How One University Has Adapted to Online Learning (Part 1)

Image courtesy of Marie Young and Erin McCloskey, Saint Francis University

Interview with Dr. Karan Powell and Father Malachi Van Tassell, Saint Francis University

Dr. Karan H. Powell is the Vice President of Academic Affairs at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania. We worked together at APUS from 2002 through 2017 when she served in various roles as SVP and Academic Dean, EVP and Provost, and as President. Saint Francis University is one of the oldest Catholic universities in the United States with an enrollment of approximately 2,300 students and a Division 1 athletic program. I was curious how they converted from face-to-face courses to online learning, and Dr. Powell agreed to provide me with answers to a few of my questions.

Father Malachi Van Tassell, T.O.R., Ph.D., assumed the office of president at Saint Francis University in May 2014 after serving the university as an adjunct assistant professor of accounting. He is a CPA and prior to becoming a Franciscan, he worked for Coopers & Lybrand in Phoenix, AZ and Arthur Andersen in Albuquerque, NM. I have had the privilege to meet Father Malachi on several occasions and am grateful that he was able to participate in this two-part blog interview as well.

Dr. Boston: I understand that Saint Francis made the decision to send its students home and convert to online instruction for a period of time. How much time did the leadership team take to make the decision, when did you announce it, how much time off did you give the students, and how much time did you give the faculty to learn how to teach their course remotely?

Dr. Powell: Due to the nature of this decision, Saint Francis University (SFU) began to plan by establishing a Pandemic Response Team in February. The President’s Council plus members of this Pandemic Response Team met together on the morning of Thursday, March 12.

It was at that meeting that we decided to send students home. The message was to be sent out that students would leave the campus on Friday, March 13.

All classes were canceled for Monday, March 16 and Tuesday, March 17 to allow faculty the weekend plus two additional days to activate and enhance their Canvas classroom. On March 18, all classes began virtually and at a distance.

Initially, we planned to allow a subset of students to remain on campus (international students, students with challenges getting home, or who lived in already declared “hot spots”). Some faculty who taught labs or who had lecture capture capability in their classrooms were approved to work in their classrooms, one person at a time, with sanitary wipe-down instructions and supplies for use after each individual.

However, the decisions changed day to day in response to the Governor’s closure of all non-essential businesses, including institutions of higher education. With that declaration, all students were sent home and faculty access to campus was rescinded.

To date, we have five international students living in off-campus apartments who we are supporting. Otherwise, the campus is vacant. All learning is remote and virtual as are all students, faculty, and staff, and this was effective by Friday, March 20.

We acted quickly, consistently, and cohesively as a University community and sent out regular communications to students, to faculty, to staff regarding updates and the evolving nature of decisions.

Dr. Boston: Many institutions that closed their campuses did so initially for a few weeks, and later announced that they would close for the rest of the semester. Is that what you did at Saint Francis? How quickly did you make that decision? Were there considerations such as refunds for campus housing, room and board, and other activities?

Father Malachi: Initially, we planned on students being off campus and learning via the digital world for only a few weeks. We went virtual on March 18, after having cancelled classes for two days so faculty could retool.

Our intention at the time of closing the campus was for our students to return to the residence halls on Sunday, March 29, with faculty back in their campus classrooms the next day. Our hope was that two and half weeks of online would carry us until life returned to normal.

Then events unfolded. The Governor closed non-essential operations in the Commonwealth of PA including higher education; nationwide, the COVID-19 crisis and situation became grimmer, long-term, uncertain, and challenging. We quickly realized that we would be online for a longer period.

We flirted briefly with the idea of returning to campus after Easter, which we quickly realized was not to be. So after teaching online for only a couple of days, we announced March 20 that we would be online for the entirety of the spring semester.

There were many questions and issues to be resolved and determined. My key staff met regularly the first week in the “situation room” from 8:30 – 9:30, followed by a meeting of the President’s Council. Our approach was to be deliberate and consistent in our decisions, our communication, and the actions we were to take during this time.

We decided early on to refund or credit for the unused portion of room, board, and certain categories of fees. We did not, however, immediately announce a refund formula. We were deliberate in its determination and also about communicating it to students and parents.

