Virtual classes as part of the norm

The home teaching studio of information technology professor Christopher Lee of Florida State College of Jacksonville. (Photo: FSCJ)

As community college faculty have developed innovative practices for their virtual classes during the coronavirus pandemic, some are planning to retain those strategies when their campuses reopen.

Faculty members have discovered some silver linings with distance learning – technology can help students stay engaged, even when face-to-face lessons resume.

An IT simulation

Information technology professor Christopher Lee at Florida State College at Jacksonville created an extensive online simulation in his home teaching studio that he plans to continue to use for students who can’t come to class in person.

Lee teaches courses on hardware configuration, software configuration, server configuration and networking

“For many students in the IT program, this is the first time they are working inside the computer or behind the scenes with operating systems, so I want to convey as much of the in-person experience as possible,” Lee says.

“As I’m lecturing, the students see what I’m doing in each computer,” he adds. “In place of hands-on labs, I set up scenarios and ask the students to tell me what to do to solve a problem.”

Lee prefers WebEx so he can use the URL for his personal room across all of his classes. As he lectures, he shares PowerPoint slides, websites and other resources, and uses a Huion digital pen and a sketchpad tablet to simulate the whiteboard experience. A digital video camera helps him demonstrate how to install, remove, assemble and disassemble hardware components.

Lee says he has received good feedback from his students.

“Instead of watching a video, they see what I’m doing in real-time,” he says. “They see the mistakes and how to recover from mistakes, which is similar to what goes on in a classroom.”

Cooking at home

Chef Megan Leppert, a culinary arts faculty member with San Diego Continuing Education in the San Diego Community College District, says it’s been difficult to conduct cooking classes online, but she’s making it work by having Zoom demonstrations online with students following along in their own kitchens.

Students pick their own recipe but all make something similar, such as a certain kind of salad dressing, using the same skills. Leppert’s class features the cuisine of a different country every week, such as France, Spain or Italy.

“I want to make sure they can graduate on time,” she says, noting that when the campus closed, they had already completed 750 hours of a 900-hour program leading to a certificate. “We will make that happen.”

Most of Leppert’s students are adults working in the hospitality industry and many have lost their jobs, although others have their own home-based food business or are interested in a career shift.

Going forward, it’s going to be difficult to secure a career in hospitality, at least in the short term.

“This shutdown has completely destroyed our industry,” Leppert says.

To give students more real-world experience, as well as help the community, Leppert and other culinary faculty coordinated a meal program for local hospital workers, including emergency room nurses conducting COVID tests. While many hospitals are getting food donations, Leppert’s students are focusing on the more-neglected Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista, which is close to the Mexican border.

Students get it

When Wallace State Community College in Alabama, transitioned to distance learning, anatomy and physiology instructor Beth Williams was worried whether her students could adapt to it. She was pleasantly surprised.

“They really just jumped on board. It worked out much better than I thought,” she says.

Instead of using pictures of human body parts from textbooks, Williams took photos of the models used in class and posted them online to better replicate the in-class experience. Students also had access to 3D websites that allowed them to view muscles, bones and other anatomical parts from different directions.

And while Williams had experience with Blackboard, using it for a totally virtual class meant she had to learn many features unfamiliar to her. When the campus reopens, she plans to continue using Blackboard to collect homework and give assignments, feedback and grades.

Williams also plans to continue with Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom and Kaltura Virtual Classroom for meeting with students. She likes to use Kaltura to record a screen and send it to multiple classes.

Once students get used to the technology, “they still feel connected,” she says. “They realize they can still talk to their instructor and ask questions.”

Lively discussions

Michael Hannen, humanities coordinator and philosophy instructor at Amarillo College in Texas, adopted a “flipped classroom” model to encourage more student engagement in his virtual Introduction to Ethics course.

Under this approach, Hannen asks students to watch a pre-recorded lecture first, then has them participate in a regularly scheduled videoconference to discuss the lecture topic.

“We get into contemporary moral debates about controversial issues, such as capital punishment, abortion and the legalization of drugs,” he says. “Student engagement is essential.”

Hannen was concerned that filling class time with lectures would squeeze out time for discussion, breaking into groups and making follow-up presentations.

“So, I recorded the lectures and posted them to my YouTube channel,” he says. “Students can go through them at their own pace.”

It gives students more time to share their insights during group discussions on Google Meets and Blackboard Collaborate, he adds.

Some positives

While Hannen prefers face-to-face classes, he found virtual discussions have some advantages. He noticed that during virtual sessions “some students are more willing to speak up and feel less intimidated than if they were in the same room. In the classroom, I get the sense that some people are anxious about giving an opinion or challenging what another person said.”

As an example, during a discussion on the legalization of drugs, one student noted that while meth destroys one’s teeth, so does drinking soda and not brushing.

“Another student jumped in, saying ‘That’s ridiculous, you can’t compare the two at all,’” Hannen says. “It was a pretty zealous debate.” That would be less likely in a traditional classroom.

“We will definitely learn from this experience,” Hannen says, suggesting he might continue virtual discussions when the college reopens, although he still wants to get back to the classroom. “We will try to find the right balance.”

Virtual field trip

Dana Salkowsky, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Orange County Community College in New York, worked with faculty across all disciplines to creatively devise strategies for student engagement and instructional continuity.

One teacher, for example, took students in an environmental conservation course on a virtual synchronous field trip focusing on amphibians. The instructors incorporated YouTube videos into the lesson, and students commented in real-time, then submitted written responses to inquiries around the topic.

Where an instructor might have used PowerPoint in class, now they’re integrating more video into their online lessons, Salkowsky says, noting the instructor of a History of Rock and Roll course is leveraging YouTube, iTunes and Zoom to bring virtual lessons alive.

“Faculty are choosing multiple resources and bringing them together seamlessly,” she notes, adding that anecdotally she has heard that both faculty and students have adapted well to distance learning.

There will be a transformation in how faculty look at the technological resources available and how to incorporate them in a multidimensional way, Salkowsky says.

“Faculty are recognizing that, rather than keeping students at a distance, these tools can engage them at a deeper level, even in the classroom,” she says. “It’s forcing us to think differently about how we convey the subject matter.”

Culinary kits

Teaching intensive hands-on courses online is challenging, but it can be done effectively, says Jermaine Whirl, vice president of learning and workforce development at Greenville Technical College in South Carolina.

Whirl cites Kristen Grissom, head of the culinary arts department, who had faculty create kits containing all the tools and ingredients students need to complete a project at home.

For example, one kit included meat packaged in ice, knives and everything else needed for a butchering lesson. Students pick up their kits in a secure area and use the materials to follow along with the class on Zoom.

Every week, students return the kits and pick up new ones. Similar lessons cover cake decorating, pastry making and other topics. There was no extra expense, as the materials were the same they would have used in the classroom.

“It went off seamlessly,” Whirl says,” The students absolutely loved it.” And as an added bonus, students had something to feed their families.

Stylin’ online

Michele Henley-Elmore, head of the cosmetology department at Greenville Tech, came up with a similar solution, Whirl says. For the virtual classes, students received a kit with a mannikin head and a box of supplies, such as shampoo, conditioner and brushes.

When the classes were in person, the final project called for students to invite volunteers to participate in live demonstrations. During the synchronous, virtual classes, students displayed their hair-dying skills on a sister, brother or someone else in their home, while classmates watched live on Blackboard Collaborate.

“It was fabulous,” says Whirl. “A lot of our students are eager to finish the semester and sit for a license. We were able to keep them on pace.”

During the last few weeks, “We learned we could do a lot more with technology. We encouraged people to dive into that more than they would have,” he says.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.
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