Thomas Aquinas is a famously low-tech college — students read printed copies of centuries-old books and residence halls lack WiFi — yet it nonetheless has successfully made the jump to online learning in just one week. How it accomplished this feat is a testament to God’s grace, made manifest in the diligence of its students, the resourcefulness of its faculty, and the generosity of one of its parents.

When concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus began to threaten the prospects of completing the academic year, Admissions Director Jon Daly received a call from John Birch (’92), an alumnus and the father of two students on the California campus. The co-founder and COO at Virtual Service Operations (VSO) in Nokesville, Virginia, Mr. Birch is in the business of providing cloud-based technological assistance to institutions of all sizes. His partner and co-founder, Stephen O’Keefe, is chairman of Christendom College’s Board of Directors. Mindful that small colleges could be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task suddenly at hand, the two offered VSO’s assistance, pro-bono, to several faithfully Catholic schools.

When Thomas Aquinas College officials determined that they would need to send students home for the remainder of the year, they gratefully accepted Mr. Birch’s offer. “We knew bringing some 450 people onto an online platform at once could be overwhelming,” says Mr. Daly. “So we were relieved and deeply grateful for VSO’s assistance. Without it, making this transition in that time, and so well, would probably have been impossible.”

Mr. Birch and VSO employees — the majority of whom are veterans of the United States military — worked with the College to identify Zoom video conferencing and Slack project management as the appropriate tools. “TAC is, oddly enough, better prepared to make this transition than most ‘modern’ colleges because of its classroom method,” says Mr. Birch. “The classroom conversations lend themselves well to video conferencing, and the reading assignments and papers are much easier to manage than the various kinds of homework that are often assigned at other schools.”

Meanwhile the College’s IT director, Patrick Nichols, rushed to secure webcams for all of the teaching faculty — a tall order, given that they had quickly become a precious commodity second only to bathroom tissue. “Pat Nichols’ greatest accomplishment, though, came before we even started,” says Mr. Birch. “Some time back he set up the College with a 10gbps network to all the tutors’ desktops. I know of large corporations that don’t even have that kind of bandwidth, which is essential for the volume of video streams we are now processing.” 

From there, VSO worked closely with Dean John Goyette and three members of the faculty — Mr. Daly and tutors Brian Dragoo and Andrew Seeley — to bring the community up to speed. They prepared documentation, recorded training videos, and hosted practice sessions, culminating in a Tuesday-afternoon orientation seminar, during which students and faculty from both campuses engaged in simultaneous discussions of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. “That’s what we do during Freshman Orientation, we have freshmen take part in two practice seminars,” explains Mr. Dragoo. “So we used that method as a model for transitioning to online learning.”

VSO’s crew of tech-support veterans was on call during the practice seminar, but found surprisingly little need for their assistance, receiving only about a dozen calls. “The techs at VSO report that we are doing very well relative to other schools that are trying to move their classes online,” says Dr. Seeley. “One told me, ‘All your students are either techies or really smart.’” A big difference, Dr. Seeley believes, is that members of the faculty were deeply involved in the online rollout. “We know, as an outsider never could, what our classes need in order to be successful,” he reflects. “That allowed us to streamline the entire process.”

VSO has generously offered to continue providing free tech support for the remainder of the academic year, which, Mr. Dragoo suspects, may become more necessary as students and tutors try using Zoom on more devices. “It has been a relief for tutors to know that they don’t have to be tech support, that if students have problems, they can send them over to VSO,” says Mr. Dragoo. “That’s freed up our faculty to keep their focus on teaching.”

For his part, Dr. Seeley believes that being forced to embrace video conferencing will be conducive to the College’s long-term prospects of keeping two campuses unified across 3,000 miles. “One long-lasting benefit will be that we can now communicate between California and New England directly,” he says. “Tutors who are teaching the same course can meet for virtual discussions. We will have much more communication between the campuses from here on out.”

Meanwhile there is a sense of relief that, in these trying times, at least some semblance of campus life has returned. “We are grateful to God for making it possible, through the help of so many, for us to finish the academic year,” says President Michael F. McLean. “In particular, we are profoundly grateful to John Birch and his colleagues at VSO, as well as to the members of our faculty and staff who facilitated our transition to online learning, and to our students and parents for responding so well to these extraordinary measures.”