Future Tense

Running a University During a Pandemic

A Future Tense event recap.

A man sits in an office.
Chris Callahan in his office at Arizona State University. Screenshot from Zoom

When Arizona State University announced it would transition in-person classes to remote instruction, it was the Wednesday afternoon of spring break. That meant that Christopher Callahan, the dean of the university’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, had about 96 hours to prepare his school’s 124 professors, who together taught 193 courses and about 1,200 students, to go online.

By 7:30 Monday morning, he found himself in a makeshift command center with fellow deans and IT staff, monitoring the newly transitioned classes on Zoom.

“That gave us the ability to sort of peek in,” Callahan explained. Able to identify instructors who were struggling, “we were able to adjust that in real time,” he said.

Callahan’s experience, which he discussed with Future Tense editor and ASU editor in residence Torie Bosch in the most recent installment of Future Tense’s Social Distancing Socials, is far from unique. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, ASU, and New America.)

Across the world, universities and other education institutions are struggling to manage the transition to remote learning. As they do so, they face complex questions about educational accessibility, learning equity, and student well-being.

“It’s completely uncharted waters for everyone,” Callahan said.

One of the largest challenges with the transition is very concrete: What about students who don’t have computers or broadband access at home?

In ASU’s case, the school was able to identify students who needed laptops and prepaid hotspots and deliver those tools to them, free of cost. The last laptop Cronkite distributed was sent out on Sunday or Monday, Callahan said. (Students will eventually have to return the laptops. So don’t get any ideas.)

Student housing is another conundrum. Citing health and safety concerns, some universities have decided to close down residence and dining halls. ASU, for its part, has kept dormitories open (though it has encouraged students who have the ability to move out to do so).

“During the academic year, this is their home,” Callahan said, citing the need to keep living options available for students who don’t have anywhere else to go.

In a survey of nearly 167,000 college students last year, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that “39% of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days” and “46% of respondents were housing insecure in the previous year”—findings that highlight the need to protect the stability of housing and dining options for students, despite the health challenges presented by COVID-19.

Cronkite’s response, explained Callahan, is motivated by two priorities: maintaining the health and safety of its students and continuing to provide them with a robust education.

Normally, those priorities don’t conflict. But in the middle of a pandemic, they can—the school, for example, decided to prohibit all field reporting, which is normally a huge part of its students’ coursework and professional training and, because the journalism industry hires based on concrete experience, is also key to future employability. As a Cronkite alum, I know this well: The school supported my reporting in two foreign countries as a part of my coursework, so I can only imagine how being stuck behind a screen must be a drag.

“It has forced our students to be really creative in storytelling,” Callahan said.

The students who normally put together a nightly news show broadcast on Arizona PBS, for example, are reporting from their homes, giving weather forecasts from their living rooms and anchoring news updates from their kitchens.

Fernanda Santos, a professor at the school, worked with her students to create a list of remote reporting strategies, including using video calls “to be a fly on the wall,” asking sources to keep a daily diary or audio log, and tapping into Google Earth to “describe places that you can’t visit.”

The challenges inherent in transitioning to remote learning are compounded by the fact that many students are currently under severe emotional and physical stress. Some have been converted into caregivers for family members or full-time teachers for children; others have lost income. Given those difficulties, students and teachers around the country have (in some cases successfully) argued for converting grading systems to pass-fail.

Callahan said that while he’s asked professors to use their best judgment to support students in the context of their individual circumstances, “lowering the standards would be a disservice to our students.”

Callahan said his school is doing what it can to prioritize students’ mental and emotional well-being. It’s introduced remote extracurricular activities via Zoom, including yoga classes, karaoke and dance parties, binge-watching meetups, lunchtime chats, and two remote sessions called “Pets of Cronkite” and “Kids of Cronkite,” which encourage people to “take a virtual walk” or “make some silly faces” with their best animal or small-human companions.

And as for what Bosch called the long-term “ramifications for this bizarre experiment that we’ve all been forced into”? Callahan hasn’t had much time to think about them just yet. Maybe ask him once his 18-hour days have calmed down a bit.

“I’ve had my head in the sand a little bit on a lot of the mechanics here,” he said. “I would anticipate all sorts of great lessons from this. … We will be incorporating a lot of the lessons we’ve learned.”

Watch the full discussion on the New America website

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.