Beginning Monday, March 16, Boise State has moved to online-only instruction for its nearly 30,000 students, in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Idaho's other public colleges and universities are expected to shift coursework to online-only in the coming days.
Boise State has also suspended all on-campus events to curb social distancing and has suspended all official university travel through the end of the Spring 2020 semester.
Greg Hahn, Associate Vice President at Boise State's Office of Communications and Marketing, visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the university's unprecedented move.
“Our President said, ‘The research being done at universities like Boise State is exactly what's going to get us out of this.’”
Read the full transcript below:
GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning, I'm George Prentice. The campus of Boise State is a bit more quiet this morning. That's the intention. Beginning today, Boise State delivers all spring 2020 courses remotely. Indeed, it's an historic move, an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Greg Hahn is here, Associate Vice President at the Office of Communications for Boise State. Greg, good morning.
GREG HAHN: Good morning, George.
PRENTICE: Generally, how many students and/or courses are we talking about?
HAHN: Well, it's hundreds and hundreds of courses. We've got, out of our 26,000 students on campus, I would say about 17,000 are in some kind of face to face coursework. Even the most traditional students will take online courses in between now, and kind of supplement what they're doing, which is a nice luxury that we didn't have when we were trying to figure out how to get out of eight o'clock classes. But that's a big chunk of people, so it is going to be different. It's going to feel a little bit like summertime I think, where we do have about 10,000 students, but more than half of them are usually online anyway.
PRENTICE: Let's talk about last Friday's exercise. Do you have a sense of how that went?
HAHN: Yeah, it was, we got together in the afternoon and our interim provost came and said, "The deans are feeling great about it." The faculty, we had some neat moments. We had some faculty who do this a lot. It's a mixed bag, right? There's not a ton of faculty left who haven't at least done some online or at least move portions of their own courses online. We have a lot of what we call hybrid classes. And so the people who are really comfortable, they were opening it up. They were saying, "Let's come, I'm happy to talk to anybody who wants to come in and have a little breakdown on how to have not just classes or lectures or sharing assignments, but doing office hours." We have some engineering faculty who do all virtual office hours now, even though they're right on campus and their students are on campus. It works really well.
So that was kind of neat to see. We didn't have any technological bumps, which is really what we thought was going to happen, but that's why we wanted to do it. So then it was just about getting students and faculty really comfortable with the idea that it could do it. I mean, there's certainly a lot of upsides to face to face interaction in so many different ways. I mean, I don't see... But boy, the flexibility that this kind of effort is going to give us in the long term is almost worth it in itself, right?
We had days and days and days a few years ago with the snow storms where we basically just had to stop classes, right? You do everything you can to keep from doing that, but sometimes it happens. But boy, wouldn't we be better off if we had figured out a way, next time it's dangerous to get to campus for one reason or another, we just have this infrastructure in place. I don't think yesterday, or Friday I guess, was the end all be all of solving our problems. I think it raised some questions that we didn't think of before, but it maybe gained some confidence and launched us into the next few weeks with a better sense of how to go about this.
PRENTICE: Technically, what is the platform that online courses or most of these courses are being conducted on?
HAHN: Well, Boise State does have kind of an official software that we use for online delivery, it's called Blackboard. It's a service that's used all over the country. I teach in the Honors College and we use that. You can deliver videos through that and readings, and students can upload their assignments, and there's a digital chat space in there that people can use. You can do all your grades there and students see it right away. So, that exists in almost every... Not every course was already connected to Blackboard, but that has been the goal for a while, and in the last few weeks, as we got started thinking about preparing for this, that was sort of a directive that came out of the provost office. So before we even decided to do the test, we had gotten at least a Blackboard shell up.
Now because of the nature of doing this as quickly as we're doing it, and I think this is true across the country, as hundreds of universities have had to do this, that faculty are really being encouraged to find that space where they're comfortable. I know that there's, like, an art metals professor who's thinking, "I can do this on YouTube." Right? It's so different, to be working on something with the faculty right over your shoulder, but there are ways that you can get these ideas across. You're learning how, at least in this case, you're learning how different metals interact with each other, how different polishes work, all that stuff you would learn in the arts metals course. It's going to lose a little bit of its luster I guess, to just... Now I feel silly about that simile. But it's going to do it. But but she can deliver those online through Facebook or at least in this case through YouTube, and students can watch it and ask questions and practice on things that they can get at home.
So, I think it's doable. And we have Zoom. Boise State has licenses with a lot of different teleconferencing and telecommuting spaces. So we use that. I had a meeting yesterday and we brought in folks. Of course, like everybody else I hope, for the last several weeks, anybody with a sniffle, we were asking to stay home. And so, even before all this happened, if we were going to have a team meeting in my office, we lined it up to have the Zoom, and I think we'll keep doing that for a while, and it works really well. You feel like you're there and everybody can interact. The technology is just in a different place.
PRENTICE: Let's talk about social distancing. Do you have a sense of how many students live on or within walking distance of campus?
