Sprints and Marathons: Distance and Hybrid Learning at UC Irvine

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Join us as we kick off the Global Leaders Forum highlights series in #EducationNow. This week, we welcome Tom Andriola, University of California at Irvine’s Vice Chancellor of Information, Technology, and Data to share his experiences with transitioning to distance learning and planning reopening. 

UC Irvine (UCI) is one of the top research universities in the United States. With a diverse student population, our university’s goal is to give students the opportunity to build a better life for themselves.

At UCI, my goal is to look strategically at how we are utilizing and thinking about technology as it pertains to how we educate our students – particularly infusing education with digital tools and data, and building new education models – as well as expanding and reimagining the way our faculty approaches research. 

The Sprint to Distance Learning

Our world changed on March 16. 

With a shelter in place order looming and in the ninth week of our ten-week quarter, we sent all undergraduate students home. We had to start asking some tough questions: where are the students going to take their exams – when just a week ago, we were planning to have them all in a room taking tests on paper? How do we lay the groundwork for a full next quarter of remote instruction? How do we make it possible for instructors to adapt to remote working and teaching? And last, but certainly not least, how do we support those students from challenging socioeconomic backgrounds to ensure they have access to their courses?

We built support systems to teach our instructors how to use distance learning platforms and worked with local service providers to ensure professors had access to their courses during peak online hours. We transitioned our workforce to home. We bought hotspots and sent them to our students. Now, we’re working with the private sector to invest in infrastructure and ensure our students have what they need to keep learning, no matter what. 

Continuing the Marathon

“It started as a sprint and is turning into a marathon.”

Dr. Atul Butte, Director, Bakar Computational Health Sciences Institute at UC San Francisco

We are running a marathon, and we don’t know where the finish line is. 

One of the key lessons I learned in our transition to distance learning is that every time we only thought about the present, it turned out that we had to also be looking forward to the issues that would inform how we work and educate tomorrow. 

In this marathon, we need to adopt the tried and true startup methodology: fail fast, learn faster. 

We started preparing for the fall semester by bringing 30% of our researchers back to campus in June to test our new policies on cleaning and operations. We continued this slow, phased rollout throughout the summer to prepare for our September reopening. 

Now we are asking, what will education look like tomorrow? How will our professors interact with students and what rules will govern remote working and teaching? What will our footprint be – will we need the same amount of campus space as we used to?

Running Toward Transformation


Learning means that we understand a little more today than we understood yesterday. 


Every day, we learn. Every day, we evolve. Every day, we adapt our technology to address the changing education environment better than we did yesterday.

For technology leaders, it is important for us to realize that there is a unique opportunity in this pandemic. We have the opportunity to ask: How are technology and data going to affect the way we deliver the mission of the university tomorrow?

We need bold ideas – and fortune favors the bold. So, let’s be bold as we run toward this new future.

The Cisco Global Leaders Forum is a select group of Higher Education leaders from the Americas, Europe and Asia Pacific who are interested in developing global relationships and learning how Cisco technologies are driving digital transformation in higher education. 

Stay tuned for the next Global Leaders Forum blog from Michael Rosemann of Queensland University of Technology next week.

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