On preparing a university for a COVID rapid shift to online teaching


With the COVID pandemic still picking up steam in North America, all universities had to make a rapid shift to online teaching as campuses were closed. Mine was no different. We’d been talking about possible pandemic planning since mid-february, but at the time it was all speculative and seemingly so far in the future. Things started to get real around March 11, 2020. There were local cases of COVID (although all travel-related), and it was time to start moving classes online - or cancel the semester outright. The impact on students of cancelling a semester would be severe, so all efforts went into avoiding that. We would shift courses online as classrooms were closed.

Thankfully, we had laid the groundwork for being able to rapidly accommodate 35,000 students (plus another maybe 4,000 instructors). When we launched D2L back in 2013, we started to work on updating and formalizing a support model. We finalized that model a couple of years ago, setting up clear roles and responsibilities to make sure everyone knew what was needed to fully manage and support an application that is used by every single student and almost every instructor, every day. This process took time, but we worked to produce a RACI document with several roles:

  • Sponsor (Provost)
  • Business Owner (Vice Provost Teaching and Learning)
  • Business Lead (Taylor Institute: Manager, Learning Technologies - me)
  • Business SME (Taylor Institute: Online Learning Environment Lead)
  • Service Owner (IT)
  • IT technical support (IT)
  • ITSC (IT Support Centre - the helpdesk)
  • IT Partner
  • Vendor (D2L)

There’s a long list of high-level tasks for each, making it clear who leads each one. At first, this felt like an exercise in Enterprise Project Management, but it’s become an extremely useful document - both for D2L itself, but also as a starting point for new applications. We’ve used it as the model for the YuJa video platform, and now for Zoom.

What this document really did was provide a framework for key people in different parts of the university, reporting to completely different parts of the organization, to come together without any form of turf war or defensive posturing. We all know how we fit together, and can work from there without friction.

We have spent much of the last 2 years actively working on these relationships and developing reciprocal trust. Which, it turns out, was probably the most important thing we could have been doing because it gave us an effective way to work together with a common purpose.

OK. Back to the COVID thing. Way back to March 3. We had a high level meeting to talk about our Learning Technologies Advisory Committee, and at the end had a brief “so… COVID looks like it’s building up steam…” discussion. We talked about our campus online learning technologies, and how they were all up to handling full adoption. Except for our online classroom platform - we didn’t have a reliable way for classes to meet online. Our campus platform for that was Adobe Connect, which is a capable application, but we were self-hosting on a server that couldn’t handle the load, and the software was out of date and causing issues on current browsers. And our license could only handle 500 simultaneous users. We have 30 classes with that many students…

So, a reliable and scalable platform for online classes became the priority. A few faculties had already adopted Zoom for use by their instructors, and had been asking for it to be adopted university-wide as a core platform.

Our team in the Taylor Institute started developing a Teaching Continuity website, to provide resources for instructors to start planning how to adapt their courses in case they need to shift online. There was no timeline for when (or if) that would happen, but we needed to prepare resources before things started hitting fans, so they’d be ready when needed.

The goal would not be “let’s take time to develop the ideal online course experience” - there just isn’t time for instructors do that. The goal would be “there’s a month left in the semester - let’s get what we can online and provide a way for students to finish the semester without having to add another year to their degree programs”.

We got a contract signed and delivered to Zoom late on Thursday March 12. By end of day Friday March 13, we had integrated Zoom with D2L Brightspace, and with campus Active Directory for authentication. 24 hours after our Provost signed the contract, we had a new platform available for use by 35,000 students and every instructor.

On Friday, March 13, face-to-face classes were cancelled for the day. On Monday, March 16, all in-person classes were cancelled and instructors were to move courses online for alternate delivery starting Tuesday, March 17.

Thankfully, we now had a stable, reliable, and scalable platform for online classes. Thankfully, we’d spent years developing relationships and trust and processes, so that we were able to implement a new core campus learning technology in 24 hours.

In that first shortened week1, 4,751 meetings were held in our campus Zoom environment.

Instructors can set up meetings for any class directly from D2L. Students can create meetings for their own work as well - moving their group project work online as needed. Online office hours are now a thing. Being present with remote students outside of traditional “lecture” classes is a thing.

I’ve been working in edtech for 25 years now. This is the first time in my career when I have actually felt confident that all of the core software that we use for online teaching and learning would hold up. That’s amazing.

And, it gives us a chance to start moving up Maslow’s hierarchy - now that questions have shifted from “how to I set up an account?” to “what kinds of teaching and learning can I do in my course?” and “how can my students interact and do more than just watch a video?”.

Without solid software providing core functionality, there just aren’t opportunities to have those deeper conversations about what online teaching and learning can be. Now we can have the more meaningful conversations with instructors about “hey - maybe don’t actually lecture into a webcam for 3 hours - use it for interacting with students, and share videos of your presentations on YuJa instead…”.


  1. most faculties have the majority of their classes on monday, wednesday and friday. There were no classes on monday. Tuesday and Thursday are typically lab/tutorial days in many faculties. So, 2 full days of classes in the first week. ↩︎


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