HAHN: Yeah, well, in our own housing, the university-owned housing, we have about 3000 students, and that's most of the freshmen living in the residence halls that are more kind of traditional dorm style. We also have some apartments and some other things. But in the last few years, these private apartments have sprung up all over campus. The big ones in the Lusk area and around on Boise. And so, we think there's probably a couple thousand more in those spaces, and then a few thousand more just in the neighborhoods right around campus. That's been the big, I've been here seven years, and the difference between when I started and today, even just in the vibrancy of campus day to day, that's where it all is. Those are people who are around.
PRENTICE: The demographic is an active one. They like to congregate. So talk to me about services. They have to continue, yeah?
HAHN: Oh yeah, right. Well, we want to do everything we can to keep everybody on track, right? I just want to point out, too, that as you dive into this and we're making all these sacrifices and canceling these athletic events and canceling the big celebrations that we were planning to have and canceling, you know, high school... Our student union building's full of big giant groups of high school students here every spring, and that's just hard to do.
But there's something gratifying and almost unexpected about being part of this international effort to do something about a disease that's not going to hit most of the students, aren't in the demo. You know, they're not even going to notice if they're sick. Most of the faculty and staff are kind of younger, working age. This is Boise, so people are healthy and outdoors folks. But we know there's a vulnerable population here, and we know that there's a group of people who are in the biggest danger of this, of the spread of this virus, and to keep that healthcare system, I guess to keep the push within the capabilities of the healthcare system.
So, it's neat to be part of that, and I think even the coaches and the athletes, they were the ones who had to do it first, right? They found out last week that everything was getting canceled and, of course it was devastating for them, but I've seen all of these reactions now from the coaches, and at the end they're like, "You know, it is gratifying." It's an important thing we're doing, and we're not doing it by ourselves. We're doing it with everybody.
So I think that the social distancing piece, it's going to be just hard on net. I mean, it's naturally hard. How many people are you going to shake hands with before you think twice about doing it? I said that about, I texted, when Treefort postponed, I was really glad because I realized, I get 80% of my yearly hugs in at Treefort because I know everyone there. And so, the prospect of having a Treefort where you couldn't do that was really sad. So, I'm really glad we're moving that back.
So, that's the cultural piece, right? If you're in a fraternity or sorority or you're in a club sport or you just go out and play hoops with your buddies like I did when I was in college, it's going to be a little learning curve to figure out how to do that. But services-wise are, we're going to try to figure out how do we do everything that students need. Whether that's in-person, whether that's digitally, if we're all of a sudden sending half the students home or more, or whoever knows...
PRENTICE: But health care, food services?
HAHN: Health care is going to stay open, food service, the dining halls, right. We're kind of guessing who might decide to stay. I mean, I think there may be families who want their children to stay in, or, you know, these aren't children, right, they're young adults, but to stay here in Boise because it's a little safer maybe than Seattle or some of the other places that they're from. We also don't want to disrupt anything that they're doing that is really kind of essential to their education. So research, it's vital. I think our president said this last night, the research being done at universities like Boise State is exactly what's going to get us out of this. I mean, we can't stop that. We're going to keep doing that as long as it's safe. And so that's faculty, that's graduate students, that's undergraduates. We have about half of our undergraduates at this point go through some kind of work in the research lab at some point.
So, that's pretty vital stuff and they're going to keep doing that. We have a lot of students, a lot of our stuff starts falling apart if the students aren't there, because they're doing it with us. We have got a ton of students in every division of campus, certainly in my office, and in student support. We have peer mentors, we have learning assistants. They're all students. And so, we want to keep them engaged, one, because those services are needed, and two, because those students have kind of depended on that piece of their income to make this whole thing work.
PRENTICE: Real quick, what's the status of commencement?
HAHN: Commencement is still on at the moment, though, we're going to have to evaluate every large thing. To me, the things that are really important about this time for Boise Staters is to keep the community. How do we maintain a sense of the Bronco community when everybody's sort of dispersed? And so, that's kind of been my call to my staff and to communicators around campus. And the celebrations. The celebrations are so important. The top 10 scholars. We're probably not going to be able to have a big top 10 scholar dinner. So what does that mean? We still want to celebrate those students. We still want to celebrate all the seniors from the sports. We had to cancel senior night of gymnastics the day before it happened, right? These are women who are competing at the highest level in the country, and it's just a devastating blow.
So, figuring out a way to keep those celebrations going all the way through commencement one way or another. And it may be like nothing we've ever seen before. We have a undergraduate research conference where a couple of hundred students show their work. We want to still do that. We're probably going to move it into a digital, interactive experience. So, now it's just on us to be innovative and creative, and find ways to keep that going. And commencement, at the moment we're going to try and do it, but if the advice is that it's a bad idea, we'll figure something out, whether it's a postponement, whether it's something we've not even thought of just yet. We know we want to celebrate it.
PRENTICE: Greg Hahn is Associate Vice President at the Office of Communications for Boise State. Best of luck.
HAHN: Thank you, George.
Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren
Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio
Member support is what makes local COVID-19 reporting possible. Support this coverage here.