Adapting Technical Education into the Online Environment
Author’s note: I began this article when I thought we were well outside the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic and before it had spread to the point that we needed to take extreme precautionary measures to protect the health of our students, employees, and community. It was intended as a piece about what some may consider best practices in our model of technical education delivery. But adapting an institution dependent almost exclusively on hands-on, face-to-face instruction to a temporary remote-delivery paradigm seemed altogether more interesting and timely, and perhaps even salutary.
Davis Technical College in Kaysville, Utah was founded in 1978 and began as the vocational training extension of its local school district. Over the subsequent four decades, Davis Tech assumed independent status and expanded into Utah’s largest public technical college. Its mission is to prepare workers with the technical skills in demand by employers in its region. The college serves the geographic area immediately north of Salt Lake City (that is Davis and Morgan Counties) which includes a population of nearly 400,000.
There are three fundamental and complementary elements of Davis Technical College’s instructional model. The first is the competency-based environment, which focusses learning on progressive skill mastery. The skills are specific and quantifiable, so they can be objectively transferred and measured. This makes standardization of curriculum simpler, but simultaneously accommodates highly individualized instructional support, which the college encourages. Students who rapidly master competencies conserve capacity for instructors to assist those who need more individualized attention.
Bringing course-based progress into the competency-based environment is equally essential. Rather than enrolling wholly in a program, students register for courses designed to teach proficiencies (courses align in series to form a program). This has two advantages. First, students with prior knowledge can jump forward to the courses they need. Second, it creates a sense of urgency and self-driven progress. Students pay for each course and agree to a completion deadline. Those who do not complete in time may have to pay for an extension or reschedule and pay for the entire course again.
The last piece is flexible scheduling, which is particularly useful for accommodating post-secondary students. Most programs, and therefore their component courses, are open-entry. Moreover, students adopt schedules that fit their life situations. For example, a low-income single-parent with young children can design a combination of days and times (including evenings) when he or she isn’t working and has access to safe and affordable childcare.
For almost a year, Davis Tech leadership has been exploring ways to increase the college’s capacity to meet growing student demand that has averaged about five percent annually across the past decade. Online access to coursework that does not require face-to-face interaction with instructors was identified early as a critical part of any strategy. But incorporating distance-delivered technical education comes with a host of challenges that includes curriculum redesign, instructional capabilities, accreditation restrictions, federal regulations, etc.
The COVID-19 crisis forced Davis Tech to take action and implement distance-learning in less than three weeks. The college’s 35 accredited programs, ranging from 100 to 1,200 hours, already had, to various degrees, some digital learning content divided into courses. Beginning 12 March 2020, Utah state officials announced the first directives for public and higher education that encouraged temporary distance learning to the fullest extent possible. Utah’s universities and community colleges quickly shifted to online instruction, while K-12 dismissed all public schools and also adapted to online learning. Utah’s eight technical colleges, the third pillar of publically funded education in the Beehive State, attempted to provide a balanced continuity approach, allowing for some limited in-person activities, i.e. assessment, labs, etc., and online instruction where possible.
Davis Tech shifted all non-essential functions to support three major activities: digital content development, distance-delivery capacity building, and student outreach and communication. Instructional design specialists and faculty triaged programs and instructor capabilities to prioritize content development. Since resources, including instructional designers and video equipment were limited, instructors with experience and confidence were able to start work immediately without much additional assistance, often recording instruction and learning activities with tablets and mobile phones.
Meanwhile, just-in-time in-service trainings helped others learn how to create and distance deliver instruction and about the tools available to them. Management and supervisors updated status lists of program and instructor readiness, so they could assist in areas still not fully ready.
Understandably, there were pockets of confusion in the college community about how Davis Tech was responding to the crisis. World news and events contributed to the challenge. Public schools had been dismissed and universities were closed, so some students were unclear about Davis Tech’s status. The college adopted a plan to contact every student to inform them on their options and to let them know that their programs would resume online for at least two or three weeks.
Technical education involves the practical application of technology in the workplace. Some of its vocational fields emphasize the manual skills students need to master. What is interesting about the recent Davis Tech experience is that the college has identified ten programs that may be able to continue indefinitely online, when the remaining two dozen or so will be unable to without access to the requisite lab work, patient clinicals, and the like. Still, excitement lies in the opportunity to expand capacity, both of the programs and the instructors, by delivering distance education now and beyond.
 Industry identifies the skills in demand. Last year, Davis Tech formally engaged with nearly 300 companies and 370 industry representatives to inform its 35 programs on skills, curriculum, equipment, etc.
 As of 31 December 2019, approximately 72% of Davis Tech students were adults, most of whom are employed.
 Progressing at one’s own pace in a personalized schedule does have potential drawbacks. Research has suggested that not moving through a program as part of a cohort may keep some students from developing various soft skills, such as teamwork.
 In order to provide federal student financial aid, Davis Tech assigns clock-hours to its competency-based programs.
 Utah’s technical colleges are not part of the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) which oversees the state’s six public universities and two community colleges. When official statements were made about the USHE institutions closing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, inaccurate reports indicating all state universities and colleges had closed confused people about how the technical colleges were responding. Utah’s technical colleges, governed separately by the Utah System of Technical Colleges, were not part of the official statements from which these reports appear to have originated.
 One important barrier to maximizing distance education for Davis Tech is the proposed federal guidance that clock-hour schools deliver “synchronous” instruction, i.e. linking the instructor and student in real-time. This prevents students from making progress online at times when they are not synced up with their instructors.
Author Perspective: Administrator