How KU faculty are preparing for switch to online teaching during coronavirus pandemic

photo by: Sara Sheperd/Journal-World File Photo

Budig Hall is pictured on the University of Kansas campus in this file photo from February 2016.

As the University of Kansas prepares for a shift to teach all courses remotely until at least the end of March, the change will be a balancing act for all involved.

While the university for years has had a multitude of online classes, never before have professors been forced by extenuating circumstances to teach, and for students to learn, entirely outside of the classroom with essentially a week’s worth of preparation.

Then the coronavirus, or COVID-19, spread across the globe, forcing universities worldwide — including KU — to migrate to digital learning.

“We are in uncharted territory,” Shawn Leigh Alexander, KU’s Faculty Senate president, told the Journal-World. Alexander is also a professor of African and African American Studies.

“This is not normal online education; it is teaching remotely under emergency conditions, but everyone is working together to try to make the transition smooth, and we here at KU are striving to continue providing the same world-class education we do under normal circumstances.”

Patrick Miller, an associate professor of political science at KU, said the change to online classes — which begins on March 23, with the university set to reevaluate the status of COVID-19 on a weekly basis beginning March 28 — will be an adjustment for both him and his students.

Miller prefers in-person lectures and told the Journal-World that most KU students seem to excel more in physical classrooms. What gets lost with online teaching, he said, is the ability to read a room and gauge whether students are truly understanding the material.

This is especially key in the 100-person political statistics course Miller is teaching this semester. The course is a curriculum benchmark and is required of all undergraduate students seeking a political science degree. Right now, Miller said he’s leaning toward recording his lectures to go along with PowerPoint slides in an effort to communicate as much information as would normally be in a classroom setting.

“I have learned to gauge their understanding in the classroom better over time by reading all kinds of subtle cues and asking questions,” he said. “I think I’m going to lose some of that.”

“There’s going to be pressure here on both faculty and students to really make the most of this format,” Miller added.

Seemingly, the university disciplines that will be hit hardest by remote learning are more visual, hands-on mediums, like the ones taught in the Department of Theater and Dance.

Since news began to break of colleges across the U.S., academic social media has “lit up” with questions of “how do I teach ballet online?” department chair Henry Bial said.

While it’s a difficult question to answer, KU is not alone in searching for solutions. The nice thing about the digital-first world, Bial said, is that resources have already been posted online by national dance and theater associations, giving universities guidance on how to remotely teach disciplines that typically need face-to-face interaction and human contact.

In the short term, students may be asked to watch online examples of performances relevant to their coursework and write about them. And, eventually, they may be asked to use what technology they have available to record and share work with instructors and classmates.

That being said, Bial acknowledged the department and the university were sensitive to concerns about low-income students and those without easy access to technology. To assist both students and faculty, KU recently launched a dedicated website to assist with the transition to online learning,, where questions about setting up courses and how to use the university’s online learning system, Blackboard, can be answered.

Ultimately, the switch to online coursework will be a challenge university-wide for however long it is needed. But the challenging times are also providing KU and other universities with a chance to change the status quo of how certain disciplines are taught.

“Face-to-face pedagogy and live human interaction is central to our field,” Bial said. “But (this is) an opportunity for us to get creative and challenge our assumptions about what does and doesn’t have to be done in person.”

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