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OU administration asserts quality of online classes as uncertainty around fall semester grows

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Empty campus

The empty OU campus on the first day of online classes after Spring Break on March 23.

This story was updated to reflect UC Action Tutoring will only be offered online for the fall semester and to correct that OU has withdrawn from the Online Consortium of Oklahoma and not The Council of Online Learning. 

As colleges and universities across the nation struggle to keep their students safe while still providing quality education, many — like OU — have chosen to hold more classes online. 

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, administrators are working to prepare instructors for more reliance on online teaching. 

On May 18, OU announced night classes and classes with over 40 students would be moving online in the fall — one of the most far-reaching university reopening policies.

Despite concerns from OU parents and students that online classes will be less impactful and cost the same as in-person classes, OU communications specialist Mackenzie Scheer insists that quality is ensured. 

“The university maintains a standard for providing the highest quality education, no matter the instructional method,” Scheer said in an email to The Daily. 

Scheer said multiple courses will be reviewed and most student support will be offered both in person and remotely. UC Action Tutoring will only be offered online.

OU distance learning instructor Laura Gibbs stresses that online learning is not impersonal and can offer students some much-needed flexibility, especially during the pandemic. 

“Asynchronous classes are (able) to accommodate the emergencies that come up unexpectedly in people's lives; every semester, some students in my classes have unexpected emergencies come up, and we can always find a good solution so that they can continue to participate fully in class,” Gibbs said. “Now we face a pandemic that has made people's lives unpredictable.”

Gibbs said online classes are the best way to accommodate the unpredictability of the upcoming fall semester and aren’t always what students expect.

Another major concern that many students have with moving classes to a virtual format is cost. Some students are questioning why they are paying full tuition and fees or classes they feel they might not learn as much in as they would in person. 

While OU announced it will hold tuition and mandatory fees flat for a third straight year on the Norman campus, these costs are not directly associated with the format of education. 

“The quality of education is more directly tied to the quality of the OU faculty and their engagements with the students than to the modality of the course,” Scheer said. “OU maintains world-class faculty, who pride themselves of providing an excellent educational experience. Whether the course is in-person or online, students taking courses at OU will be interacting with the highest quality faculty and instructors.”

Scheer also said the commitment to hold tuition and mandatory fees flat is evidence “OU remains committed to providing affordable and accessible academic excellence to its students, no matter the format.”

Scheer said no additional online class fees will apply to classes moved online due to the pandemic.

“With the move to online learning last spring, the university’s instructional costs actually increased, and OU carried those costs,” Scheer said. “While some classes — particularly those with enrollments over 40 — will be presented in different instructional formats, classes will continue uninterrupted and the university will remain open and operational, providing services supported by tuition and fees.”

Kesha Keith, OU's director of media relations, said the additional fees that accompany online classes pay the salaries of the instructional designers and technical support for those courses and also pay for necessary software like Canvas. 

Keith said online classes typically have a $40 per-credit-hour fee while blended classes with a combination of in-person and online components have a $20 per-credit-hour fee. 

Online classes typically go through a 6- to 12-month development process with an instructional designer, a technical assistant and video production.

Many of the instructors affected by these changes have little experience with virtual instruction — or no experience at all.

University administration is hoping to support faculty by providing additional assistance to instructors through webinars and remote training sessions. 

“When OU shifted to all online instruction in March 2020, the university supported its students and faculty in the transition and continues to do so by hosting multiple training opportunities,” Scheer said. 

Scheer said faculty members have received design assistance and technology training, and these training opportunities will continue to increase before and throughout the fall semester. 

These training opportunities are conducted primarily by OU's Office of Digital Learning, but will also be prepared and supported by OU's College of Arts and Sciences, Online and Academic Technology Services, Extended Campus, IT and Library Services.

Additional training and support will be required for some programs like in the Office of Digital Learning, College of Arts and Sciences, Online and Academic Technology Services and OU Extended Campus.

However, the additional training and support opportunities are not required for all instructors. 

“In general, instructors teaching online this fall will not be required to attend training,” Keith said in an email to The Daily.

Scheer said like many universities, OU has sustained significant financial losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To combat these losses, the university made the decision to withdraw from the Online Consortium of Oklahoma (OCO).

According to associate Vice President for Communications for the state regents Angela Caddell, OCO focuses on policy, professional development and resources. 

By withdrawing from OCO, OU loses the support, resources and collaboration across Oklahoma higher education institutions that the consortium provides. 

“While OU has enjoyed real value from the (Online Consortium of Oklahoma), the decision to not renew this institutional membership was a financial one,” Scheer said. “The university believes it has the resources internally to support OU faculty and will enhance those as appropriate.”

While some students and their families are apprehensive about the prospect of online learning, online instructors want to instill that online classes are not all bad.

Gibbs said she styles her online classes so students can develop an individual focus. Her classes typically follow a format of students working on a semester-long project they publish as a website. 

Gibbs also said all of the materials in her classes are meant to support those projects, whether it be readings or feedback from other students.

“By the end of the semester, students have something they can be really proud of, and then those past class projects are what inspire students in the next semester as they get started,” Gibbs said. 

Gibbs said learning management systems like Canvas are not designed as social spaces and delete students’ work at the end of the semester. 

“But we can do better than that online,” Gibbs said. “Students can create ‘non-disposable assignments’ — projects that really matter, either to other students in the class, or to future students, or to a wider community beyond just the class,” Gibbs said.

Online classes pose other benefits for the upcoming fall semester. 

“I think we should be offering online courses in the fall to accommodate all the uncertainty: Each person, students and faculty alike, is facing their own individual risks, and they may have to suddenly quarantine themselves if they are exposed, isolate if they get sick, or — even worse — they might get really sick and need to go to the hospital,” Gibbs said.

On July 10, OU President Joseph Harroz sent an email to OU students encouraging them to complete a survey about their fall semester plans. 

“While COVID-19 creates a unique challenge to our fall plans, we are committed to upholding our academic mission in the safest manner possible and we are making every effort to do so,” Harroz said in the email. 

In a Faculty Senate town hall Monday, Harroz acknowledged that while there is no specific trigger that will prompt the move to all online classes, it still remains a possibility. 

news reporter

Jordan Hayden is a journalism junior serving as a news reporter and copy editor at The Daily. Previously she served as the fall 2018 and spring 2019 assistant engagement editor.

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