We explained that we needed time to develop the refund formula, making sure it did not conflict with federal and state rules, guidelines, and so forth for the long-term good and viability of the University. Our approach in all things is to be consistent with the mission of SFU, strategic in focus for the long-term health and viability of SFU for our students, faculty, and staff.

Dr. Boston: Part of the attraction of a smaller, campus-based student body is the personal relationship between faculty and students. Has it been difficult for your students and faculty to continue those relationships? Are there some success stories that you would like to share with the broader higher education community how Saint Francis has maintained its sense of community?

Dr. Powell: We are very proud of the SFU faculty, students, and staff during this transition. As you state, SFU is a smaller campus fostering a very personal relationship between faculty and students. Faculty have been provided the resources to interact with students via Google Hangout, Cranium Café, BigBlueButton, and other personal connection tools that faculty and students have at their fingertips.

Students have shared or reported when asked that faculty are engaged, reaching out to them, spending time with them, and advising students for the Fall 2020 term. In fact, we had an exceptional registration period for returning students for Fall 2020 with a better outcome than in previous years (fewer students to track down). This was commendable as faculty and students met in virtual advising sessions, and registration opened while moving to learning and operating at a distance.

Some examples of ways students and faculty are reaching out include:

  • The faculty created YouTube videos with pictures of multiple faculty saying hi from their home offices.
  • SFU students are engaged with the community and community-engaged learning as evidenced in Dr. Bintrim’s Literature & Disabilities class, where they are partnering even at a distance with senior citizens at Cambria Care Center to offer pictures of butterflies and flowers as encouragement and support.
  • Cancer Care Master’s program has a Community Engaged EXPH 360 class that usually trains clients face-to-face and is now doing it virtually. The program was tested with clients last week and will begin virtual training sessions this week for the next two weeks. For the remainder of the semester, they will train them virtually one to two days per week, as well as provide exercise videos to do on the other days of the week. The MSCC students are also doing this for patients from the clinic and are assessing the “distress” of patients during the current pandemic.
  • Randy Frye, Dean of the Shields School of Business, posted on LinkedIn songs and stories that speak to the students and how we miss them.
  • The question was asked, “What to do when lab courses have to move from campus to the home?” Dr. Trimble’s General Microbiology labs are investigating fermentation with kitchen science! This week, students were asked to try their hand at using microbes to create sauerkraut! He created a step-by-step, narrated slideshow in PowerPoint to guide them through the process. Students provided pictures of their homemade fermentation culture.
  • In NURS200, students worked with family members as their “patient” to practice lab skills in a virtual session. Each student has a 30-minute time slot for the sign-off and they seem to enjoy sharing their family members with the instructor. Sessions are not recorded in order to protect the family member’s privacy.
  • A quote from a professor: “My students have been great so far. Understanding, working hard, showing resilience.”
  • Quote from a parent: “I received a reassuring email from my daughter’s coach about helping students through this time. Saint Francis has done a wonderful job communicating with students and parents.”
  • Quote from a student: “My classes are going well. I miss the F2F conversations. It’s great we still have the ability to communicate online. By the time this is over, we should all be fluent in video chat! :)–”

Communication is essential to the functioning of the community. In the situation room, each day, we discuss the messages that need to go out to students, parents, faculty, and staff. Message content is created and coordinated through a central website for all announcements regarding SFU actions due to COVID-19. These are posted on our website.

We are receiving feedback that the communication from the Office of the President where Father Malachi offers strategic and pastoral messages; the updates from the Vice President of Academic Affairs on issues of academic quality and the experience at a distance for students and for faculty; the messages from the Marketing and Communications office; and the stories we are collecting and sharing with the community are the glue holding the bond of the community together. Our faculty are going above and beyond in their outreach to students and are the ones making the difference in the ongoing connectivity of our university student life experience. We are grateful to them and applaud their commitment and their engagement.

Dr. Boston: Not all campus-based schools were prepared for this situation from a technology perspective. I hear that you were prepared at Saint Francis. What decisions had the leadership team made over the previous few years that allowed you to transition quickly and successfully? What additional technologies did you have to acquire or test before “going live” with online instruction? Were there any steps in the process where you were concerned that something might not go as planned?

