It is one of many improvised educational responses to a public health emergency that has disrupted daily routines for millions since the novel coronavirus epidemic surged last month in China and began spreading to other countries. The virus can cause respiratory illness and in some cases death.
This wasn’t what Duke University imagined when it launched Duke Kunshan in 2013, just west of Shanghai, in partnership with Wuhan University of China. But Matthew Rascoff, Duke’s associate vice provost for digital education and innovation, said the Kunshan venture has no other options.
“When the alternative is no learning at all,” he said, “and the institution grinds to a halt, then online is looking a lot better.” Rascoff said Duke is sparing no expense to aid what is, effectively, “a university in exile.”
An online school also wasn’t what Alberto Najarro envisioned when he turned down offers from prestigious universities in the United States in 2018 to join Duke Kunshan’s first undergraduate class. Leaving classmates with a hasty goodbye in late January, Najarro flew home to El Salvador and has kept in touch with friends through text messages and video calls. He is eager to return to studies in Chinese, microeconomics and environmental science.
“I look forward to seeing how online classes will work for us,” the 20-year-old sophomore wrote in an email. He expects the digital setup will follow the university’s emphasis on active learning with a liberal-arts approach. “I have my concerns, of course. But I’m rest[ing] assured that we will make it through.”
Kiera Zhou, 19, also a sophomore, from Yangzhou, China, said she worries the online courses might not be as lively as those taught in person. “I really like in-class discussions, when we communicate and argue with others,” she wrote in an email. “That is a unique experience.”
The viral outbreak, which struck heavily in Wuhan and Hubei province, scrambled education timetables throughout China. The usual school break for the Lunar New Year was extended as authorities sought to slow the spread of the virus.
For universities, especially those with students far from campus, online education can provide a temporary fix in the urgent quest to restore academic order. The prominent Tsinghua University in Beijing started its spring semester online Feb. 3. “Delaying a return to school doesn’t mean no classes — we can continue our education,” university President Qiu Yong told students who listened via laptops and smartphones.
New York University launched an online program Feb. 17 for its Shanghai campus. The program offers 293 courses for 820 undergraduates and 136 graduate students. They are “signing in from all over the world,” Jeffrey S. Lehman, NYU Shanghai’s vice chancellor, wrote in an email, “and we have experienced very few glitches so far.” Hundreds of other NYU students ordinarily based in Shanghai are studying abroad this semester in New York and other NYU locations.
Lehman is co-teaching a class called “Creativity Considered,” using online communication tools Zoom and Slack. “It was a tremendous relief to discover that we could maintain authentic discussion and engagement,” he wrote. NYU awarded its first bachelor’s degrees in Shanghai in 2017 and is expanding its campus there.
For Duke Kunshan, the crisis hit at a delicate moment: The university is in the midst of recruiting its third undergraduate class.
The school has about 325 freshmen and 250 sophomores, as well as 125 graduate students. Two-thirds of the undergraduates are from China, with the rest from the United States and elsewhere. Tuition for international undergrads is about $55,000 for the current school year, not counting room and board. For Chinese students, it is about $25,000.
About 50 undergrads have remained in Kunshan with a small group of staff. The campus has had no reported cases of coronavirus infections, officials said.
Duke Kunshan’s executive vice chancellor, Denis Simon, said the university cannot skimp on academic quality, no matter the medium of instruction, because its brand is at stake. The first undergrads are planning to study for a semester at Duke next school year and then return to China. They expect to earn two bachelor’s degrees in 2022 — one from Duke and one from Duke Kunshan.
“We really have to deliver a first-class education, through and through,” Simon said in a telephone interview Feb. 19 as he was traveling to the Duke campus in Durham, N.C.
There, several Duke Kunshan professors have been huddling in recent days with Duke experts to map an online curriculum for the final four weeks of a seven-week term. The school year is supposed to conclude with one more seven-week term in the spring. If needed, that will be online, too.
The highly ranked U.S. university has years of experience with online education in business, nursing and other fields. Duke also has posted dozens of classes on the Web platform Coursera in subjects including dog psychology and machine learning. The proliferation of online courses in recent years has spurred teaching innovations throughout higher education. It is common for lectures to be posted and searchable online, for digital discussion groups to be woven into face-to-face classes and for students to take a mix of courses online and in person.
But converting an entire liberal arts school to a remote digital format within a few weeks poses an unusual test.
James Miller, a professor of humanities at Duke Kunshan, is part of a team teaching 160 freshmen a core class called “China in the World.” Ordinarily, class meets four times a week for lectures and small-group discussions.
Miller expects something like that schedule will continue online even though his students are tuning in from multiple continents and time zones. Those unable to participate in real time will be able to watch or listen afterward to catch up. “We’re cognizant that not every student in China, or wherever in the world, may have the bandwidth or Internet connectivity to participate 100 percent in a video conference meeting,” Miller said in a telephone interview from Durham.
In his career, Miller has always taught face to face. “For me, this has definitely been a new challenge,” he said. “And also an opportunity. In effect, being forced to use all the new technology has forced us to innovate in our teaching. Now, I’m thinking some of the technologies we’ve been learning, maybe we will keep.”
Benjamin Bacon, an associate professor of media and arts at Duke Kunshan, said he expects to hold plenty of video sessions for his classes in design perspectives and audio documentary. He said he has kept in touch with his students. “Everybody is healthy,” he said from Durham. “Nobody even has a sore throat.”
Students seem to be taking the upheaval in stride.
Nancy Zhu, 19, a freshman, wrote in an email from her home in Luoyang, China, that she is not worried. With video conferencing, Zhu wrote, she can easily talk with friends about schoolwork. “I think there is no difference in what we learn, it is just learning in a different way,” she said. “So, I feel quite connected.”
Spencer Reeves, 20, a sophomore, said going online is the only practical solution. “It also will help us to prepare for a working world where many meetings are conducted over the Internet,” he wrote in an email from his home in Connecticut. “These situations just make us better people overall.”
Wanying He, 18, a sophomore, from Hunan province in China, chose to stay on campus with a small group of others. She’s plowing ahead in logic and computer science courses, and plays guitar at night with friends to pass the time.