When Temple University’s Japan campus announced it would move its classes online for two weeks in late February, the university’s Information Technology Services began working on a plan: how to move key functions of the nearly 40,000-student university online.
“The ITS team came together and said, ‘This is coming here. We have to be ready,” said Cindy Leavitt, the university’s chief information officer.
The virus did arrive and spread in the U.S. With little warning, COVID-19 cases in the country ballooned from less than ten new cases a day in early March to more than 20,000 new cases a day by the end of the month, according to the Center for Disease Control and Preventions. Colleges scrambled to move classes online during this time to slow the spread of the virus, Inside Higher Ed reported.
On March 11, Temple announced it would follow suit and move classes online beginning the following week, sending students home amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That gave us about three total weeks to get something in place,” Leavitt said. “It was an interesting, very intense time to try and get everything done.”
With the move online came the need for crucial infrastructure to support online learning and technical assistance for those navigating the technology. Professors and students across the country found the transition difficult, Buzzfeed reported.
Here is how Temple did it:
The “good news” was that Temple already had the technology in place to conduct online classes, Leavitt said. The university transitioned from Blackboard to Canvas, its current system for course materials, in Fall 2017, and from Webex to Zoom, its teleconferencing software, last year, said Larry Brandolph, the university’s chief information security officer.
“Because we had moved to kind of modern, scalable, relatively easy to use systems on the academic side, from a technology standpoint, moving to the online for classes, we had all the infrastructure to do that,” Leavitt said.
But, “the difficult part really was having all of the professors rethink how they could teach online in two weeks,” she added.
During the initial weeks of moving to online classes, students and professors expressed concerns over moving course material online in a relatively short window, especially for classes that relied heavily on in-person interaction, The Temple News reported.
“You can imagine things like dance and art were difficult to try and figure out how they were going to do that,” Leavitt said.
To help professors adjust, Temple held seminars instructing professors how to use Zoom, Canvas and Proctorio, an online test monitoring service, Leavitt said. The university also transitioned its in-person support system to an online one, allowing professors to invite ITS workers into their Zoom-hosted classes to troubleshoot technical issues, she added.
Another concern of moving to online classes was “Zoombombing,” or uninvited guests joining and disrupting Zoom calls. The problem has affected instructors who are now relying on the platform to teach students, Inside Higher Ed reported.
Ranjini Muhunthan, a mathematics professor, said a man she did not know entered her class and posted indecent pictures and made loud noises.
“I was so nervous and students also got the same feeling. I tried to kick him out or remove him. There were so many ways I tried to block, but I couldn’t,” she said.
Muhunthan ultimately decided to cancel the remainder of her class that day, she said.
Olivia Chaves, a sophomore political science student, witnessed an invited participant in her Zoom class make inappropriate comments about the spouse of the professor teaching the course.
“Our professor has been bending over backwards to make sure we’re all OK during this transition and the idea that anyone would say something so disgusting to such an awesome guy is repulsive,” Chaves said. “I was completely shocked and everyone else was too, or just disgusted, annoyed.”
Brandolph said that he was made aware of about a dozen or so cases of Zoombombing at the university. Reports have decreased since the beginning of the transition, which Brandolph attributes in part to Zoom adding security features, like turning on passwords and waiting rooms by default to give hosts more control over their meetings.
In an effort to avoid a repeat of the situation, Muhunthan began keeping students in the waiting room feature on Zoom and admitted each one after she confirmed they are a student in her class in addition to asking each student to keep their video on, she said.
The university has also seen an uptick in phishing attacks, which are fraudulent texts or emails disguised as being from an official organization, targeting employees, Leavitt said. One recent attack posed as a voicemail to coax employees into typing their passwords, she added.
A larger challenge for ITS than moving classes online was figuring out how to allow employees at the university to work remotely, Leavitt said. Many systems at Temple can only be accessed on-site, and the university only owns 750 licenses for a software that allows employees to access their desktops remotely, far below the 10,000 users they needed to accomodate.
To address this issue, ITS created a software that allowed employees to identify their on-campus desktop’s IP address and control it remotely, meaning that they did not have to use up any of the licenses Temple owned, Leavitt said.
Temple also innovated a way to use Office 365, a Microsoft product, to “tunnel” into TUPortal remotely, Leavitt added.
“We were really creative in coming up with those solutions and were able to scale literally in two weeks from the 750 licenses that we had to unlimited, for some things, for instance TUPortal, and 10,000 licenses for the other ways to go remote,” she said.
Looking to the future, ITS plans to continue some of the practices it adopted during the pandemic, like providing remote assistance for classroom support and streamlining the university’s help desk operations.
“It has shifted the way that we thought we could do our work,” Leavitt said. “I think we thought that we needed to physically be in places to do a lot of the work.”
The university has also learned that trying to force a standard class into an online format is not ideal, Leavitt said. Online classes require detailed planning and revamped coursework to be effective, which was difficult to do in just two weeks, she added.
Temple will try to allow students to access desktop software remotely in the future, though it is often at the discretion of the software’s vendors whether to allow that, Leavitt said.
“I will say for everything that we legally can do because of our licensing, we will continue this,” she said.
Victoria Ayala and Susan Thomas contributed reporting.