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Adapting to the Flexibility of the Online Environment

The EvoLLLution | Adapting to the Flexibility of the Online Environment
The need to adapt to the online environment has given institutions the chance to enhance their digital presences while giving students more flexibility in their education.

We’ve come to accept that the online environment will only become more important after the pandemic, and institutions need to be well equipped to serve high-quality programming and services in this environment. That means a shift for both faculty and students that will provide more flexibility and better opportunities for students coming in and out of the workforce. In this interview, Donna Diller discusses the institutional management that emerged out of the emergency shift to remote learning, what has changed in the online space, and what the future might hold as we adjust to a more lifelong learning model.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few of the “norms” of institutional management that have evolved as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Donna Diller (DD): Virtually all of our norms have evolved during the pandemic.

The traditional institutional norms of being in an office or classroom between 8 AM and 5 PM, and most face-to-face courses being scheduled between those hours as well have drastically changed. Before, 25% of courses were offered online, and 75% were face-to-face. Now, 90% of our courses being offered online and 10% face to face.

Almost all of the delivery norms for our services have undergone drastic changes in order to serve students remotely, such as registration and enrollment, testing, placement exams, advising, coaching, tutoring, computer labs, proctored exams, library services, parking, safety, security, and more. Our face-to-face bootcamps, business incubators and entrepreneurship initiatives have also been limited to online platforms. Revising the class schedules due to the pandemic required a quick turn-around and a more collaborative approach with various departments.  This ensured safety requirements were met for face-to-face offerings, registration dates were modified and students were made aware of the changes.

With all of this upheaval to our traditional norms and the need to rapidly transition to much more robust online services, our budgets and financial planning are also being overhauled.

Evo: By the same token, what aspects of the student experience have fundamentally changed as a result of the shift to remote and online education?

DD: The transition to remote work has enabled more flexible outreach to students, and it’s still evolving. We are now teaching 90% of courses totally online. We are making changes to proctoring, tutoring is now provided online, and students have access to support 24/7.

Communication with students has evolved with very limited options for face-to-face interaction. Faculty are using online office hours, texting, web conference tools, videos and YouTube channels to recreate the in-person experience.

A significant challenge has been that not all students have access to a device and adequate bandwidth. The college, community and state have stepped up to help provide these tools and access. Hot spots  have been set up in our college’s parking lots and across the city. Drop-in virtual labs are also provided for students and faculty who have questions regarding online teaching and learning.

More flexible workdays and work weeks have helped to meet student needs, too. Virtual student services like virtual desks in departments for warm hand-offs to academic coaching, advising, cashier’s office, financial aid, information sessions and other services are now available in expanded timeframes, which gives students better access. The new collaborative scheduling model can provide better alignment with and communication to students regarding all course offerings.

We have also developed new synchronous online courses for students and faculty who prefer a synchronous experience and need the structure of a set day and time for their courses.

Facility usage for the small percentage of face-to-face courses have undergone drastic changes as well to align with safety protocols. Currently, classrooms and labs can only be utilized at 25% of normal capacity to accommodate social distancing protocols. And face coverings are required for all students, faculty and staff who are on campus for classes or work.

Evo: How do you think these changes will persist in our post-pandemic new normal?

DD: They will become more of the new normal. We will continue to have a strong online and virtual presence, as students will continue to ask for more flexible options that only online courses and services can provide. Our working model for the college will also evolve, allowing more remote work opportunities, better processes to support remote and online work, better access to technology and additional training to best utilize these new technologies and systems.

We will also continue to strengthen our efforts around equitable access for all. We will continue to evaluate how we can improve enrollment, retention, and completion of programs for students most at risk, particularly our low-income Latinx and Native American students.

Evo: To your mind, what does the ideal institution of the future look like? 

DD: In our ideal institution of the future, as a community college, students will start their educational journey with us, as early as high school and evolve to become lifelong learners.

For those who have acquired work experience, we will map that to existing coursework to grant credit for prior learning when possible. We will continue to provide quality education in both face-to-face and online formats, which may include competency-based models for skills-based credentials. This may include workforce training, certificates, industry credentials, degrees or specific skill sets.

Students will gain training for a specific job or degree, with which they can seamlessly transfer to a four-year university or quickly enter the workforce. We will continue to provide a lifetime subscription for other opportunities to upskill for existing or new careers, professional development, or entrepreneurial efforts. We will provide the necessary tools and technology for students to be successful on their chosen paths.

Evo: Building on that, how should (or could) digital engagement be consciously built into the future institutional model?

DD: Technology and digital engagement will continue to be at the heart of all we do moving forward. This starts with our systems, software platforms and devices, and flows into engaging curriculum and active support for students. All of these will continue to evolve as newer technology and platforms are created.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.


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