Like many educators across the country right now, professors at Berklee College of Music in Boston are scrambling to compose online courses and tune up their remote teaching skills. Berklee has a bit of a head start, though, since its online program already enrolls more than 11,000 students each year.

Debbie Cavalier, the CEO of Berklee Online, said music actually lends itself to teaching remotely.

"We've structured our online courses around project-based learning,” Cavalier said. “So they are writing music to film clips. They're composing songs."

One problem Berklee hasn't solved involves teaching music ensembles. "If I'm playing a bass part in a Zoom web conference tool and you're playing a drum part, it won't sound in sync," she acknowledged.

As the number of coronavirus cases in Massachusetts mounts, many colleges are suspending in-person classes and migrating online. Some higher ed leaders say those colleges are about to undergo a massive, forced experiment that will expose technological challenges like Berklee’s — and also wealth gaps in American higher education.

"A Harvard or MIT going online is very different from a regional public [school] going online, or a community college that is going to have far fewer resources," said Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute, which studies innovation in higher education.

Horn pointed out not all students have computers or WiFi access at home, and colleges are generally unprepared for the transition.

"I think it will be hastily done and without the resources that good online learning requires,” he said. “It will leave a real sour taste in a lot of students' mouths.”

Despite technological obstacles, Horn said, there exist ways to teach online science and medicine courses that include lab work. “There's a ton of really cool software and equipment out there online that allows you to do very robust lab simulations of hospital rooms with patients and the like that schools could choose to deploy,” he explained.

UMass Medical School in Worcester is shifting online, as well as medical schools at Harvard, Tufts and Boston University. Clinical rotations for students will continue, but hospitals may adjust them.

The question is whether colleges with limited funds will have enough time to get online coursework ready, given the rapid spread of the disease.

"It's like managing a wild fire. It is, right now, organized chaos," said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College.

Bunker Hill reopened Monday after a three-day closure for deep cleaning of the Chelsea and Charlestown campuses, although no classes were scheduled. The college is extending spring break by a week and moving many classes online, asking faculty and staff to work remotely and trying to radically reduce the number of students on its two campuses.

Eddinger said certain hands-on programs simply won’t translate online.

“We cannot replicate nursing labs in people’s homes for them to practice the kinds of skills that they need,” Eddinger said. “You can’t do automotive technology at home.”

Even if they could, many Bunker Hill students who are the first in their families to go to college often don't have the technology to complete work at home.

"For some students, we are their electronics,” Eddinger explained. “The only thing they have is a smartphone. They come here to use the computers, the printers and everything else."

If the pandemic stretches into the fall and students are not able to return to campus, Eddinger said Bunker Hill and other colleges will have to make strong investments into the quality of their online teaching.

Over the weekend, Grinnell College, a liberal arts school in rural Iowa, decided to allow students to switch to a pass-fail grading system. The goal, administrators said, is to reduce stress. More schools are expected to follow Grinnell’s lead.

A hallmark of liberal arts colleges, which tend to have smaller enrollments, is the personal relationships that develop between students and professors. Going online will temporarily cost those schools the personal touch they are known for and which help some students thrive.

Southern New Hampshire University, which enrolls more than 96,000 students online, has released tips for professors on going virtual, including building “a teacher persona,” allowing questions and accommodating diversity, equity and inclusion in the digital space.

“In times like these, the importance of working together becomes more apparent than ever,” wrote SNHU President Paul LeBlanc. “Uniting as one community to share critical resources and information is both a sign of solidarity, and a sign of our collective commitment to the good and well-being of all people — not just the ones in our own campus classrooms.”