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NYU Response to Coronavirus Accelerates Digital Tool Adoption


When New York University closed its NYU Shanghai campus in response to the COVID-19 epidemic in China, little did it realize how much students would appreciate the efforts the university went through to keep their learning on track. The spring 2020 semester kicked off with school officials determined to use digital tools to deliver learning online as an alternative. More than a thousand undergraduate and graduate students and faculty have signed on to participate in virtual lectures, discussions and more physical activities from locations around the world.

Instructors conducted some 700-plus sessions during the first week, using a multitude of tools to enable live feedback and interaction in both synchronous and asynchronous ways, including learning management system NYU Classes, media sharing service NYU Stream, web and audio conference tool NYU Zoom and commenting utility VoiceThread.

Keith Ross, dean of Engineering and Computer Science at NYU Shanghai, suggested that the health crisis has one silver lining: It's bringing the faculty up to speed with online teaching tools in quick order. In a university article about the efforts, he mused that once the crisis has passed, faculty may choose to integrate the use of some of the tools into their traditional face-to-face courses.

In preparation with the expected dramatic rise in online traffic, the Shanghai institution doubled its international and domestic data capacities to accommodate what it called "an unprecedented volume of traffic to its servers."

"The first week of classes went much more smoothly than we even hoped for," said NYU Shanghai Library Director, Zu Xiaojing, whose Research and Instructional Technology Services (RITS) team worked overtime through the Lunar New Year holiday with the university's IT team and their New York counterparts on the transition. "The vast majority of students this week were able to 'attend' their classes with little to no trouble. Our work in the past few weeks with faculty on course design and technology preparation for the digital phase paid off."

RITS has produced online webinars to familiarize faculty with what has become known as the "NYU Shanghai Digital Teaching Toolkit." They also launched one-on-one online consultation services to provide instructors with customized suggestions and recommendations.

Remote teaching wasn't entirely new to NYU students or faculty. Ratan Dey, assistant professor of practice in Computer Science at NYU Shanghai, as an example, delivered online courses a few years ago at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, where he used Zoom, ProctorU and an online gradebook. More recently, Dey has been sharing his experiences about those tools via a WeChat group with his colleagues in NYU Shanghai's Engineering and Computer Science division.

Along with publishing course resources and assigning and grading homework with NYU Classes, professors have also been able to conduct remote teaching in both synchronous and asynchronous ways using tools linked to the platform. By using NYU Zoom, they can offer real-time video classes and arrange face-to-face group discussions.

NYU Stream and VoiceThread are letting students interact asynchronously. They can watch pre-recorded videos uploaded by instructors and then take quizzes, ask questions, make annotations and communicate with classmates using text, audio and video. Also available for use: NYU Web Publishing to publish and manage blogs; Slido and Piazza to conduct community voting and quizzes; Slack to support office hours; and Examity to proctor exams remotely.

The faculty have jumped into the process of modifying their courses to work with remote formats. Dance associate professor Aly Rose has plans to teach her classes from "inspirational" and historic locations in her hometown of Galveston, TX. "I hope to share my hometown with my students and incorporate the history here which shaped commerce, laws and diversity in Texas," Rose said.

Maya Kramer, a clinical assistant professor of arts, is teaching "Contemporary Art and Theory in North America and Europe" this semester. This is her second time teaching this course at NYU Shanghai. And even before having to move to an online format, she had planned to revise her instructional approaches. "I've been thinking more about chunking, how students learn information in discrete packages, and attention spans, how student attention wanes after 10-15 minutes" she explained. "Thus, I have been more conscious of breaking down class sessions into mini segments. Students will experience a short lecture segment, do something with that information, such as fill out skeletal outlines, compare notes with each other, analyze a case study, answer questions, etc. and then we move onto the next segment."

Kramer noted that all of her students are in China. She planned to kick off the course with synchronous Zoom sessions during the first week "to establish that sense of connection." Later, she expected students to interact with VoiceThread and complete tasks related to the content. For discussions, for instance, they might meet in smaller groups on their own and report back with questions and findings; other times, she anticipates that people will meet as a larger group on Zoom.

In-person field trips have been replaced by virtual substitutes. "I have a great network of arts professionals, many of whom have agreed to be interviewed by students on Zoom, which will be a good stand-in for museum visits if we don't meet face to face," said Kramer.

Some professors are putting in oddball hours. The university profiled Christian Grewell, a Shanghai assistant arts professor who is temporarily based in New York City. He stayed up past 3 a.m. in order to teach his "Branding and Innovation" class live via Zoom, at its originally scheduled Shanghai time. "For activities that lend themselves well to digital interactivity, it's actually better than the live classroom, as I'm able to augment a sentence or slide with an activity very quickly, and then jump back into video or screen sharing," Grewell said. "Class discussions have also been lively and productive. The biggest challenge I'm likely to face is that learning through building is such a large part of what I want students to accomplish, so it remains to be seen how well that will work when done at a distance. I'm excited to try."

Many of the students have supported the changes. As Liu Qichen '22 said, "I think that the digital classes have opened up many possibilities. Some professors have uploaded an entire week's worth of course content in advance, allowing students freedom to learn at their own pace. I believe that my classmates at NYU Shanghai are motivated enough and have enough initiative to guarantee the quality and efficiency of learning."

Another student, NYU Shanghai senior Maudie Carey, put together a digital thank you thread that went out to the "faculty, staff and administration" of NYU Shanghai. "Dear Professors, while this has been difficult for students, I'm sure it has been more difficult for you. Thank you so much for your work in revising schedules, syllabus details and being available and flexible for us. I'm sure this new form of online teaching is new to many of you and I sincerely appreciate all the effort you are putting in to ensure we have an educational semester," wrote one student. "In the past few weeks, all our NYUSH faculty, staff and administration members gave up their rest time to help reorganize our spring semester schedule and courses. They try their best to create optimized convenience for all the students while they report and explain the latest news about the epidemic. They are solving loads of problems with superhuman speed in this immensely challenging time," wrote another.

Most recently, the university made the decision to close classes and suspend operations at its study-away center in Florence, Italy in response to an acceleration of coronavirus cases in that country. Beginning Monday, March 2, the school announced, the institution would "begin holding classes remotely," at least until the end of March. "The experience we've gained at NYU Shanghai should help with this," the school officials stated.

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