Dr. Powell: While we were not prepared nor did we expect to have to move all classes from a campus-based learning experience to a virtual experience, we were able to do so very quickly. SFU has invested in learning at a distance and related technologies and faculty development resources over the past years.

The decision to move quickly and our ability to do so effectively builds upon the foundations and resources in existence including the Center for Teaching and Learning, the launch of Francis Worldwide (SFU online school) in August 2019, and the use of technology and resources including a decision to partner with Collegis as our IT partner.

CETL began as the Teaching, Learning, Technology Center in 2001. It was the first year of SFU’s Laptop Initiative (SFU provides a laptop to all freshmen), of launching a learning management system (LMS) called WebCT, and investing in a wireless network technology. The initial focus was to:

  • Prepare faculty to take advantage of the one-to-one laptop initiative, availability of the LMS and wireless network, both pedagogically and technologically.
  • Increase skill levels of faculty and staff with common enterprise systems such as MS Office, e-mail, and internet use

In 2008, SFU began to look at online learning in real depth in response to a sharp increase in interest. (During the academic year 2006-2007, SFU offered eight online sections while during 2007-2008, there were 43 online sections.)

A task force was organized to study the potential for online learning, ultimately resulting in the development of the SFU Standards for Online Courses and the formation of the Committee on Distance Education as a Faculty Senate Committee. In 2011 and 2012, SFU offered a week-long, face-to-face Distance Education Course Development Institute (DECDI), funded through an Excellence in Education grant from the President’s Office.

In 2013, the name of TLTC was changed to CETL to emphasize the focus on teaching and learning, not technology. SFU moved the DECDI to a fully online format and changed the name to Distance Education Instructor Certification Course, offered for the first time in Fall 2013. Since that time, 236 individuals have been certified. Of those, 65 are current full-time faculty, which is greater than 50 percent of the current full-time faculty. Many of our part-time or adjunct faculty already teach online.

In 2016, SFU adopted Canvas as the LMS and all classes offered (both online and on-ground) were given class shells whether they were used or not. The fact that these class shells existed when we made the decision to move to online and close the physical campus enabled faculty to immediately go in and work to build, enhance, or revise their Canvas space.

Academic Year 2018 – 2019 was a year of transformation for Saint Francis University in all ways, and this transformation has carried into the current academic year of 2019-2020. One of the strategic areas of change was to move from a dispersed approach to online and distance learning to a strategic approach. SFU had an Adult Degree and Continuing Studies department through which many programs and courses were offered.

In addition, programs were offered through the Shields School of Business, the School of Health Sciences and Education, and some unique offerings across the campus. A decision was made in Spring 2019 to create a school for online with a name yet undefined.

In August 2019, a dean was hired and the new school, Francis Worldwide, was announced. All online programs are coordinated through Francis Worldwide, under the leadership of the dean and an Advisory Committee with representatives from all of the schools and related departments on campus. Processes have been refined for effective development and offering of programs, hiring and management of adjunct faculty, and refinement of definitions of effective learning and teaching in the virtual classroom.

When we made the decision to close the campus and move everything online, the Director of CETL began to offer workshops to assist faculty in this movement. Workshops were developed with insights from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

A combination of these workshops was offered a total of 30 times over 10 days, including the weekend (Thursday, March 12 to Saturday, March 20), face-to-face in the CETL and virtually through Google Hangouts. CETL staff worked in teams of two to lead each session and assist attendees. This freed up the other two staff members for one-on-one meetings and phone/e-mail support, which was heavy. Additionally, the CETL staff remained on call into the evenings during the week to support faculty working from home.

