Illinois Universities Give Remote Learning the Old College Try During Pandemic


Like many of us during the COVID-19 crisis, the nation’s academic institutions are learning as they go and shifting operations online to bring instruction to students at their homes all over the country, and even the world. 

At Loyola University, it was a matter of scaling up from 5% of their total course offerings that were online to 100%, said John Gurnak, director of the Office of Online Learning at Loyola. “Our efforts over the past several years by Loyola’s faculty to prepare and deepen their skills for delivering remote curriculum have put us in a pretty good place in terms of being prepared for this global health crisis,” he said.

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Loyola had the additional challenge of repatriating their students at their John Felice Rome Center in Italy, a decision school officials made in late February.

Jason Rhode, executive director of online learning at Northern Illinois University, says NIU extended its spring break by a week to allow faculty to come up to speed by March 23. “We’ve conducted about four months of training in just a week,” Rhode said, including “over 30 workshops for faculty, over 900 participants at those sessions, we’ve offered individual consultations and worked one-on-one with the faculty to talk about best practices, to give them ideas for how they can use the available technologies to make the pivot, and thus far we’ve had great success and very positive feedback from our faculty and our students.”

Randal Picker, James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, says that while it’s crucial these days to have remote learning options, he’s committed to maintaining as much of the classroom experience as he can as an instructor. “Our plan next Monday is to come as close as possible to recreating the University of Chicago experience,” he said. “That means I’m going to call on students just as I do, that’s the Socratic method. I’m going to ask them if they’ve read the material, they’re going to say they have, and we’re going to have a conversation. My goal is to make this technology like electricity – absolutely essential, but you only notice it when it’s not working. My job is to make it work. It’s a terrible time but I think we’re going to deliver high quality education through this medium.”

At Loyola University, the expectation is that the move to virtual classes is going to keep seniors on track for graduation. “Making sure our students have a way to finish their semester and stay on track for a graduation is really priority one to us. We feel it’s really valuable to offer a small amount of certainty in an uncertain world,” said Gurnak.

As for any tuition reduction due to the move online, NIU’s Rhodes says that students “are going to receive instruction that counts toward a degree, so we don’t plan to make any changes to tuition. However, there will be adjustments to things such as student fees and housing and dining costs and we’ll be addressing those as we move forward.”

And once this is all over, Picker believes these digital learning tools will find new applications for universities beyond the classroom with their alumni. “We’d like to engage with them intellectually, and I think we can do that through this medium. We’re going to be able to stay in touch with them in a really powerful intellectual way once we’re beyond this crisis,” he said.

The University of Chicago, Northern Illinois University and Loyola University all plan to remain virtual throughout the remainder of the semester, and dates for transition back to in-person classes have not yet been determined. 


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