Coronavirus: Universities plan online classes and exams in case of campus closures

Contingency plans drawn up to ensure teaching and learning can continue

A spokeswoman for Trinity College Dublin said it had up to 2,500 students sitting exams at any one time in large venues such as the RDS. Photograph: Getty Images

A spokeswoman for Trinity College Dublin said it had up to 2,500 students sitting exams at any one time in large venues such as the RDS. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Universities are drawing up contingency plans which include delivering classes to students online, and conducting exams over the internet in response to the coronavirus threat.

At Trinity College Dublin the possibility of organising exams online is being explored in the event of limits being placed on public gatherings above a certain size.

A spokeswoman for the university said it has up to 2,500 students sitting exams at any one time in large venues such as the RDS, and it was prudent to explore alternatives. It is also contingency planning for the impact of a potential outbreak in its campus accommodation.

In an email to staff on Tuesday evening, University College Dublin (UCD) president Andrew Deeks said its contingency planning involves lecturers being asked to maximise the use of online methods to deliver lectures and tutorials to support off-campus study.

In addition, the plans involve drawing up alternatives to mid-term exams, such as replacing them with work that can be submitted over a period of time, online assessment or "open book" exams.

He also told staff that the university needs to be able to prepare for the potential likelihood of  operating without students or staff on campus.

"Currently Chinese universities are operating ‘normally’, but without anyone attending campus," he said, in the email. "We need to be able to do the same thing if necessary, but we also need to be able to deal with situations where individuals or small groups of students or employees need to self-isolate while the campus remains operational."

​​​​University of Limerick is also drawing up plans to deliver classes to students online in the event the campus has to close due to the spread of the virus.

One sources said there was also concern about the impact on international student recruitment, which is a vital source of revenue for third-level institutions.

University College Dublin is currently providing “online learning options” to students who were unable to travel to China for specific course modules due to travel advice.

A spokeswoman said the university “has a contingency team that meets regularly, and the scope of its planning and response is adjusted as the level of risk changes”.

Similarly, Dublin City University said it was drawing up contingency plans to ensure continuity in the event of disruption to the campus or its exams. These were due to be finalised next week.

“Any decision to curtail activities on campus would be taken following a careful risk assessment and dialogue with the HSE,” a spokesman said.

One university source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was considering “no-handshake” graduation ceremonies in a bid to limit the threat posed by the virus.

Homework

Many secondary schools are also exploring options to provide classes or homework for students online.

Clive Byrne, director of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, said some were planning to use online platforms – such as Schoology – to provide classes or assignments for students in case of closure.

Under official Department of Education guidance, schools that close due to “prolonged unforeseen” circumstances are required to make up any time lost.

This, it says, can be done by prioritising tuition over other non-tuition activities, reducing the length of mock or house exams or ensuring exam candidates attend all classes to the end of May.

One Dublin secondary school with more than 400 students has closed for two weeks to prevent the spread of the virus after the first case in the State was confirmed over the weekend

The HSE, meanwhile, met parents of students at the school following the confirmation. Students have been asked to limit their social interactions and not to attend social gatherings, while parents are being sent text messages daily to check on symptoms so there can be immediate action and follow-up if necessary.