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A Ready U

University adapts, innovates in the face of COVID-19


A sign on American University's campus appears pixelated on a laptop screen

When the curtains lifted on virtual learning at AU on March 18, performing arts faculty had to improvise.

Stage design students were tasked with creating costumes, lighting, and scenery elements using only items from their bathrooms, while student actors recorded interviews with a family member and performed them from memory, emulating their loved one’s voice, tempo, and mannerisms. 

“We did everything we could to not see the shift to online as a limitation, but as an opportunity for our art,” says Karl Kippola, director of AU’s theatre and musical theatre program. “Theatre is built to thrive off the interaction between the play and its audience, and not having that is maddening. But our professors did amazing work to maintain the academic and artistic integrity of their courses, and students were ready to go on that adventure with them.”

Students, faculty, and staff have all played important roles as AU adapts to a new normal and prepares for a blended learning model this fall. On campus and online, the showgoes on.

They weren’t prescient, just prepared.

The week before spring break, as confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US approached triple digits, 25 staffers from the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning (CTRL); Audio Visual Services; E-Learning Support; and Academic Technology Systems joined forces to establish the Instructional Continuity Team. Their awesome responsibility: preparing AU’s 936 full-time faculty and more than 500 adjunct instructors to transition 3,000-plus courses online for more than 14,000 students.

On March 12, President Sylvia Burwell announced a campus-wide shift to virtual learning for the remainder of semester. The Instructional Continuity Team was already tailoring Blackboard workshops to accommodate a wide array of skill sets, from the faculty members who had never used it to those planning to auto-caption video and record lectures for asynchronous viewing.

The team also set up a hotline for Blackboard questions—fielding more than 90 calls on the first day alone—and AU purchased Zoom licenses to expand its video communication capabilities. As the semester progressed, so did the needs of faculty—from basic Blackboard functions to more detailed online pedagogy and testing.

“What we’re most proud of is how quickly we all jelled together,” says Kiho Kim, CTRL executive director and environmental science professor. “We pooled our collective expertise to figure out what the faculty needed, and we were responsive both to the needs and the time constraint.”

The heavy lift of a few ensured the preparation of many—for an immediate changeover in March and for a second iteration of online education this summer, in which AU offered a 10 percent discount on tuition and saw an 11 percent jump in undergraduate enrollment.

Higher education will look and feel different this fall. But the quick work and adaptation of students, faculty, and staff has resulted in an AU that is dedicated to safety and well-prepared for a fall semester that will blend in-person and online instruction.

“All the [online] training we develop complements face-to-face delivery,” says vice provost and chief online officer Joseph Riquelme, who joined AU in March from Florida International University. “There’s such a huge benefit of going down this pathway because when we do return to normal, the skill sets are going to be that much more mature.”

Washington College of Law professor Angela Davis had never taught an online class, but she Zoom-ed through her preparation over spring break.

AU’s 2015 Scholar/Teacher of the Year worried not about her internet connection, but rather the one she shared with her criminal law students. Even through a computer screen, however, the class felt more intimate than in a typical lecture hall, and students tackled case discussions with the same zeal.

“I could see their faces, I could see them in their homes, and in a way, it was a lot more personal,” says Davis, who also organized a virtual career panel for evening students. “We had lively discussions, and I don’t think anything was lost in terms of what I was trying to convey.”

Chemistry professor Matthew Hartings began his teach-from-home adventure by 3D printing a tripod phone mount to record lectures for students in his Chemistry of Cooking class who were logging on from China, Turkey, and beyond. He also devised a sweet research project for juniors and seniors in his Experimental Biological Chemistry class.

The students didn’t have access to lab equipment on AU’s campus. But they were adept at using their cell phones’ surprisingly accurate color analysis tools. The group received spatulas, whisks, mixing bowls, and digital kitchen scales in the mail and spent the last few weeks of class measuring browning rates of Nestlé Toll House chocolate chip cookies in conventional ovens, calibrating their cameras with color cards Hartings assembled with construction paper. 

“You get to this point in your teaching career where you have tons of material to throw in front of students and ways to engage them, and all of that goes out the window,” Hartings says.

So he had to bake something new from scratch. 

Students also cooked up new ways to deliver their research. April 18 marked the 30th annual Robyn Rafferty Mathias Student Research Conference—and the first presented exclusively online. More than 60 students participated, including Benjamin Feder, CAS/MA ’20, who took first place in the “social trends and human innovations” category for his research on Italian Renaissance painter Dosso Dossi.

“Just having the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself at a time when many of us feel more isolated than ever was truly gratifying,” he says.

