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How Did Mason Put More than 5,000 Classes Online? Fast.

By Damian Cristodero on August 18, 2020

How do you describe the two weeks in March in which George Mason University migrated more than 5,000 courses online in response to the required closing of its campuses because of COVID-19?

“It was all-hands-on-deck,” says Charles Kreitzer, executive director for online operations at Mason’s Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning.

“A lot of good will and a little bit of magic,” adds Janette Muir, associate provost for academic initiatives and services.

Thanks to the integrated efforts of faculty, administration, the Stearns Center, and Information and Technology Services (ITS), the spring semester was online and Mason was operating in a virtual space with live lectures, video learning, engagement between faculty and students, and even test-taking.

“It was a whirlwind,” says Joe Balducci, manager of online learning resources at ITS, of the effort. “But a partnership, with everyone working together.”

The key at the outset was the Instructional Continuity Team that included Muir; Renate Guilford, BS Public Administration ’91, MPA ’95, associate provost of academic administration; Kim Eby, associate provost for faculty affairs and development; Amber Hannush, operations and initiatives manager in the Provost’s Office; Pam Shepherd, director of communications in the Provost’s Office; Doug McKenna, university registrar; and representatives from the Faculty Senate, Stearns Center, ITS, and Mason’s colleges and schools.

The group met daily with an around-the-horn program that allowed all to outline priorities and concerns.

“That helped us focus on where our challenges were,” Muir says.

The basic challenge was transferring academic classes into the virtual space in a very short window. Spring break was extended from one week to two, providing extra preparation time before classes resumed March 23.

Then there was the question of scale.

Classes that are specifically designed to be taught online can take as many as six to nine months to develop, as outcomes and essential learning pieces are tied directly to milestones and assessments. What Mason did in a compressed timeframe was “take what works in a face-to-face context and put those resources online,” Kreitzer says.

“It was, ‘What do you need to do to have continuity in instruction?’” Muir says. “It might be getting your PowerPoints up. It might be [recording] a lecture in your living room, whatever you need to keep things moving so students have the continuity of learning.”

Mostly of this work was done through the online learning platform Blackboard because ITS automatically creates a Blackboard version of every Mason course, Balducci says. Faculty could also use Webex or Blackboard Collaborate to set up virtual classrooms. The trick was to make sure faculty were up to speed on best practices for all these vehicles.

ITS and the Stearns Center’s instructional designers held joint webinar trainings that served about 1,000 faculty, says Balducci, who also coordinated with Joy Taylor, executive director of ITS’s learning and support services. That team supplemented the ITS Support Center’s regular hours with a “Blackboard Office Hours” online meeting room during the transition to tackle technical and instructional questions from faculty as quickly as possible.

“There’s no way we could have been able to do this without them,” Kreitzer says of ITS. “They have been in it every day from the beginning.”

Muir also credits the “Blackboard Buddies,” faculty members who are savvy about the platform and volunteered to help their colleagues through personal contact and webinars.

“It’s been a huge collaborative effort with faculty to just dig in and think about ways to keep the critical things they know are essential to the course and to think differently about logistics and how to get there,” Kreitzer says.

For example, dance and music students can record themselves for faculty review or perform live through Webex to a faculty and peer audience for immediate feedback.

So, how did Mason do?

Consider that more than 5,200 classes were put into the virtual space in two weeks, and on the first day of classes, more than 24,000 assignments were completed.

In the two weeks following spring break, a daily average of 12,250 students and faculty used the Blackboard Collaborate Ultra video conferencing tool for their classes, Balducci says. In the two weeks prior to spring break, the average was 434.

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