Northeastern Technical College (NETC) serves three counties in South Carolina with rural areas where internet access is either not available or too expensive.
When the pandemic hit in spring 2020 and the campus’ buildings closed and classes moved online, the college connected with students through email and social media and made sure resources were available online. But many students couldn’t access those messages or resources because they didn’t have an online connection. Also, because the campus was shut, students couldn’t access technology available in the library and computer labs.
Representatives from NETC discussed how they ensured students persisted despite these obstacles during an AACC Digital session this week.
“We had to remember, people didn’t sign up for this,” said Derk Riechers, the college’s director of modalities. “At NETC, we had to think about how can we make the online experience successful and welcoming to everyone.”
NETC established a laptop lending program, allowing anyone enrolled to check out a laptop. Staff also contacted the area’s internet service providers to establish internet service accounts and get hotspots to help students get connected. They physically mailed information to students to let them know about these services.
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Carol Shea Linton, a NETC student, lives in a rural area and was grateful that the college “made sure everyone, no matter where they lived, had access to quality wi-fi.”
In addition, students needing some extra help could access advisers over the phone or on Zoom. Faculty established Zoom “office hours” so students could visit and ask questions. There also was a class on the learning management system (LMS) that showed students how to access supports and provided links to online resources.
“A big part of our journey was being pro-active,” said Edwin Delgado, vice president of instruction. As a result, NETC saw a 12% increase in enrollment – the only college in South Carolina that saw increase in enrollment for the year.
At the end of fiscal year 2020, NETC had an 8% increase in persistence. Delgado attributed some of that to the fact that, if students stay enrolled, they could keep access to broadband services and the laptop lending program.
Though some of NETC’s practices had to change during the pandemic, the college has always had a high-touch approach. Staff call and email students to make sure they register for classes. Deans and faculty reach out to students early if they are at risk, but they also will reach out mid-term when students do well to congratulate them. At the end of the semester, professors will send a thank-you email to students.
During the pandemic, some of those emails have been sent via snail mail.
“We had to take a step back in technology to take two steps forward,” Riechers said. “It’s ironic that now we’re sending students letters in the mail to take classes in an online arena.”
Riechers advised session attendees to put themselves in their students’ shoes. For example, at NETC, many students ended up taking online classes on their phones using the LMS’s app. Faculty should ensure that course quality and access are the same whether students are using a laptop or a phone, he said. They also can add a question in their course evaluation to gauge students’ opinions of the app.
In addition, student engagement should extend outside classes. Shea Linton said it was hard when all on-campus activities were cancelled. As a member of student government, she missed those in-person meetings that allowed her to connect with other students outside of academics.
Moving those activities online isn’t quite the same, but it’s important for students’ sense of connection, Riechers said.
And, don’t forget to take care of staff and faculty, he said. Internal customer services is as important as external customer service.
“We get wrapped up caring for our students; we need to take care of ourselves to ensure we have the right tools available,” Riechers said.