Augustana exchanges close-knit classrooms for distance learning

Aubrey Lathrop

Augustana announced that all classes will switch to Distance Learning for the rest of the spring semester on March 18. Uncertainty surrounded this initial message and left students with many questions. Updates on housing and other campus situations moving forward have been given throughout the week.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many schools to shift to online learning to help slow the spread of the virus. Augustana’s decision focused on “keeping students safe and healthy,” said Keri Rursch, the assistant vice president of communications and marketing.
The new phrase “distance learning” was not immediately defined, but marks the shift away from in-person classes.
“Distance learning is when the faculty member and students aren’t in the same space when the teaching occurs,” said Dr. Wendy Hilton-Morrow, Vice President of Student Affairs, Provost and Dean of the College.
Faculty members will make most of the decisions with their courses. Meeting times, online formats and any syllabus changes will be decided by each faculty member, according to Hilton-Morrow.
The shift to online changes the class dynamics greatly. However, “students should expect to devote the same time overall to learning as they have with face-to-face classes,” Hilton-Morrow said.
In order to prepare for the online shift, many faculty members attended sessions on March 18 to be trained on different parts of an online learning atmosphere. “We’ve identified faculty who have experience with online teaching, and they have agreed to serve as resources for other faculty.” Hilton-Morrow said. 
A switch to online learning can provide a barrier to some students who don’t have access to technology or the internet. At the moment, the school is working to identify students in need. 
“Because students’ situations are likely unique, the college will need to respond in different ways,” Hilton-Morrow said. 
Initiatives could include directing a student to an internet company in their area, allowing a student to stay on campus, or opening up emergency funds that a student can apply for.
Augustana’s transition to distance learning has caused a quick turnaround for students needing to move out. Safety precautions were taken by the school to keep students as safe as possible. “Residents are asked to schedule a time. By having a schedule, there is a limited number of people in each residence hall at any one time. It is an important time for social distancing,” Rursch said.
The early spring break left many rushing home, but some are not able to return immediately. International students face additional challenges when traveling.
There are some students who cannot return to their home countries because of travel restrictions in those areas. Those students have completed forms to remain in campus residences,” said Dr. Monica Smith, Vice President of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
The Office of International Student and Scholar Services has also been helping students with international travel for more than a week.
Augustana hopes to reopen parts of campus later in the semester, said in an email from President Bahls. In the meantime, for students currently on-campus, campus services will be “scaled down” but campus security will “remain uninterrupted,” said Dr. Smith.
Augustana is planning to resume a normal teaching schedule next school year, with strong communication between professors teaching sequential courses. 
Faculty and students alike are looking forward to resuming face-to-face classes in the fall. We have every expectation that students will still be able to achieve key learning objectives in all of their current classes,” Hilton-Morrow said.
Giselle Barajas contributed to this story.