Missouri colleges and universities that moved their instruction online to respond to the coronavirus pandemic found ways to become more flexible while also recognizing technology shortfalls for students.

Those are among the findings of a recent report from the state Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development, which received feedback from more than 75 public and private institutions across Missouri about the challenges they faced and the lessons they learned as the pandemic forced their closure.

The report concluded that many colleges and universities, shutting down their campuses by mid-March and moving their classes and other services online, expected the worst and faced many challenges. But they also were presented opportunities to develop new strategies, address ongoing issues and create stronger communities, the state department found.

"While many of Missouri's colleges and universities entered this moment with great uncertainty, we are pleased that campuses were able to identify and address issues and challenges facing students," said Zora Mulligan, commissioner of higher education, in a statement.

Challenges, solutions

The challenges faced by higher education institutions in responding to the pandemic were many, according to the report:

• There were limits to institutions' technical capacity to support online learning.

• There were questions about the quality of the online education that was being implemented rapidly.

• Practical and hands-on courses that require in-person learning opportunities struggled to find online resources.

• Student access to remote education tools was varied.

• Early decisions about how campuses would operate weren't always communicated to faculty, staff and students in a timely manner.

But colleges and universities overwhelmingly reported that despite the challenges, learning continued. Many institutions reported that staff called their students at least once after the transition to make sure everything was OK, and some reported mailing assignments to students who couldn't access them online.

Institutions also reported developing strategies specifically focused on ensuring student access to technology. Some distributed devices with built-in internet connectivity or hot spots, while others ensured that at least one computer lab on campus stayed open with appropriate social distancing. Others built "study stations" in building hallways, and some created scholarships or grants for students to purchase needed technology or reimburse students for internet costs.

Additionally, colleges and universities beefed up online support, such as tutoring or counseling programs, to address students' needs, and they regularly surveyed their students for feedback. Some increased virtual licensing to record hands-on experiences or to hold private lessons, and most are reviewing their policies to determine what changes need to be implemented going forward.

"It is this collective sense of 'we are all in it together' that will ensure postsecondary institutions continue to adapt and grow, increase educational access to all populations in the state and thrive in meeting the future world's needs," the report's authors wrote.

Missouri Southern response

Missouri Southern State University faculty and staff gave up their spring break to shift instruction online, said former President Alan Marble, who oversaw the university's response to the pandemic during the spring semester before his retirement last month. Support came from the distance-learning and information technology departments, he said.

"It was a lot of work," he said. "It was unexpected, unplanned and unwanted, but our faculty and staff made it work very smoothly, and our students adapted very well."

Much of the infrastructure for moving classes online was already in place, said Mikh Gunderman, an assistant professor of criminal justice and president of the faculty senate. Some classes were already delivered in a hybrid format at least partially online, and the university was working to obtain software that allowed for better online delivery, he said.

"Even though it was difficult, especially with the time constraints, we were probably better situated than a lot of other institutions," he said. "It wasn't easy; we did well, but there was definitely some anxiety and some problems. The transition was as smooth as we could have hoped for."

Several students also told the Globe that the transition to online classes largely went well.

Jacque Ballay, a spring graduate, said in May that she was "challenged" to stay on top of her schoolwork after the online shift because she wasn't used to that delivery model. But she appreciated the support of her professors.

"They were really quick to get on top of the online format and get us back to the groove of things," she said.

Gil Salgado, also a spring graduate, found the transition to online courses to be smooth and credited that to his professors.

"My professors have been very accommodating and understanding of the new platform," he told the Globe in May.

Even so, students' ability to access technology remains one of the challenges of Missouri Southern faculty and staff, Gunderman said. The university tried to address those challenges in the spring by keeping one computer lab in the criminal justice building open to students and boosting Wi-Fi signals in places such as parking lots, where students could work in their vehicles.

But those problems would be amplified if the university is forced to return to online classes in the fall. The university, like many, plans to return in August with in-person classes but is reviewing all of its options and planning out solutions to potential problems, Gunderman said.

"Some of our students just don't have access to that level of technology (required of online classes), Wi-Fi or personal computers beyond their cellphone," he said. "If we had to move back online at some point in the future, we've discussed renting out laptops to students who might need them or increasing Wi-Fi availability."

Gunderman said the university's top priority has been and will continue to be the safety of students, staff and faculty. But it's preparing for all scenarios.

"We know that COVID isn't going away. We've seen the cases slowly rise and then rapidly rise," he said. "We just need to make sure that we look at all sorts of aspects of the university experience to make sure we address these needed things."

More information

"After-Action Report: Postsecondary Education Online Rapid Response, Spring 2020" is available for viewing at dhewd.mo.gov.

Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.