DULUTH – The College of St. Scholastica is cramming for a major test — getting all 860 classes online, most for the first time, in just a week.

"We're in some uncharted territory," said Ryan Sandefer, associate vice president of academic affairs. "Every hour there's another challenge identified that we're developing some solutions for."

The Duluth campus of the Benedictine private school joins many colleges, universities — and even K-12 schools — nationwide that are racing to put together online courses as students are kept home to control the COVID-19 outbreak.

With about 4,000 students expected to log on for classes Monday after an extended spring break, College of St. Scholastica faculty and staff have been meeting virtually, recording lessons and preparing for an unprecedented transition.

About a quarter of the college's classes are offered online currently, which is a helpful head-start. But many classes — biology labs, choir and piano performance — never envisioned online-only formats.

"We need to be creative with the way we rehearse," said Bret Amundson, dean of the School of Arts and Letters. "With painting and drawing, they're working through how to get students the resources they need — they won't have the paint, the utensils."

For many students, it could also be a question of reliable internet access and having a space conducive to learning.

"Students have to put themselves in a position to be the best learners they can be," Sandefer said. "How do we develop the best classes to meet them where they're at?"

In the lab

On Tuesday, biology professor Anne Kruchten sat alone in a laboratory classroom, put her cellphone on the shelf of a cabinet, and recorded her efforts processing bacteria cells.

In another room, music professor Nicholas Susi moved his hands across a piano while his laptop watched from a music stand.

Professors are now "makeshift videographers," Kruchten said, as the classroom experience is translated into a digital one.

"At first I thought students' inability to have a hands-on laboratory experience would be a major drawback," she said. "In carrying that process to the virtual world, I'm documenting the process for them to see and experience — including the mistakes and mishaps of their instructor."

Nationwide, nearly half of all undergraduates take at least one online course, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. For science classes, it's closer to one-third, leaving some precedent to draw from.

"In a virtual classroom, the students will function much more as a research team than they might have even face to face," Kruchten said. "Students will be learning a very important skill of evaluating error."

For music classes, as students practice with recorded tracks and send in their own recordings for review, they will still get a chance to improve — though public performances are, for the time being, not possible.

Susi said it's a "curveball" for many professors, but a necessary one.

"In a rapidly changing crisis like COVID-19, we are hearing the word 'complicated' a lot," he said. "Our transition to online teaching and learning is actually one of the simple questions to answer: either we do nothing, or we try to figure out a way to make it work."

Long-term resilience

The college, which without aid costs more than $38,000 a year in tuition and fees — more than twice the University of Minnesota Duluth — will also need to ensure students are still getting what they paid for.

"One of our top priorities in all of this is that the St. Scholastica experience is still there for our students, meaning personal attention and first-rate academics," spokesman Bob Ashenmacher said.

"The platform may change, but our faculty really are committed to keeping that very close connection with students."

He said the school has been growing online learning for several decades now and is small enough to be "nimble" about the changes.

The trend in higher education was already toward more online delivery at traditional campuses. The virus-prompted digital shift just accelerates that trend.

Sandefer said the weeklong crush to move courses online will have a long-lasting impact.

"This COVID-19 crisis is really catapulting everyone, regardless of their desire, to be in this format and experience it," he said.

"The college will benefit from that."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496