Physical to Virtual: How Higher Education Has Adapted to Online Operations and Learning

The spread of COVID-19 has upended nearly all aspects of everyday life, but particularly the schooling and education realms. Due to physical distancing and lock downs, administration, teachers, and students are adapting by working and studying from home. And while this massive adoption of online operations may have previously seemed like an impossibility, it has very much become the new normal. But with a new normal comes new challenges and opportunities for everyone in higher education.

Universities and colleges are now fully going online for student services. In-person services such as advising, counseling. and enrollment are using tools such as Zoom, Skype, and even FaceTime to connect staff with students. While institutions have shuttered non-essential buildings and offices, institutions such as the University of FloridaTexas A&M, and the University of New Mexico have issued guidelines and developed and communicated new ways to work with offices and resources.

Fresno State has moved all non-essential campus operations online. “In an effort to do our part to limit the spread of COVID-19, and per direction from the CSU Office of the Chancellor, effective Friday morning, March 20, most campus offices that are not essential to direct student support will transition to working remotely, while virtual instruction continues,” said Fresno State University President Dr. Joseph I. Castro.

Several universities are using the opportunity to launch new online hubs for virtual learning and services. Florida State University now has VirtualFSU, which “includes information for virtual health and wellness, mental health services, the Career Center, Food Pantry, case management support as well as links to opportunities to be active, meet about wellness, and find engaging things to do online.”

Even long-running traditions and events have gone online. The University at Buffalo held elections for the UB Student Association executive board online. the University of Colorado-Boulder will have its Just in Time Career and Internship Fair virtually, and Penn State organized two virtual town halls to communicate COVID-19 plans and answer questions. 

The list of universities and colleges running virtual graduation and commencement is comprehensive: Purdue UniversityPortland State UniversityNew Mexico State UniversityDelaware State University, and many more are moving their ceremonies completely online. Some are offering in-person ceremonies at a later day, but in the meantime, students are using video games like Minecraft to hold their own virtual ceremonies as well. The University of Rochester has even actively supported a campaign to recreate its entire campus on Minecraft.

Technology has helped ease the transition from physical to digital spaces. Video conferencing program Zoom has quickly emerged as the go-to tool for classrooms, despite some privacy issuesZoom and other services such as Discord have also removed paywalls from features and increased capacity and bandwidth with the uptick in usage in the past several weeks. Inside Higher Ed and The New York Times have both discussed the short- and long-term consequences of online learning on students; thankfully, how-to guides published in outlets such as USA Today and The Chronicle of Higher Education advise on how to best adjust to online learning.

Things will inevitably change in the coming weeks and months, but it’s clear higher education continues to develop proactive solutions for its students, faculty, and staff. Check back on the ACUI website for more news and community discussion.


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

    View all posts