This story is featured in a special edition of St. Thomas magazine on COVID-19.

Mary Slack’s organizational leadership course always ends with a simulation final, with student-created businesses competing against one another for customers and market share. When COVID-19 forced the capstone class online, Slack’s students co-created not just their businesses, but how to make the entire final simulation virtual.

The result: Tommie Town, which used tools like the Remind app, Zoom and VoiceThread to replicate the dynamic learning process of running their businesses in the real world.

“Students really love that experience, and I think it’s even better now because of that co-creation aspect of how we developed everything together,” said Slack, Opus College of Business clinical faculty member.

Her course was part of a massive movement: Since March 12, more than 900 St. Thomas faculty members taught more than 2,000 courses to more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students. This summer another 450 courses will be taught.

It may appear as if the move to online learning took place in a matter of days, which – in a literal sense – it did. The reality, though, is that a foundation laid as far back as 2016 proved critical in a rapid, high-quality transition. It allowed St. Thomas’ signature academic excellence and personal attention to take center stage in ways that will shape the university’s future.

“It has been remarkable to see the community come together to ensure a high-quality educational experience continued despite the challenges,” theology Professor Kimberly Vrundy said. “I’ve never been prouder to be associated with St. Thomas.”

Business Professor Kurt Hochfeld conducts a virtual class in an otherwise empty classroom in McNeely Hall on March 19, 2020.

Business Professor Kurt Hochfeld conducts a virtual class in an otherwise empty classroom in McNeely Hall on March 19, 2020.

Forward thinking pays off

On March 2, members of the St. Thomas E-Learning and Resources (STELAR) team looked at a white board full of projects they were managing as more and more courses were migrating online. The team knew they could handle what would be needed in the coming weeks because St. Thomas already had evolved its online education capabilities.

“There was a huge sense of, ‘Thank God we’ve been preparing for this for the last number of years,’” said Karin Brown, a STELAR instructional designer who helps faculty develop their online curriculum and pedagogy.

With support from STELAR, which launched in 2016, the university has had a huge growth of online, hybrid and HyFlex education, including more than 1,000% growth in online summer courses, according to Ed Clark, CIO and vice president for innovation and technology services. Last fall Clark spoke about the St. Thomas community expanding and improving its online education. He said St. Thomas faculty embraced the effort.

“It’s been this guiding light of, ‘Let’s be really good in this space and keep what’s special about St. Thomas even in online classes,’” he said.

St. Thomas has made investments in technology infrastructure to support that development, from a top-level learning management system, Canvas, to web conferencing, to video and audio streaming and recording. Even more importantly, the university invested in STELAR staff and faculty training that has expanded every year. More than 150 faculty members have completed its online teaching certification courses.

STELAR and Information Technology Services staff members developed an Instructional Continuity site for faculty in Canvas that – coupled with drop-in Zoom support sessions and faculty well-versed in online teaching supporting their colleagues – meant ample support for quickly moving things online. A forum for students, Tommie Tech Online, also scaled up from supporting just new incoming students to more than 7,000 students by mid-April.

Virtual reality equipment and computers sit on tables in the STELAR learning space in the basement of the O'Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center in St. Paul.

Virtual reality equipment and computers sit on tables in the STELAR learning space in the basement of the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library Center in St. Paul.

Truly St. Thomas

Core to the complete migration was the desire to maintain the high-quality academic experience and personal attention for St. Thomas students.

“There’s a feeling of, ‘How can we make this work for the students so they’re getting the content in a way they can learn it and stay engaged with us?’ That’s St. Thomas,” Slack said. “That’s why I teach here and not other places. The student focus is so important.”

School of Engineering Professor Kundan Nepal cited his course, Engineering 410, Control Systems, as a prime example of how faculty and students have worked together.

“We created analytical labs with the equipment students know how to use. Faculty recorded sessions of themselves using the equipment as if the students were right there. … The student then have taken that data and used it to do an analysis at home, so they’re not losing any of the learning objectives.”

In many ways, said School of Education Professor Lynn Stansbury Brusnahan – whose special education program has won several awards for online teaching – being online can improve academic quality as elements such as universal design can be built in to help students of all learning styles get what they need.

Options such as hybrid and HyFlex courses – which offer options for students to attend class in person, Zoom in synchronously, or view recorded lectures – have grown at St. Thomas in recent years and will be key to shaping what the university offers students going forward.

A laptop computer keyboard, hands, a coffee cup and a smart phone are shown.

A student works on a laptop computer.

Giving students personal attention

Along with meeting academic expectations, maintaining personal attention has been a guiding light for the entire university. The Center for Student Achievement has helped faculty ratchet up proactive contact with students and advisees, made virtual office hours more available and, in general, done all they can to make sure they are maintaining crucial touchpoints with students throughout a challenging time.

“Our professors and administrators care about the health and well-being of the students, and that’s clearly their priority,” a first-year shared in a March video of undergraduate students sharing their experiences shifting online. “Professors and staff members are here for us and willing to support the students.”

“My professors have been so understanding and so nice and accommodating to help us through this transition,” a sophomore student added. “That’s a blessing, to me, to know they have my backs through this.”

Another element of the shift online has been for faculty to maintain the university’s convictions of equity and inclusion; seminars and trainings for faculty have been well-attended throughout the spring.

“We knew right away we needed to make sure that focus didn’t get lost,” said Ann Johnson, associate vice provost for faculty advancement, who has helped develop and will lead extensive DEI training throughout the summer. “Diversity, equity and inclusion is integral to everything we do in terms of teaching; we’re not going to lose touch with that. Diversity is one of our convictions and we will maintain it through this [shift to online learning].”

One such seminar on April 16 focused on helping faculty create effective and inclusive online communities. Tips included being transparent about building a community, using multiple channels to communicate, proactively reaching out, and increasing flexibility with universal design for learning.

“There is real intentionality with the faculty development center and STELAR to have an eye toward equity,” said psychology Professor and DEI Fellow Bryana French, who pointed toward the loaning of technology to students and the option of pass-fail grading as signals of equitable thinking. “We’re on the right track and doing good things.”

Certainty amid uncertainty

As so much of life at St. Thomas and around the world continues to be uncertain, the past months have shown a confirmation of the university’s mission and academic values. Dougherty Family College Dean Alvin Abraham expressed well what many in the St. Thomas community have seen.

“Every single person on our team, students included, have really rallied and tried to figure out how best to navigate their personal lives and show up fully to do everything they can to do their job well,” he said. “It’s so telling of our team and students. They’re committed to their education, and our team is committed to providing a high-quality experience for students, even with all this going on. The future in a variety of ways is unknown, but there’s a lot of hope. We’ve all risen to the challenge in fantastic ways.”

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