As the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga closed student housing and canceled on-campus activities last month in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, it also transitioned hundreds of classes — and thousands of students — online.
But online learning isn't without its own challenges — whether that's students' actual access to technology, instructors' comfort level with conducting classes online or how to ensure the same quality of education is delivered.
Madison Ellis, a nursing student at UTC, had never taken one of her core nursing classes online before this semester and she is supposed to complete a final clinical rotation this spring.
Ethan Richard, a business student, suddenly found himself checking into his courses through the university's online platform, Canvas, from his family's home in St. Louis — where the freshman found himself after UTC closed its dormitories.
Throughout these transitions to virtual learning, UTC Provost Jerry Hale said, the university's job is to make sure students complete the semesters successfully with minimum impacts on their paths to earning degrees.
"The most important thing is that we do everything we can to keep students on track for a timely degree completion and that we are giving them the best curriculum possible," Hale said. "One of the reasons we wanted to consider extending some deadlines is because we knew student anxieties and faculty anxieties would be higher than usual."
Some of the ways the university has decided to ensure students complete their classes successfully this semester are by extending deadlines for withdrawing from courses or letting students deciding if they'd like to receive course credit for a class or just take it as a pass/fail course until the last day before final exams.
"There were classes that switched over from being in-person to online with a week's notice and some faculty had never taught online before or some students hadn't taken classes online before. Though we still believe we could deliver a quality curriculum for [students], we didn't want them to penalized," Hale added.
One of the biggest challenges faculty members has faced is whether students have access to the right computers or devices and whether they have high-speed internet access, a problem shared by their K-12 counterparts.
Ellis said the initial transition to online courses was a little frustrating and that many of her classmates are stressed out amid all the uncertainties.
"It's been kind of bumpy. No one knows what's going on, the teachers and students are all a little frustrated, there's been a lot of emails back and forth," she said.
Nursing students are also concerned about how or when they will take exams required for their degree and for licensing, as well as if some of their senior year milestones, such as the annual pinning ceremony, will be canceled.
Ellis did note that she was happy the university reached out to the seniors about commencement ceremonies. Most are in favor of holding actual, in-person ceremonies in August, she said.
Richard also said his freshman year has definitely not gone as expected, but switching to online classes hasn't been too difficult. Some classes have been more challenging to complete online, but he said he has faith in how UTC has handled the transition.
"They're doing a good job as far as communication, especially this semester and especially with everything going on, and nobody has all the answers," Richard said. "I had faith in how the university would handle it."
On Wednesday, UT System President Randy Boyd announced that summer classes at all campuses will be delivered online, as well. Since the switch in March, the system has delivered more than 9,300 classes online, Boyd said in an email.
Hale added that impacts of the changes and disruption this semester will be more long term. University officials anticipate changes in how incoming students choose colleges and possible enrollment implications and also will watch to ensure students have been prepared in foundational courses for the next levels.
UTC is also working to provide refunds to students for unused portions of student housing, meal plans and parking fees for the spring semester.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum @timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.