Adjusting to Remote Instruction at Community Colleges

Faculty members at community and technical colleges face challenges in the pivot to remote learning and are trying new technology, assessment tools and ways to communicate.

April 9, 2020
 
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As the novel coronavirus spread, colleges around the country were forced to quickly close campuses and move learning online to help flatten the curve.

But not all at once. Colleges with fewer resources (and smaller endowments) stayed open for weeks after many highly selective institutions made the switch. Some cited concerns for their students, many of whom rely on campus services like food pantries and computer labs to be successful.

By now, though, instruction nearly everywhere has gone virtual. Inside Higher Ed asked faculty members at community and technical colleges how the shift to remote learning is going at institutions that often have less federal and state funding support while serving some of higher education's most vulnerable students.

Some were optimistic they would get through this with their students, despite difficulty learning how to adapt to online instruction. Others are using a plethora of virtual tools to keep students connected and learning. Those who teach hands-on skills face the most challenges, from finicky technology to concerns for how to grade students' understanding of the lessons.​ Their emailed responses, which have been edited for length and clarity, are below.

David Shapiro, founding faculty member of philosophy at Cascadia College in Washington

I have been a classroom teacher of philosophy for more than a quarter century, and I am, if I do say so myself, pretty good at it.

I know how to engage students in the questions, I’m skilled in techniques for fostering dialogue and discussion, and I have countless exercises in my bag of teaching tricks for creating a vibrant community of inquiry in the classroom.

I have developed my abilities over the course of my teaching career thanks to some excellent classroom teachers of my own, lots of hard work, hours of professional development and decades of trial and error. It’s taken a long time to get to this point, and every day in the classroom I learn something new that can help me be better tomorrow.

Now, however, I’ve been thrown into the world of online teaching and have had all of one week of “extended spring break” to convert my spring quarter classes to the virtual environment. I’m committed to doing the best job I can, but it’s ludicrous to imagine that the learning experience for my students will be anywhere near as rich as what they would get in the “face-to-face modality.”

My heart goes out to them; they had been expecting their professor to be an experienced educator; what they’re getting is something more like the graduate student I was the very first time I TAed -- that inexperienced person in front of the classroom with the deer-in-the-headlights look in their eyes.

We’ll make the best of it, I’m sure, but I feel bad about how bad I will be at teaching online. I suppose the positive takeaway is that I’ll learn from the experience. A quarter century from now, I might be pretty good at it.

Christian Moriarty, professor of ethics and law and academic chair of the Applied Ethics Institute at St. Petersburg College in Florida

Our move to remote learning was, fortunately, a relatively smooth one. Just under half of St. Petersburg College (a state community college in southwest Florida with an enrollment of about 45,000 students) was already [using] online modalities, with all of the infrastructure and staff to support it. There was significant behind-the-scenes scrambling in the short period of time after spring break, both from the administrative and academic sides of the house, but we have a great team who got everything together. Particularly our Online Learning Services folks, who have been nothing short of miracle workers.

We have synchronous meeting and proctoring software up and running to be available to anyone to wants it, students and faculty alike. There are pockets of issues here and there, such as science lab classes and clinicals, but we’re getting them handled to where both our accreditors and our students are as happy as they can be under the circumstances.

A challenge we’re facing head-on is our students who are suddenly finding themselves in a full-remote atmosphere when they did not originally plan for it. After we conducted a survey, a significant contingent reported that they are feeling economic impairments due to the responses to COVID. Not only may they be out of work, but they may also be taking care of family and children at home, making them unable to concentrate as fully as they would otherwise like to on school.

We’ve addressed this challenge in three major ways: bringing to bear the full attention and care of our faculty to our students and establishing a sense of normality in addition to academics, collating and distributing information and assistance on learning effectively and shifting to an online environment, and the St. Petersburg College Foundation putting the Student Emergency Fund into high gear. While we have always had the fund, focusing on helping students through tough economic situations, I’m incredibly proud of the community who have stepped up their giving to these scholars in their time of need. We’re happy to help them with what we can, such as bills, food and whatever else that can establish stability and finish the semester strong.

Jeff Elsbecker, lead instructor in the digital modeling and fabrication program at IYRS School of Technology & Trades in Rhode Island

Because most of my program's faculty are adjunct, we already conducted most of the communication outside of class by way of email and a digital classroom. In addition, a major part of the curriculum is CAD, which is done on computer and can be shared digitally. Finally, the bulk of our hands-on instruction had been completed. Some of the groundwork was already there, so the transition to online was not cold turkey. We've had to redefine final projects to a largely digital outcome.

Some challenges include students' loss of a daily routine, which created a noticeable drop in productivity, and students' loss of access to the studio equipment, as this is still a program about making things.

To help overcome some of these, we've been holding regular individual check-ins with students and morning video meetings. We've also been extending deadlines somewhat.

Each student has a 3-D printer they took home with them. They are able to do a good deal of prototyping at home. Some faculty are still on duty in the studio. Students are able to send proven digital files, which we can put on our more advanced machines. They can pick these up curbside.

