How to move a university online in 12 days

Instructional continuity workshops started on March 16. After two days, in-person workshops like this one were moved online. Photo by Cindy Gardner for Virginia Tech.

On March 11, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands announced that the remainder of spring semester courses would finish online, following an extended spring break. By March 23, nearly 2,400 instructors were teaching approximately 4,500 sections remotely.

While no one expected the transition to be perfect, it has been a remarkably smooth process, thanks in large part to Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies (TLOS), a unit within the Division of Information Technology. Together, TLOS, its continuity partners, and the Virginia Tech community pulled together to take Virginia Tech online in less than two weeks.

As the novel coronavirus began to spread internationally, Sands formed an emergency working group to evaluate early information about COVID-19, anticipate its possible impact on the university, and formulate a response.

Executive Director and Associate Provost for TLOS Dale Pike was part of that group. At that time, Pike recalled, “the focus was on Virginia Tech students and faculty located in various cities around the world. Because very little was known about what would happen, we discussed many scenarios, including the possibility that we’d need to provide instruction to students who were in quarantine or support faculty who needed to teach from quarantine.”

Following President Sands’s March 11 announcement, faculty had exactly 12 days to convert course materials to an all-online format, as well as prepare themselves to teach from remote locations instead of campus classrooms.

While helping faculty design engaging, accessible online courses is a core function of TLOS, doing this for thousands of courses in such a short time period was unprecedented. Pike said, “As we began conversations about the amount of help that might be needed, it quickly became evident that our normal strategies for helping faculty with online teaching would not scale.”

Pike and TLOS staff met immediately to discuss next steps. The plan they developed included three main components:

1. Deliver workshops to help faculty maximize competency with Virginia Tech’s key online teaching tools; Canvas, Zoom, and Kaltura.

Twice-daily in-person and online sessions were offered during the week of extended spring break. After classes resumed, and as the university implemented social distancing measures, workshops were offered online only.

2. Organize a cadre of Instructional Continuity Partners.

To address the dramatically increased need for online course design support, TLOS started the Continuity Partners program, recruiting departmental faculty, administrators, and IT personnel who were already experienced with online teaching to serve as consultants.

Nearly 150 people in departments and offices across the university signed up within just a few days. The Continuity Partners have been crucial in helping TLOS extend its capabilities and continually fine-tune efforts during a rapidly changing situation.

3. Provide robust online resources and ongoing support.

To supplement workshops and Continuity Partner consultations, TLOS built a new Canvas site, Moving Your Course Online, with resources to guide instructors through the entire online teaching process: setting up a course home page; hosting student presentations, labs, and other course activities; grading assignments; and more.

Just before classes resumed on March 23, TLOS published a special edition of its traditional “TLOS Top Ten,” which provided tips and reminders for instructors with a focus on accessible course design and delivery.

In addition, TLOS continually updated its shareable resource, Online Teaching Support in Response to COVID-19, adding links to teaching, learning, and technology resources from other university groups as well as posting the current list of Continuity Partners.

From the outset, TLOS recognized that faculty might need additional help ensuring their courses met the unique accessibility requirements of an online learning environment.

In addition to helping educate instructors about online course accessibility during workshops and consultations, TLOS expanded its use of Ally, a Canvas-integrated tool that can be used to assess and improve the accessibility of course content.

Throughout this endeavor, TLOS maintained constant communication with departmental IT staff, 4Help, and groups in the Division of IT to quickly identify and address potential problems, and to learn what practices resulted in the best learning experience for students.

While the most intense phase of the transition to an all-online academic environment has passed, TLOS remains committed to supporting Virginia Tech faculty and staff as the semester continues and on into the future as long as is necessary.


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