Guidance from CUNY #3 – Distance Learning and Resources

This is the third of four messages providing recent academic affairs guidance from CUNY.​

By J. Michael Parrish

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More on the Scope of Distance Learning  

As we have indicated before, the objective of an academic continuity plan is to help safeguard the academic term from the standpoint of our student’s academic progress and their financial aid and support our faculty and students’ research efforts as we work to address the challenges posed by COVID-19.  As far as distance learning is concerned, the U.S. Department of Education has indicated that at a minimum, our faculty must be able to “communicate to students through one of several types of technology – including email – … and [that] instructors must initiate substantive communication with students, either individually or collectively, on a regular basis.”  As an example of this, the USDE offers that “an instructor could use email to provide instructional materials to students enrolled in his or her class, use chat features to communicate with students, set up conference calls to facilitate group conversations, engage in email exchanges or require students to submit work electronically that the instructor will evaluate.” All of these minimal levels of interaction are supported by the CUNY licensed software solutions itemized in previous guidance (see thread below) and identified in our www.cuny.edu/coronavirus portal. The most important thing is for faculty to confer with their students to get a sense of what the most effective and EQUITABLE way to move forward with distance learning should be, considering both faculty and student readiness, accessibility to devices and reliable internet access, and phone capabilities. Ultimately, faculty and colleges should ask themselves how they can create optimal conditions for students to meet their learning outcomes.

Update on Distance Learning Resources  

Access to Devices and Internet Connections

Pe current guidance, campuses will remain open, including facilities such as libraries and computer labs. This will allow faculty and students who may not have access to adequate Internet devices and connections to fulfill their distance learning obligations on site. Additionally, the University is in early conversations with the city about having internet service providers grant access to CUNY students, faculty and staff to their hotspots across the City and about the possibility of securing loaner laptops that could be distributed through our campuses. We also expect individual service providers to step up in this difficult time. A recent example of that is Charter Communications who just today, March 13, 2020, has announced that it will ” offer free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi access for 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students who do not already have a Spectrum broadband subscription at any service level up to 100 Mbps. Installation fees will be waived for new student households.” Please note that Charter Communications is not a CUNY vendor and CUNY is not endorsing or requiring the use of such services. Nevertheless, CUNY is appreciative of Charter Communication’s support in making such services available to our students and faculty.

Cisco WebEx Access

As campuses think about the additional tools needed to support distance learning, CIS has been working with Cisco to enable Webex services for all CUNY faculty, staff, and students. Cisco’s Webex Meetings and Webex Teams platforms will help with online learning and meetings for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester. Faculty and staff can go to ConnectCUNY Webex.com and use their @login.cuny.edu username and password to begin using Webex Meetings now. Student accounts are being loaded over the weekend. In addition, CIS has also enabled the Webex Education Connector in Blackboard to integrate Webex Meetings within Blackboard for classroom collaboration, online meetings and virtual office hours for courses within Blackboard.  As of now, the Webex Education Connector Learning Tools Interface, which is provided by a third party service, is seeing an enormous amount of use from across the country.  We expect the service will stabilize as all this testing is completed. Those using the Webex platform independent of the Webex Education Connector are having no performance issues to report. Webex, Blackboard Collaborate, and Microsoft Teams are three ready-to-go solutions for the colleges to use for virtual classrooms and distance learning. Presidents are given the latitude to consider other solutions with the understanding that CIS has limited resources to be able to integrate or support the local decisions. Of course, when the intensity of the work stabilizes, we can revisit any requests for additional support.  

Cloud-Based Adobe Licenses for Students

To supplement the previously released (see previous guidance in thread below), locally generated list of available resources to facilitate a move to distance learning, we wanted to present some resources that bring together additional perspectives from across the country.

We are pleased to state that CIS has been working with Adobe on how the University can take advantage of their recent announcement that would significantly reduce the need of students who have access to adequate computing devices at home to visit campus labs:  

  • Adobe is making temporary at-home access to Creative Cloud available until May 31, 2020 for universities who currently have only lab access for students, at no additional cost.
  • Adobe provides a student asset migration portal that enables graduating students to transfer the assets associated with their assigned school account to a personal account.
  • Adobe will be sharing a curated set of resources soon on the Adobe Education Exchange Website to help faculty with their transition to online instruction.

CIS is working now with Adobe to enable student access through the CUNY Login page using their @login.cuny.edu credentials. Faculty already have home use of these tools under our current CUNY licensing agreement. College CIOs can assist in activating faculty access, if needed. Both Adobe and CIS are now working to enable these additional student accounts by March 19th.  

Efforts to Secure Additional Blackboard Help Desk Support

Anticipating thousands of additional faculty and students who may now require Blackboard 24/7 helpdesk support, CIS is working with campus CIOs on the possibility of securing third-party services that will complement our in-house capacity in issues related to “navigation within Learn, how to use Blackboard Collaborate,” among other common Blackboard issues that our CUNY community may need help with. Services we are exploring will include a person that will answer off hours inquiries and provide assistance with Blackboard issues. If the issue relates to navigation within Learn, how to use Blackboard Collaborate, replaying a recording, as an example, the support agent will guide the caller through the challenge. If the support agent cannot resolve the callers needs at the time they will capture the question in an email and forward the matter to the appropriate service desk at the college or central office.   

Testing Options and efforts to Secure Proctoring of Distance Learning Exams

CIS is currently consulting with CIOs and Provosts about opportunities to procure a distance learning exam solution for proctoring services and share the licenses with the colleges. Of course, specific requirements need to be developed in consultation with campus leaders. We will do our best to identify solutions that can support the greatest common needs. Questions remain as to whether this should be a centrally led effort of a campus-based effort. In addition, campus testing offices may be open if campuses are open during the final exam period and be able to administer University exams such as the CEAFE and CATW exams for developmental courses. Additional information will be forthcoming.​

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