Looking Forward

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by Kevin Hartung

Transitioning to virtual learning was not painless. Instructors, some with no prior experience, had to deal with new teaching tools that were not entirely user friendly.

Students agonized over reliable internet access or finding a quiet place in their homes to study while others worried about having a computer to work on.

If not entirely positive, America’s colleges, universities and students pulled off a remarkable conversion to remote learning.

Pima Community College has advised that summer classes will use the same route.

In an update to students dated March 24, Dr. Dolores Durán-Cerda, Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor gave summer guidelines.

April 13 was set as the new date for the start of Summer 2020 registration. Pima Online Summer courses will be held as scheduled. In-person 5-week courses scheduled to begin May 26 will either move online or be shifted to begin on July 1. All second 5-week courses beginning on July 1 will be held and will be distributed across campuses as a social distancing measure.

Fall registration begins April 2, stated a follow up email from Durán-Cerda.  Schedules of classes are online, and the College does not plan to change the schedules. However, some in-person classes may have to move to an online format, should circumstances demand continued physical distancing.

Administrators asked the community to bear with them as they balance public health and educational excellence. There will be a Fall semester at Pima. Our facilities are being deep cleaned. You will be safe.

While fall decisions seem a long way off, what happens depends on where the COVID-19 curve is nationally and what mandates will still be in place. This vagueness raised concerns among academic administrators who are turning their attention to the challenges presented by the spring semester transition.

Inside Higher Education covered some of the theories that arose from spring semester challenges.

While remote learning delivered on the fly for the spring semester was apparently sufficient, the quality of learning was not nearly as good as in-person instruction or to the extent of high-quality online programs normally available to students.

What was sufficient for the spring semester is not likely to be adequate for the fall. The fall expectations will be higher as colleges have had more time to prepare. Those colleges unable to deliver will risk angering students and parents and, more importantly. failing their students.

Delivering higher-quality online or virtual instruction by the fall will take a huge amount of planning and work — and it should start soon, if not now.

Vickie Cook, Executive Director for online, professional and engaged learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield, pointed this out in an online survey for Inside Higher Ed that asked if the expectations for online fall classes would be higher.

“I don’t see how it couldn’t be, said Cook. “By fall, students and parents have the right to expect a high-quality education, in whatever modality it’s delivered.  If it’s online, it shouldn’t be ‘less than,’ especially when there’s time to address it.”

Inside Higher Ed warned that whether fall classes will continue online or not, institutions and instructors need to be prepared to switch modalities in the future be it from another pandemic or something else.

Pima may be behind the curve in providing online learning. Community colleges historically are family-friendly societies where students begin their higher learning experiences with smaller class sizes and instructor availability.

Additionally, Pima faculty must be brought on board if high-quality classes are to be achieved.  Whatever technology is used is less important than helping instructors achieve effective online- teaching skill sets.

In an email dated April 6, Libby Howell, Executive Director/Media, Community, & Government Relations, was encouraged by the work put in during the spring transition.

Howell stated that Pima Online and the college’s Teaching and Learning Center conducted trainings for faculty to help them get up to speed.  “Power users,” those with technological skills and experience, reached out to fellow faculty or student peers and set up informal or scheduled training sessions.

“Faculty had to completely redesign their classes to a virtual instruction method, with very little time to do it.  Many of them had never taught an online or a hybrid course before, but they did not let that slow them down.  College leadership has been so impressed by the commitment and can-do attitudes of our PCC faculty under really challenging circumstances,” stated Howell.

Yet, a more difficult challenge in online learning is driven by student lifestyles.

Ashley Johnson, a student in Spanish Class, said, “I am already a self-paced person so it’s not hard for me to keep on track with assignments and deadlines. The only thing that has been slightly difficult is the program used for the virtual classroom. Seems like that could be improved, but overall, I find it fine.”

For students who traditionally do well at college, the online transition did not pose struggles. For already disadvantaged students with busier routines or smaller pockets, it pushed inequalities and required more support than emails or Zoom videoconferences by professors.

Support included providing free internet access where possible at the college.  PCC opened West Campus and Downtown parking lots from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.  Also included free is Microsoft Office 365 when you register with your PCC email address.

Howell further addressed the needs of disadvantaged students stating, “The PCC Foundation is working with the College to identify funding to help students with technology and other needs.”

According to Howell, the college Executive Leadership Team meets virtually for a few hours every day for the purpose of “reviewing today’s needs and challenges and planning for the future.”

While summer classes will remain via virtual delivery and, if necessary, that practice will continue in the fall, Howell pointed out that some classes are not convertible and require face-to-face methodology.

These classes include career and technological classes like nursing and aviation training. They need clock-hours by an outside administrator.  Included in required face-to-face methodology are performance classes like theater, music, fashion design and painting.

Students in these classes were asked to take an incomplete for the Spring Semester with a “hope to be able to offer the face-to-face component for those classes in the summer.”  Social distancing will be strictly enforced if offered in the summer.

Howell concluded that the work is not complete.

“The Deans and department heads are checking in regularly with their faculty to see what’s working, what’s not, and to help develop solutions. Academic administrators are trying to ensure that faculty have the resources they need. And every conversation seems to end with, ‘Will this work for students?’” said Howell.

The pressures PCC will face to offer high-level, online programs this fall if needed depend on the preparedness that takes place between now and then. The Spring Semester highlighted areas of concern and PCC administrators are conscientiously working to address them.

Whether online classes will be needed in the fall is uncertain, but PCC and America’s colleges and universities need to be prepared for the next crisis that requires a quick transition be it from traditional to virtual classrooms, or something else.

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