George Mason University

News at Mason

Two weeks in March: How Mason put more than 5,000 classes online

April 10, 2020   /   by Damian Cristodero

Photo by Getty Images.

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,” said 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,” added Janette Muir, associate provost for academic initiatives and services

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

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

The key at the outset was the Instructional Continuity Team of Muir; Renate Guilford, 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; Registrar Doug McKenna; 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 said.

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 much 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 said.

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

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

ITS and the Stearns Center’s instructional designers held joint webinar trainings that served about 1,000 faculty, said 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 said of ITS. “They have been in it every day from the beginning.”

Muir also credited 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,” Kreitzer said, “and to think differently about logistics and how to get there.”

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.

“The challenge now,” Muir said, “is making sure students have checked in with their professors, professors have checked in with their students, that there are connections being made and students have enough feedback in their classes so they’ll know by the end of the semester how they are doing and can decide to earn a traditional grade or credit only.”

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

"The effort it took to transition all of our courses was nothing short of remarkable,” said Michelle Marks, vice president of academic innovation and new ventures. "I’m incredibly proud of our faculty and staff, and I’m amazed at how our university came together in a moment of crisis. It’s a shining example of our shared commitment to our students and how we can each do our part to make a difference.”