How to create a free COVID-19 course for everyone in 5 weeks

More than 40 faculty and multiple departments helped launch ‘COVID-19 in Context’ by the University of Mary Washington for over 800 students and 1,000-plus community members

In just two days, enough professors from the University of Mary Washington agreed to donate their time to help launch a free coronavirus course in five weeks for students and the community this summer.

The popularity of the then-upcoming COVID-19 in Context online course, now still in session, rapidly grew after a faculty member was inspired by another school’s offering to pitch the idea to leaders at the Virginia public university. Soon, nearly 2,000 people enrolled in the free COVID-19 course, including more than 800 students. “It was a logistical nightmare,” says Keith Mellinger, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “We had to ensure our more than 40 faculty members were on the same page and learn how to work with numerous departments that are typically not part of course development since we would be reaching such a large audience.”

These collaborations included the relations office to communicate with the public about COVID-19 in Context, the webmaster to promote the course on the university website and the finance department since it would be free for students.

Making the course free

To make up for the lack of incoming revenue, the school included a statement on the registration form requesting $30 donations to help cover the costs of acquiring the Zoom license and payments to students who captioned every video for accessibility.

“A very large segment of the community and alumni donated the suggested amount when they registered, which defrayed the cost entirely,” says Mellinger.

Related: How Whitman College created a COVID-19 course

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Additionally, removing monetary requirements did not necessarily mean students would enroll, so the school made the course credit-bearing that would count towards the fall semester. The names of students who completed the course therefore had to be communicated to the registrar’s office to add these credits to their fall transcripts.

Dealing with a large number of students

When a high level of students started to enroll, the university decided to create breakout sessions following the larger Zoom discussions but only for the 220 incoming students who enrolled so they could still have that small class experience. “We tried but couldn’t preassign students to these breakout sessions since not enough students were registered in Zoom,” says P. Anand Rao, chair of the university faculty council. “So we created three separate Zoom meetings and, in each, we randomly assigned participants to these breakout rooms including at least two faculty members.” Faculty would then be reassigned if any of the breakout sessions needed a discussion leader.

Meanwhile, the 600 returning students participated in discussion boards to satisfy course requirements.

Providing community outreach before each class

The fact that more than 1,000 community members could potentially log in early before each course prompted the discussion of what message could greet them during this period. “We could have everyone stare at a screen that just said ‘please standby’ or we could recreate what movie theatrers do before each film by telling what the university is all about and to talk about what we do at critical times such as these,” says Mellinger.

The university decided to make 15-minute montage videos for each class that showed pictures from study abroad programs and highlighted undergraduate research papers. “We had a number of people tuning in almost 50 minutes before each class, so this was another great opportunity for outreach” says Rao.

“It’s important to cast a wide net for projects such as these because faculty who want to collaborate with their peers usually have certain people in mind who they know are dependable. Open discussions will connect peers with those who they wouldn’t have normally thought to reach out to,” he adds. “I have also had side discussions with faculty for a new offering in the spring that we wouldn’t have thought about if we hadn’t been exposed to this. This was a great way to spur ideas.

To read about how Whitman College created a COVID-19 course, click here

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