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Universities Get Creative With Technology Due to Coronavirus Closures

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Students at the University of Washington in Seattle had their last day of in-person classes March 6.

Photo: Karen Ducey/Getty Images

Universities scrambled over the past month to move classes online as the coronavirus pandemic forced campus closures. With social distancing likely to extend through the spring semester, chief information officers are taking stock of their actions, identifying quick solutions that could one day become permanent fixtures on a postcrisis campus.

University of Washington

“When we come out of this, I think it’ll be a great opportunity for the universities to look at how we use these tools…in new and creative ways,” said Aaron Powell, the Seattle university’s CIO.

With Seattle an early U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus, the university began screening students for the virus by late January. Mr. Powell started testing remote-learning tools in February. The university moved around 45,000 students to online classes in early March.

The university uses Panopto, a video-education platform, Zoom videoconferencing and Canvas, a cloud-based hub for remote-learning tools, communication, and course materials.

“At this point, we’re stabilizing the usage and increasing the knowledge base across the campus of these tools. That’s the urgency today,” Mr. Powell said. “When there’s light at the end of the tunnel, we’ll start to look at new technologies, what’s available on the marketplace that might better meet [our] needs.”

Case Western Reserve University

Medical students at the Cleveland university had been using Microsoft Corp. ’s HoloLens in classes since last year as part of a partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, which helped build the school’s health-education campus.

The wearable devices, which superimpose digital content including hologram-like images onto a user’s view of the real world, can be used to replace cadavers in anatomy classes.

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Campus closures prompted CIO Sue Workman over two weeks ago to invest more in its augmented reality program. She shipped about 200 HoloLens units to students dispersed across the U.S. and Canada.

Remote classes combine voice instruction with augmented reality: anatomical structures are displayed as holograms. The first class was successfully completed last month.

There have been no bandwidth issues, said Mark Griswold, professor of radiology at Case Western’s School of Medicine and director at the university’s Interactive Commons institute, which researched the technology.

The experience has Ms. Workman thinking beyond the current crisis. “My intention is to really take this to any class,” she said. “This is a way online learning or remote learning should really happen. Not through a 2-D screen. We want them interacting,” Ms. Workman said.

University of Utah

The university, which has more than 30,000 students at campuses in Salt Lake City and Incheon, South Korea, plans to extend remote learning through summer sessions. It is also developing chatbots to advise students on common questions such as financial aid, admissions and courses. It says the chatbot could be deployed before the fall semester starts.

The university is tracking remote-learning data for insight into student preferences and how to personalize such experiences in the future, said Steve Hess, the CIO.

“We want to get some analytics and information about how this whole experience went so that we make it better. And we’re in the process of figuring out ways to do that,” Mr. Hess said.

University of Tulsa

CIO Paige Francis is using the move to online classes to upgrade the university’s 25-year-old enterprise-resource-planning system and digitize processes that once required paperwork.

“Now more than ever, if we’re going to remain online for an extended period of time, from a technology perspective, we need to make sure that we are staying the course on goals that we have set right now,” Ms. Francis said.

Write to Agam Shah at [email protected]

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