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$2M Gift Aimed At Improving UW Online Classes Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

Anonymous Donation Will Be Used For Instructor Training, Technology Purchases For Some Students

College student using laptop
Shamane Mills/WPR

In an attempt to make online learning smoother for students and faculty amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Wisconsin System has announced a $2 million grant to help the state’s 13 universities and branch campuses train faculty and purchase laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots for students.

In March, when positive COVID-19 cases began emerging in Wisconsin, UW campuses moved all classes online and told students to stay home. The sudden transition was jarring. Faculty members raced to rework course offerings into online models within a matter of weeks. And students were forced to transition solely to online learning. At some universities, alternate grading was offered to students upon request, allowing them to take courses pass/fail if they felt at risk of receiving low letter grades.

UW System President Tommy Thompson praised campuses and faculty for their quick pivot to online courses in the spring and said a $2 million anonymous donation to the UW will make online and hybrid course offerings better this fall.

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“It’s also not only for our professors and instructors to be able to give their lectures with more punch and better,” said Thompson. “It’s going to allow for the students to also absorb them and learn more. So that’s really a twofer, one for educating the professors and the instructors and also to help the student.”

The Online Learning Initiative is described by a UW press release from the UW central office as having four main goals.

For faculty, money is to be used for training to offer more effective online instruction through new course materials. The professional development is being led by campus “Teaching and Learning Centers,” according to the release. The UW System release said four professional development courses for faculty and student support staff were delivered by UW Extended Campus, which works with campuses to offer online classes.

Of the $2 million donation, $500,000 will go toward buying laptops and tablets, as well as Wi-Fi hotspots for students who cannot afford to purchase them. The funding will be directed by senior student affairs officers at UW campuses.

Over the summer, the state’s 13 universities have offered various plans for what classes will look like this fall as the number of new COVID-19 cases continue to grow. In essence, fall classes include a mix of in-person instruction paired with online learning. A campus by campus breakdown offered by the UW System shows that UW-Oshkosh is planning to offer 60 percent of its classes in-person, while UW-La Crosse is planning only 14 percent of classes to be face-to-face.

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