Nels Larson, lead instructor of marine systems at ​IYRS School of Technology & Trades in Rhode Island

Remote learning was new to me and personally not the way I would like to learn on a full-time basis. I always found tutorials helpful in a subject that I was familiar with. For those reasons I chose to do our presentations live. To achieve this we presented our lectures live in the classroom with no changes or preparation for one to two hours a day. This did keep the attention of the students and was well received for one and a half weeks. The problem we started to have was getting the hands-on presentations and the hands-on experiential learning needed to continue the class. It will take a substantial investment to prepare and deliver that type of material.

We prepared a pre-record[ed] demonstration and presented it to the students. The lesson was using a volt meter and ampacity of wire. We physically burn a wire. This demonstration is dangerous and necessary to understand the lecture. We recorded, and it took three different takes before we were ready to present. The presentation was good but did have some inaccuracies. This would be acceptable in the shop. At that point we determined all record[ed] demonstrations need to be of a high standard. We also felt the students who needed to ask questions did not ask them. I believe that remote learning will not work with students who have no experience in the topic being taught. The amount of material needed to learn in a six-month period cannot be delivered remotely.

Technical trades can only be taught remotely in tutorials to students who have a technical [background] and in small doses.

AnneMarie Garmon, instructor of criminal justice at Central Piedmont Community College in North Carolina​

My approach to remote teaching was to focus on maintaining a high level of learning and connection while also minimizing stress for my students. I knew that all of the unknowns of our current situation were causing a lot of anxiety for me personally, and when I thought about what my students might be feeling, I realized that their mental health was also very important to our collective success. I have made communication the No. 1 focus, because if we can talk with each other, about not just academic topics but also life challenges, we can begin to feel as if we have a little more control of the “new normal.”

Some items that I’ve implemented to help keep communication open include Google Hangouts, WebEx teams/meetings and Calendly (which students can use to schedule one-on-one virtual meetings). I also have given my students a phone number they can text through Google Voice. Because we have so many ways to reach out, I wanted to capitalize on as many options as I could to appeal to the students’ preferences as well. The last thing I’m considering adding is a platform on social media, like Facebook, for a more informal way to socialize.

One of the most effective tools that I have used in teaching, which fosters great communication for both academic topics and current events, is Packback. A platform for online discussion, Packback allows the students to discuss topics and issues that are subject-related while also not overburdening me as the instructor. The use of AI in the platform also gives students feedback to help them create thoughtful questions and responses, and not just the typical “I agree” that we see in discussion boards. I added this tool to my classes that went from seated to online, and thus far it has been easy for the students to use.

Now that we have settled into the online environment with our traditional students, I hope to keep adding tools to help us continue social interactions virtually. I am also going to organize some optional activities for the students, like using Zoom to have a coffee meeting or using Kast to host a watch party online. I believe that learning can take place in these settings just as easily as the classroom -- we just have to adjust and accept change.

Hans Scholl, instructor of boat building and restoration at IYRS School of Technology & Trades in Rhode Island

The predominant part of our curriculum is hands-on shop work, restoring wooden boats, and is not transferable to nor replaceable by remote learning.

For the part that teaches theory, we spent one week preparing for remote teaching. Half of that week was implementation, training and testing of technical options, mostly using Zoom. The other half was preparing content and preparing the students in one-to-one phone calls for the upcoming remote teaching.​

We are currently holding two classes every morning, with the afternoons spent on documentation, one-to-one phone interaction with students, where needed, and mostly with preparing content for next days’ classes.

Because we can directly demonstrate practical skills in the shop during regular class, we had little incentive in the past to create videos of these demonstrations. On the other hand, these videos would be good to have in the current situation.

We have started to film in the shop but have not had the time nor resources to get very far. The session we filmed was done by one instructor in the shop, taking video with his phone, which was then part of the Zoom recording. Though the result was commendable to be used in the current situation, any results obtained in this fashion remain inferior to a dedicated video, filmed by a second person with professional video-photography and editing skills, good lighting and a dedicated camera, where the instructor is free to fully focus on content and not also taking video.

​We have encountered mostly technical problems, such as the low bandwidth of Zoom, which makes it not feasible to stream video and results in choppy audio and pixelated video in general. At times, not even screen sharing of text was possible, leading to early termination and rescheduling of one class.​

Platforms other than Zoom had similar issues. The best option for small student groups and coordination between instructors has been Apple’s FaceTime.

During a typical school day, student understanding of the theory taught is mostly verified during the subsequent hands-on work on restoring boats, where subjects that were not clearly understood by the student become visible during their application and can then be retrained and practiced.

This approach is not feasible during remote learning. We reverted to more discussion to obtain student feedback, which was often compromised by the technical problems and low audio quality. Some students have no video capability, which makes us miss visible cues that we would get face-to-face. We plan on testing understanding through quizzes but haven’t had any time to prepare, administer, correct and follow up with students yet.

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