Overview of Our Course Support Approach

March 2020

Overview of our Covid-19 course support approach, from the academic continuity team

In response to the evolving Covid-19 situation, we are making plans for a shift of formal (course) learning to alternate modes that are not face to face but allow faculty and students to maintain academic community and complete course requirements. These plans are organized around the assumption of a move in late March-early April to primarily online course modes (see timeline), and they assume a program of training and support to prepare faculty and students for this shift. 

This page outlines how we are thinking about this shift and how our plans are taking shape to enable it. Given the nature of the situation, the descriptions provided below will evolve and take more specific form in the coming days. 


Our goal is to implement reasonable online mechanisms that allow students and faculty to stay connected effectively, engage in meaningful academically engaged time both individually and collectively, and complete formal course requirements in the final weeks of the spring 2020 semester. We understand that this will require some adjustments, and we are prepared to provide the training, documentation and ongoing support – at the level that is possible for a situation of this nature – that will enable this temporary shift. 


There are many specific challenges to address, but overall they fall into three broad categories of receptiveness, readiness, and scale, and they include an additional, specifical curricular challenge, beyond the general challenge of completing face to face classes in alternate modes. 

By receptiveness, we mean that there will be an understandable range of reactions to the anticipated need to move quickly to alternate modes of holding classes. This is an extraordinary circumstance, and the plan we are proposing to adapt our academic operations is likewise extraordinary, and not arrived at lightly. We are relying on the well known generosity and adaptability of our faculty to help us accomplish this. 

By readiness, we mean the practices and equipment that are already in place that could be drawn on for this effort. We do have some readiness already at the college. For example, we have a number of faculty who are comfortable with the use of Zoom. And quite a few faculty have laptops that will enable mobility and (in many cases) built-in access to a webcam. We will be working this week to assess our readiness more fully, to inform the development of options to address any significant gaps. 

By scale, we mean that we would need to assist faculty in a quick pivot to alternate online modes. We would have to ramp up a training and support plan on very short notice at a residential institution that is intentionally organized around face-to-face learning. We have the programmatic, pedagogical and technical support expertise on campus, and our efforts at scale will be focused on ensuring we map that expertise sufficiently across the faculty who are teaching this spring. This will require a heroic effort on the part of many team members, and it means that faculty and staff may get guidance and support from Smith staff who are not normally acting in technical support roles. 

In terms of specific curricular challenges, we will need to think carefully about labs, studios and performance courses that do not lend themselves easily (or in some cases, at all) to alternate modes of instruction that are not face to face. 

Focus and key strategies

Our focus in this shift is on approaches that sustain strong connections between faculty and students and allow faculty to hold courses and office hours, assign and grade coursework, and enable student group work at a distance. We are focusing on two key practical strategies: to the fullest degree possible, leveraging tools that are already known and centrally supported on campus; and scaling up the number of people who can assist with training, basic consultation and support. Of primary importance will be ensuring consistent student experiences across courses.

For tools, we expect to draw heavily on Zoom, Moodle, the Google Suite (Gmail, Drive, Docs, Sheets, Meet, Hangouts, etc), Poll Everywhere and similar tools that already have established central support mechanisms. 

To scale up, this week we are beginning broad staff training in the central tools we expect to rely on most heavily. This training will intentionally go beyond the groups on the institutional organizational chart who typically provide support, because we need far more people conversant enough with these tools to provide basic support. Unfortunately, we also need to assume that our regular support teams will not be fully immune to any effects of the coronavirus, should infection hit campus, and we need to have enough redundancy to support ongoing college operations.  

Transition approach

We will approach this transition in three phases, the first of which will begin immediately. 

  1. Assessing curriculum: beginning the week of March 9, 2020 the Provost’s office will facilitate conversations with faculty to assess how to best move this semester’s courses. The academic continuity team will provide framing questions to guide this assessment. In parallel, we will be assessing our community’s technical readiness in terms of equipment and software. 
  2. Readying our faculty and courses: We will take the week of spring break and the following week to prepare. During that second week, classes will be canceled. We will offer a range of training, support materials and DIY guides to enable the shift to our alternate mode mode. Each course would have a formal plan for how to complete the remaining weeks of the semester online. 
  3. Operating in alternate online mode: Beginning the week of March 30th and continuing through the end of the term, faculty will hold their courses online, in keeping with their formal plan.   

Formal learning modes

By this we mean the different ways that faculty and students interact with each other in classes, with various purposes, and that we need to map to alternate online modes. Here is an initial mapping, that we expect to amplify and refine in the coming days. In all cases, we will provide instructions for supported tools as well as opportunities for lightweight training. 

Course home base: We will ask every faculty member to develop a clear course “home base”, or a consistent and reliable location for course information, content, and instructions. We recommend the use of Moodle or Google Docs for this purpose. 

Initial orientation: We strongly encourage faculty to hold an initial orientation with their class on how the course will work in the online mode, accompanied by an explicit discussion of norms and behaviors in the online mode. We will provide templates and suggestions for how to approach this. 

Holding class: Faculty may choose to do this live via Zoom, or they may choose to make recordings that the students will view on their own time, following the revised course syllabus. 

Assignments: Assignments will be turned in electronically. We will offer multiple mechanisms to do this, including mechanisms for tests. 

Office hours: It will be important for faculty and teaching assistants to maintain robust office hours through Zoom or similar communications mechanisms. We will provide guidance on how to set this up.  

Q&A / Discussion sections: In some courses, you may wish to have online group discussions. We will suggest tools and key practices for effective group discussions online, in a large group or in smaller breakout groups. 

Group work: Many courses have group projects. We will provide suggestions on specific tools and techniques beyond the practices individual student groups may already have in place for their own work. 

Labs, studio and performance work: We will work with departments to assess if and how we might be able to offer alternate modes for these kinds of curricular activities. 

Training, documentation and support

Our training, documentation, and support will be oriented to the task at hand, focusing on how to set students and faculty at ease in online modes, how to carry out standard course functions, and how to get help. We hope that many faculty will feel like they can be self-sufficient after some initial training, and yet we recognize that this will feel difficult for many people. 


Please review the one page document we have created as an overview of the expected process. (link to PDF) 

Academic continuity team

The academic continuity team is led by the Office of the Provost and Dean of the Faculty (PDOF), in partnership with the Office of the Vice President of Information Technology & Chief Information Officer (VPIT/CIO). The PDOF oversees academic continuity in general and communication and coordination with chairs, departments and programs specifically. The VPIT/CIO oversees the team of coordinators who are developing the IT and academic support framework necessary for Spring 2020 courses to be offered in alternate online modes. 


We will be developing FAQs around questions tied to our plans for academic continuity. Please send any suggestions for the FAQ to covid19info@smith.edu.