Doctoral students also had to adapt. After spending years researching South Korea’s adaptation to global environmental norms, Goueun Lee, SIS/PhD ’20, hoped to defend her dissertation—the stressful yet ceremonial culmination of her hard work—in person. But Lee knew from speaking with her parents in South Korea that life was about to be turned upside down as the coronavirus made its way to the US.

“Defending remotely, from the comfort of my home, I was less nervous than I would have been presenting in-person, in front of an audience,” says Lee, whose husband, friends, and fellow PhD students attended her virtual defense.

A little digital support was just what the doctorate ordered.

As she addressed 3,000 graduates from her living room on May 9, with her husband, Stephen, serving as cameraman and sound engineer, President Burwell highlighted the selflessness that defines the Class of 2020.

“You taught me that this class will speak up, show up, volunteer, and offer your generous help and kindness in every single situation,” she said during AU’s 139th commencement—and its first online celebration for graduates. “You truly define what it means to be part of a community, and if there is one thing that these last few months have taught us, it’s the importance of community and togetherness.”

Like Burwell, many of the grads celebrated from home, enjoying a perfectly patchworked rendition of the alma mater performed by AU singers and musicians and posing for pictures as their names flashed across their laptop screens. About 1,500 Eagles joined the festivities on social media, posting with the #2020AUGrad hashtag.

AU staffers pulled together the production under a tight deadline. In less than two months, they secured an inspiring commencement speaker, bestselling author and Harvard professor of African American history Henry Louis Gates Jr., and capped off the virtual ceremony with well wishes from AU community members like CNN host Alisyn Camerota, SOC/BA ’88, and all of the deans.

It was pomp and unusual circumstance, but students like Diana Ochoa, SOC/BA ’20, marked the occasion with the same ingenuity they demonstrated in the classroom. From their Rockville, Maryland, home, the Ochoas celebrated with cake, champagne, flowers, and a MacBook, both to watch the ceremony and chat with family over Zoom. 

Ochoa’s goodbye from AU was abrupt, but she and her family toasted her budding public relations career all the same.

“I was already in the mindset [when campus closed] that I was graduating soon, and I was going to make the most of it,” she says. “Thankfully, I did.”

So did the Career Center, which pivoted to help students and alumni navigate a suddenly uncertain job market. 

It expanded online counseling services, created a resources page for career planning during COVID-19, migrated specialized networking fairs online, and hosted virtual mentoring events with alumni at Google, Facebook, and Netflix. The center also moved its once-per-semester career fair online—becoming the first DC area school to do so. The May 15 event drew 1,300 current and former students and 112 employers, 80 of which had full-time positions to fill. 

By June, the center was already planning its fall career fair and had extended its summer window for recruitment sessions through the end of July.

“My team has always been—but I think is particularly now—focused on what the students need and how we can offer the same or frankly a better service given the changing times,” says Career Center executive director Gihan Fernando. “There is no playbook, so we’re constantly in invention mode.”

Innovation also plays a part in AU Forward—the university’s operations plan for the fall.

Released on June 16, AU Forward was designed with input from students, parents, faculty, staff, and administrators. It outlines a blended model of online and physically distanced, on-campus learning that preserves the rigorous and rich AU academic experience while focusing on community safety.

AU will begin the fall semester on August 24 with as much face-to-face interaction as is safe. The campus will remain connected, albeit less dense.

More than 100 classrooms will hold fewer than 10 people to accommodate physical-distancing requirements, and new AV equipment will enhance the quality and capabilities of remote learning. Residence hall capacity will be reduced to 2,305 beds in single-occupancy rooms, and dining halls will feature packaged meals and limited seating. All members of the AU community will undergo health and safety training—and masks will be required.

The fall break is being reimagined as a series of skills workshops and symposia for students, led by alumni, faculty, and staff. And in-person instruction and on-campus activity will conclude before Thanksgiving, reducing potential spread and allowing students to save on travel. The thoughtful planning provides flexibility, and Burwell is mindful that operations are subject to change.

“It is important to remember that COVID-19 is a complex and evolving situation that does not lend itself to easy categories like ‘open’ or ‘closed,’” she says. “As we learn more about the trajectory of the pandemic and the effects of reopening, not just on our campus, but across DC and the country, we must be ready and able to adapt at any time if conditions change, much like we did in March.”

AU’s plan is guided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the DC Department of Health, and the American College Health Association, but human behavior will undoubtedly impact the road ahead.

“I believe that people in our community are altruistic enough to not only think about their own health, but also about the health and welfare of everyone else,” says Fanta Aw, vice president of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence. “The science clearly shows that when we’re able to do our part, with face coverings, physical distancing, and basic hygiene practices, we are all better for it.” As fall nears, we all have a role to play.