Italian universities scramble to move teaching and research online during coronavirus lockdown

Universities are relying on digital technologies to keep operating and carry on teaching, while researchers are postponing field work and meetings, as Italian government places entire country under quarantine

Politecnico di Milano. Photo: Bigstock

Universities in Italy have made impressive efforts to digitise courses, exams and research activities that do not require lab work, amid a country-wide quarantine announced by the government on Monday.

Italy is the EU country most affected by the rapid spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus originating from Wuhan, in the Hubei province of China. As of 10 March, more than 9,000 people were infected in Italy and 463 have died.

To contain the virus, the government has taken sweeping measures, including closing down university campuses and restricting the movement of all people, with the exception of employees who need to travel to work.

Universities in Italy have moved their courses online, while some will be able to give exams and hold dissertation defences through web conferencing.

At Politecnico di Milano, the rector Ferruccio Resta urged students and staff to avoid physical gatherings in favour of virtual meetings. “We will face this emergency together with responsibility,” he said in a statement.

“It is a critical period but we try to guarantee the functioning of the university,” Stefania Grotti, head of unit at Politecnico’s research office told Science|Business. “At the moment we are very busy with the rescheduling of courses and research activities,” Grotti said.

The University of Bologna has also moved all its courses online, with the exception of “activities that are not compatible with distance learning”. The university is to organise exams online and has decided to cancel conferences and public events, and to close its libraries to the public. 

Students at Bologna will defend their final dissertation online, “given the uncertainty of the situation in the upcoming weeks.”

At the University of Pisa, all teaching on campus has been suspended. However, “degree sessions and midterm exams will continue,” the university said in a statement. Rector Paolo Mancarella said these moves, “Do not represent in any way the closure of the university, but only precautionary measures” that change how some activities are performed.

Digitisation of teaching and research

Antonino Rotolo, vice rector for research at the University of Bologna told Science|Business that Italian universities have reacted “very promptly” to the restrictions imposed during the lockdown, and were able to move their activities online. “We developed interesting skills here. We didn’t realise this is possible,” Rotolo said.

Academics are also looking at the crisis as an opportunity for universities to adopt digital technologies for teaching more broadly, not just in time of crisis. “I hope what we experiment [with] here could be used in other countries,” said Rotolo.

Rotolo said the digitisation of teaching, exams, meetings and certain research activities did not cost the University of Bologna a lot of money. However, its ICT staff had to work nearly 20 hours a day for two weeks, to put the systems in place.

For Gianluca Brunori, a professor of food policy and bioeconomy at the University of Pisa, the measures taken by universities to move activities online could be the nudge they need to implement different ways of organising teaching and research in the future. “We have [taken a] long time to embody digital technologies in teaching,” Brunori told Science|Business. “This is the time for action.”

Research disrupted

Despite significant efforts to minimise the effects of the crisis, some research activities are disrupted. With meetings cancelled up until May, researchers need to find workarounds to be able to deliver results for certain projects on time.

For Horizon 2020 projects funded by the EU, researchers are likely to need an extension of deadlines. Some argue the European Commission should come up with a plan for potential delays for projects in Italy and in other countries that may be affected in the near future. “We don’t know if [project] timelines could be delayed,” Brunori said.

At the University of Bologna, Rotolo has not received any requests to extend research deadlines, but does not exclude the possibility of that happening in the future. “Deliverables can be done mostly remotely,” he said. If extensions are needed in the future “the commission must cooperate on that.”

Brunori is coordinating an EU project involving 25 partners in Europe and is already thinking about postponing their next meeting in May until September. 

He suggests the European Commission could be more flexible in its research contracts and encourage less travel and physical meetings. “We are travelling too much, and we see now that not all of it is strictly necessary,” Brunori said.

For the moment, Brunori has suspended all field work for his research projects, but has carried on working online as much as possible, conducting interviews on Skype. To slow down the spread of the virus, the government recommended social distancing and asked people to stay at least one metre away from others. Because of that precaution, “Activities in [research] laboratories are uncertain at the moment,” said Brunori.

In addition, most PhD students in Italy are not considered workers and therefore cannot legally justify the need to travel to a lab at the moment. PhD students at the University of Bologna do not have an obligation to travel to their labs. “Here, we try to guarantee experiments with available personnel,” Rotolo said.  

Precaution across borders

In neighbouring Switzerland, the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) has barred students and staff from travelling to areas where there is a high risk of infection. Those who are travelling back from an affected area cannot go on the EPFL campus and must work from home for 14 days after the return date.

The university has also banned large events on campus and advised staff and students not to invite people from any affected areas to the campus. The FORWARD conference, an event dedicated to innovative SMEs in partnership with Swiss media company Ringier has been postponed until June.

The Swiss government has banned all private and public events with more than 1,000 attendees until at least until 15 March.

At ETH Zurich, the university has cancelled dozens of events up until June and will assess the risk posed by other events in its calendar on a case by case basis.

ETH employees, students and guests who recently travelled to China and other countries with high levels of infection are prohibited from attending ETH events or entering ETH premises for 14 days after travel.

In the Netherlands, the Erasmus University Rotterdam has banned students from travelling to high risk countries. Staff will need permission for trips abroad.

In Ireland, Trinity College Dublin announced all lectures will be delivered online for the rest of the semester. Students will still be allowed to go to tutorials, seminars and laboratory practicals while following social distancing protocols.  

Romania’s patent and trademark agency announced it will shut down its main office in Bucharest after one staff member was infected during a trip to Italy and came back to work upon her return in February.

The Romanian government has announced all schools will be closed at least until 22 March. Education minister Monica Anisie said universities have the freedom to decide whether they should adopt similar measures on a case by case basis.

Two universities in Cluj-Napoca, Romania's second largest city, have decided to suspend teaching on campus. Students at Babeș-Bolyai University and Iuliu Hațieganu Medical University will attend courses online. Other universities in the country have not taken similar precautions.

In the UK, universities have not yet taken drastic measures, but are following the advice of public health officials regarding hygiene and non-essential travel to infected areas.

In the US, Harvard University has announced a plan to move all courses online and urged students to not return to campus after the spring break which ends on 22 March. The university has also banned all work-related international travel and “non-essential” domestic travel at least until the end of April.

In Canada, McGill University recommends students and staff returning from the Hubei region in China to go into voluntary isolation for 14 days and to monitor their symptoms.

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