Some of the courses offered were:

  • Keep Teaching – Going Online when Classes Cannot Meet: Are your courses ready for a health or weather emergency? CETL can help you prepare your course so that when you cannot meet in person, you can still provide your students with meaningful online learning activities. This workshop will provide you with a full set of practical tips, strategies, and technologies to help you quickly set up an effective learning module.
  • How to Communicate with Your Students Via Canvas: In this 30-minute workshop, we’ll cover the basics of communicating with your students via Canvas. Participants will create and schedule announcements, explore sending and receiving private messages with the Canvas Inbox, and practice using the chat tool.
  • How to Conduct Asynchronous Discussions Online in Canvas: Use the Canvas discussion tool to facilitate conversations with your entire class online. Learn how to create a discussion, post your questions, read student replies, participate in the conversations, and grade student posts.
  • How to Create and Grade Assignments in Canvas: This session will take participants through the process of creating and managing Canvas assignments. Topics include creating an assignment, assignment settings, grading the assignment with SpeedGrader, and viewing the grade book.
  • How to Share Course Materials in Canvas: This session will cover the options instructors have in sharing their course materials online via Canvas. Participants will learn how to directly share files, websites, and videos while also creating pages that help guide students through the material.
  • How to Use PowerPoint to Record Lectures: In this session, participants will learn how to create a voice-over lecture in PowerPoint. Best practices for the recording process and uploading the lecture to Canvas will be covered.
  • How to Conduct Live Online Meeting using Canvas Conferences or Google Hangouts: In this workshop, we will compare and contrast two video conferencing tools: BigBlueButton and Google Hangouts. These tools can be used to conduct synchronous online meetings, virtual office hours, and online class sessions.
  • How to Create and Administer Quizzes in Canvas: If you want to use Canvas for administering quizzes, this is the session for you. Topics include creating a quiz, quiz question types, quiz settings, SpeedGrader, and secure testing.

Technology Enhancement

Technology enhancement has also been an important element to the overall strategy of the past year and specifically to this rapid movement to learning at a distance. With Francis Worldwide implementation, the following technologies were added and made available to faculty:

  • Francis Worldwide selected Cranium Cafe from Conexed, a higher education appointment scheduling, student kiosk, video meeting and reporting system to increase student engagement and to ensure that student services could still be delivered virtually.
  • Within a week, FWW was able to scale the implementation of Cranium Cafe to all SFU student services including registration, student counseling and pastoral services, admissions, advising, financial aid, billing office, tutoring, writing center and for faculty to use in the classroom for office hours and classroom interaction.
  • The student kiosk and queuing system allows SFU students to sign up for services, knock on the door for immediate assistance, or to send emails or chat directly with any services offered within the University.
  • Admissions and enrollment counselors are also using Cranium Cafe for virtual transfer fairs with community college partners and holding virtual campus visits for new and potential students. Potential students are able to sign up directly in Cranium Cafe for a virtual campus visit. During their virtual campus visit, students can meet one-on-one with their admissions counselors, faculty, and deans to replicate the campus visit experience.
  • In addition to Cranium Cafe, SFU also implemented Salesforce for admissions and advising. The entire admissions process is not interrupted as potential students can continue to apply and upload all of their documents directly online to Salesforce. Advising counselors are able to directly review student academic planners with students and suggest courses for registration.

For monitoring student success, in early spring 2020 CETL had purchased Dropout Detective but had not yet deployed it. With the movement online, this was activated to be used by our Center for Academic Success to support students and to monitor success online.

Along with Dropout Detective, advisors and life coaches are able to directly communicate and document actions with the faculty and other student success services. This allows all student success resources to know exactly how to serve the student and ensure their attainment of their degrees and personal accomplishments.

The SFU help desk is called “Help in a Flash” (SFU athletic teams are called Red Flash). Recognizing we would need to provide 24/7 support in new ways and to all students, we contacted Collegis Education on a Tuesday morning and had a plan for a 24/7 supported help desk with their call center by that afternoon. We were fully operational by Friday of that week.

Some students and faculty have had internet access challenges, which were confirmed in a survey we sent to faculty and students to determine the extent of these challenges. Our IT team developed a list of resources to provide to students and faculty regarding enhancing or extending their connectivity.

Faculty also provided guidance to one another about ways to provide alternative learning strategies to decrease the strain on the system and on the students. These resources are posted on the SFU COVID-19 site. Also on this site are communications sent by the university to students and to faculty over the past few weeks. This site was set up as communication central to share resources and obtain feedback and questions from students, parents, faculty, and staff.

All in all, our changes have gone better than imagined or planned due to the commitment of faculty, the CETL, and FWW teams and also due to the strategic planning and operational implementations we made as part of the transformation of SFU over the past two years.

Part 2 of this interview continues tomorrow.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence