lock down certain features to prevent intrusion from unwanted players. They also worked with the UW Privacy Office to set up policies and guidelines for use of Zoom as a teaching tool.

“Our position on the Internet2 Advisory Board for Zoom allows us unique leverage to improve the fit of Zoom for the UW and higher education in general,” said Tom Lewis, Director of AXDD. Internet2 is a non-profit organization that helps leaders in research and education sort through some of today’s most pressing technology challenges.

Seats on the Internet2 Advisory Boards for Canvas and Panopto have proven similarly useful for making sure UW’s needs are met. These partnerships not only benefit our University community, but universities around the country facing the same issues.

Currently, AXDD is working with Zoom and Panopto to determine if it’s possible to more seamlessly integrate these tools, and it’s collaborating with other UW-IT units to fast-track use of Microsoft Teams to meet growing demand for online collaboration tools.

Helping faculty and students master new and established tools is a 24/7 effort

Calls to AT for help with these tools flooded in from faculty and students, with requests jumping 150 percent overnight. At one point, the team found it impossible to answer all the phone calls and switched to email so they could respond faster.

We were getting all kinds of questions, from ‘How do I access Canvas?’ to ‘How do I deal with a complicated grading structure in Canvas?’ — El Schofield, AT Senior Computing Specialist

“Some instructors had never opened these tools before,” Schofield said.

The AT team expanded office hours and offered workshops on Panopto, Canvas and Zoom.

“The AT team has been efficient and effective,” said Laura Baldwin, AXDD Service Manager. “They have been working long hours, responding to more than double the typical number of support requests, and they deserve a lot of credit for all the work they have done to help faculty with the transition to online learning.”

Every weekday morning, AXDD and AT staff have a 30-minute “stand-up” meeting, where they triage current support issues, trends in usage, and unmet needs, crafting an action plan for the day. Lewis said these daily meetings have allowed great agility and coherence in responding to teaching and learning needs that evolve daily.

AXDD and AT team members also spent countless hours producing training materials for existing tools and new tools. After AXDD adopted Proctorio before the quarter’s midterms, in response to requests from faculty, students, and deans for a remote exam proctoring service, they partnered with CTL and the Faculty Council on Teaching and Learning to craft best practices for its use.

AXDD also helped redesign CTL’s web pages for teaching remotely and build a central resource for instructors for teaching online. UW-IT is also now exploring the use of predictive analytics to help UW partners identify students who may be having trouble during the shift to remote teaching and learning.

Smith said AXDD’s contributions have been key to moving people online, pointing to Heidi Stahl, a web information specialist, as pivotal in helping craft user guides for tools such as Zoom.

We have people from Universities across the country calling us about using the information we offer in IT Connect. – Jason Smith

“Heidi has been a tremendous asset to the team,” Smith said. “We have people from Universities across the country calling us about using the information we offer in IT Connect. We have built a rich library of resources in IT Connect, and some of the resources for Zoom we added in record time.”

Stahl’s contributions serve as a reminder that support teams across the University work toward a shared goal: to advance the teaching and learning experience.

“We have always had a tight relationship with AXDD,” said Dave Coffey, AT Instructional Technologist. “This experience has strengthened our relationship, and made us even more efficient. Without us working together, moving everyone online would have been an extremely difficult challenge.”

It has been an exhausting, often emotional time, as UW staff members have faced challenge after challenge to keep everyone collaborating online.

“True learning is happening with our students,” Schofield said, “and it’s happening online in very challenging times. It’s an honor to get to do this work, to continue to collaborate to support our faculty and their students. It’s what motivates us and keeps us going.”