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Staying Flexible in a Time of Crisis

The EvoLLLution | Staying Flexible in a Time of Crisis
Focusing on disadvantaged learners’ needs is critical as this pandemic puts them in an even more vulnerable and stressful state.

One of the toughest challenges of remote learning is ensuring everyone has the same access to digital resources. To do this, tools and processes need to be established. The benefit of adopting more online educational tools is that they are adaptable and have the capacity to prepare institutions for the future. What’s important is how institutions shape and apply these tools to their programming—and more importantly, their students. Non-traditional students are naturally vulnerable, and they need that support to get them through degree completion and socioeconomic progression. In this interview, Joianne Smith discusses how community colleges are dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, how online education approaches can be used for future upskilling programs, and how to prepare for the upcoming recession.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How has the shift to a remote learning and a working environment going at Oakton?

Joianne Smith (JS): I am incredibly proud of the way that our students, faculty, staff and administration have adapted to this unprecedented challenge.

Folks are stepping up with creativity and nimbleness, which motivates me when I get stressed. Our faculty had one week to shift their courses to a remote environment, and our IT department worked around the clock to equip staff with the technological resources they needed to work from home.

The majority of our students are indicating their commitment to continue with their courses and persist through the rest of the semester. Many of them have additional personal hardships—loss of income, additional childcare and personal responsibilities—which makes their efforts even more impressive. We’re doing everything we can to help support them through that.

Our success has been the grace, care and compassion that we’ve shown one another and our students.

Evo: How has the change impacted the career and technical education (CTE) students who are usually in competency-based courses?

JS: Interestingly, our initial plan was to move everything to a virtual format and keep labs open with social distancing procedures in place. As things progressed, and our governor put an order in place, that was no longer possible.

Across the majority of our CTE programs, faculty have figured out a way to provide remote instruction. We’ve engaged in virtual simulation labs and video conferencing, faculty have uploaded videos and in turn had students upload their own videos to show what they’re doing in terms of hands-on learning.

All but a few of our manufacturing courses have been able to continue in a remote and flexible way because of the creativity our faculty have shown.

Evo: Do you think some of the innovations and tools that have been introduced during this shift to remote education will be adapted into our new normal?

JS: Absolutely, there’s no question about it. Since we’ve been challenged in new ways, we have had to rethink things and accomplish them in different ways.

Community college students’ lives are so complicated, and they often require more flexibility. Many of the new tools that we’re using in this environment will continue to serve us well after the crisis. After this pandemic, we’ll see even more non-traditional students who need a flexible learning environment.

Evo: With a recession on the horizon, how can community and technical colleges start preparing for the likely increase in demand and scale that’s going to be required of them to meet the needs of these learners?

JS: Community colleges have always been fairly nimble because we work closely with employers and pay attention to student needs. It lets us quickly bring on new programs that help upskill folks and get them back into the workforce.

What’s going to be different this time—and this the part that none of us know about—is the scope. The scale of the problem is so significant, and we won’t know what new industries will be emerging on the other end. I imagine there will be more demand for healthcare industry workers, but we also may see people deliberately not choosing those fields because they’re seeing the risks associated with being on the front lines. There are a lot of unknowns, but what we do well is pay attention to industry needs and quickly develop new curriculum in response to them.

Evo: Are there any particular lessons that you think we can draw from the 2008 Recession to prepare, or are we in a different ballgame?

JS: It’s a totally different ballgame. 2008 brought on the tech bubble and the housing crisis, but the scope and scale of the crisis we’re experiencing now is so different. None of us know what kind of industries will have openings. We had seen supply chain management as a big demand. Will that be growing as more people rely on it during this pandemic? Will the growth in the service industry continue? It remains to be seen, but when there is a need, we are great at pulling together an industry group and developing a curriculum.

Just this past year, we developed new cannabis curriculum at Oakton. We were one of the first institutions to develop a credit-bearing program in response to Illinois’ new legislation. We worked with industry leaders and quickly developed two different certificates to help grow the workforce.

I anticipate we’ll do the same when we see how industry needs evolve after the pandemic. This situation is so unique. It’s hard to predict what the needs will be.

Evo: How can online ed approaches be scaled to start creating access for adults looking for access to upskilling and reskilling programming once this pandemic is over?

JS: That’s part of what we’ve even been doing. We’ve had a robust online curriculum and really distinguished what online curriculum for us. There’s a vetting process for developing courses and training that faculty need to go through. Desire to Learn (D2L) is our online learning platform, and that’s the delivery mechanism for what we consider “true” online learning. Then there’s remote flexible learning, which is what we’re doing right now.

Some of that is taking place in the traditional online learning format, but we’ve also incorporated a lot more video conferencing. We use Google Suite for faculty to interact with students face-to-face. More of those secondary tools will be incorporated into some of our curriculum to be more flexible. We know that our non-traditional learners need that flexible learning environment.

We put out a survey to students last week to get some feedback. First, we asked if they were planning to continue their courses. The second question was if they had access to a computer and the Internet, allowing them to work in this remote environment. Then we asked open-ended questions that allowed them to tell us anything they wanted us to know.

The over-arching theme that emerged was the need for flexibility. Our students are struggling to take care of their families and are being forced to work different shifts or hours than they normally do—and that’s if they’ve managed to keep their jobs. What they need is for us to accommodate them, so many of the tools we’re using now afford them more flexibility .

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the role that community colleges can and should be playing on the front lines of a new recession?

JS: One of our core missions, and our number one teaching commitment, is equity. As this recession begins, we’ve been talking about who the typical students at a community college are . They’re first-generation college students, they’re working adults, they’re in the low-income bracket. They’re the ones who are most severely disadvantaged in any kind of crisis. That’s the student population that we’re trying to pay the closest attention to, hoping that we can keep them engaged and enrolled.

When asked if they had a computer and Internet access at home, 10% of our students said no. So, we purchased hotspots for them to use. For those in need of a computer, our educational foundation purchased Chromebooks to loan out. We have a student success fund, which has always been in place, providing students with one-time payments for essentials, like rent, food and childcare. Our educational foundation is doing a matching grant program to increase the dollar amount for that fund.

Our online proctoring typically has a fee for students. However, we’ve signed an agreement stating that during this time period, our students can take their exams online without incurring any additional fees.

We are paying close attention to our students who are most vulnerable, so that we can provide them with the resources and support they need to stay connected. This is front of mind for us as we think about who’s going to be most severely disadvantaged during this recession.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Editor’s note: This interview was recorded on April 3, 2020.

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