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Navigating a Remote World

Remote learning in sign language“No time in our 50-year history has tested the college more than the global coronavirus pandemic,” said Dr. Kate Hetherington, Howard Community College president. 

As confirmed cases of the coronavirus began to make their way into Maryland in March, Howard Community College (HCC) took swift action. Spring break moved up by three weeks, and classes were canceled the week afterward to allow for the necessary training and preparations to change operations. On March 30, the college moved completely to remote classes and services. 

“Our top priority is to protect the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff. In these challenging and uncertain times, I am so grateful for how our community has stayed strong and come through this together.”

While HCC had long offered a selection of online courses, this change marked a significant shift for the campus community, requiring a rapid and heightened level of creativity, communication, and coordination. 

The transition for faculty kicked off with an intensive two-day training on teaching remotely, led by Dr. Megan Myers, director of eLearning, and Dr. Amy Chase Martin, director of faculty development and instructional media.

“Typically, when we plan an online course, we spend a lot of time in advance examining every aspect of the course and optimizing it for online interactions and community-building,” said Dr. Myers. “In this case, we had two days to introduce faculty to basic online tools and two weeks to help them transfer their face-to-face classes to an online environment. For faculty, it was a heroic lift.”

During the initial days, a significant number of the college’s 800 faculty members attended the trainings. They learned basics about tools like the videoconferencing platform Zoom and the college’s existing digital classroom tool, Canvas. Over time, faculty members increasingly began using more advanced features to enhance their classroom strategies.

Creativity in the Classroom

In an American Sign Language class taught by Ora McLellan, students learn new signs by watching McLellan on Zoom and looking at illustrations of signs on slides. They also practice through Zoom using their own webcams. 

While there are challenges, like not being able to physically correct a student’s palm orientation or fingers, there are some benefits to the technology, too, McLellan says. Since students are expected to communicate solely through sign language, “we press the mute button,” she said. “We don’t use the microphone at all” – an option made possible by Zoom.

In sociology classes taught by Ajeeta Bhatia, students learn through a mix of interactive Zoom lectures and Kahoot! polls. The Kahoot! platform allows Bhatia to pose questions similar to a quiz show, and students answer in real time from their mobile devices, and instantaneously see the results. Polls help Bhatia gauge students’ understanding of the content while helping students recognize which topics might need extra study.

“I use a lot of active learning and like to shake things up,” Bhatia said. “I try to simulate some of these activities, even here, remotely.”

While her first attempt at using Kahoot! in the online classroom had some glitches, Bhatia said she worked on it with faculty development and was successfully able to try again. And she is continuing to learn new ways to make classes engaging. 

“I can’t say enough about how our faculty have taken on this challenge with energy, enthusiasm, and a positive attitude,” said Dr. Chase Martin. “The singular focus of everyone has been on the students and how we can help them.” 

That attitude is critical to success, says Dr. Myers. “Each faculty member knows their students and their content best,” she said. “Making this transition has required a significant amount of agility, creativity, knowledge about student needs, and patience to learn the technology.”

As the college prepares for remote instruction during the summer, eLearning and faculty development staff have continued to provide ongoing support for instructors. The team also has fast-tracked more robust trainings for online teaching. Roughly 150 faculty members have completed these trainings and learned best practices in online instruction to implement this summer. 

“Even when the pandemic is over, faculty members will have so many more tools in their toolkit because they have expanded their strategies for delivering content and assessing students’ work,” said Dr. Chase Martin. 

Holistic Help, from Computers to Food

When it became clear that the college would go remote, staff and faculty leaders knew of at least one likely obstacle for students: technology. 

“We recognized that not every student has a laptop or internet access at home,” said Lorianna Mapps, associate vice president of enrollment services. “A lot of students use their phone for internet needs.”

But phones are often insufficient for running software required by college courses, and materials can be hard to read on small screens. Even Chromebooks, which are popular among middle school and high school students, are not compatible with HCC’s platform for administering exams. 

The college quickly developed a survey to identify gaps and coordinate efforts to help students access needed equipment. However, through the survey, staff found that needs extended far beyond computers.

“It was eye-opening to learn what our students were really facing,” said Mapps, who oversaw the survey. “Some were being called to work extra hours as frontline workers, some were worried about taking care of children while working and studying, and some said they had a laptop but that it would need to be shared with family members.”

Before classes moved online, staff worked to distribute loaner laptops and wi-fi hotspots to more than 230 students identified through the survey.

Technology support also continued after the initial distribution, with support from the Howard Community College Educational Foundation (HCCEF). In addition to filling technology gaps, staff worked to ensure that students had other needs met, including assistance from an HCC case worker. 

“We see our role as helping students not only academically, but holistically,” said Debra Greene, director of academic support services. “Sometimes it may look like a student isn’t motivated because they’re missing classes, but then you find out they’re couch surfing and don’t have a home, don’t have family support, don’t have transportation – and are facing a myriad of problems. We have to know them holistically to be able to help them succeed.”

Staying Connected to the HCC Family

For Paula Rojas, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran and current student, the biggest challenge of remote learning has been finding adequate time to focus and study. With a two-year-old daughter at home and husband working long hours as a firefighter, coursework mostly happens between 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. 

“It has been quite a juggling act to keep everything together for a lot of us nontraditional students,” she said. 

Recognizing the reality of increased stress on students, HCC’s veterans’ affairs staff made individual calls to all 300 military and veteran students on their rolls. “They have been very helpful and proactive,” Rojas said. “Getting a personal call also made me feel like I am not forgotten, and still very much a part of the HCC family.”

In some classes, Zoom videoconferencing calls and even class assignments have become an opportunity for students and faculty to check in with each other. 

“One professor gave us an assignment that asked questions like, ‘Tell me how you’re feeling,’ just to get to know everyone better and know whether we needed support,” said Kourtney Douglas, who is working toward her associate degree in English.

Douglas has a home office that serves as a dedicated space for studying, and lives with her family and a newly adopted cat, but she has found the lack of face-to-face social interactions challenging.

“I’m a people person, and I like small talk, so it’s rough,” Douglas said. “But I just try to keep in touch with everybody. It really is important to have the ability to check in and have that solidarity and remind each other that this is temporary.”

In the history and economics department, Zoom has opened new opportunities for more frequent connections, both for faculty and students.

“We’ve been doing weekly Zoom faculty meetings that are open to everyone, and we’re sharing our experiences, what’s working, and what’s not working,” said Dr. Hanael Bianchi, chair of history and economics. “As a result, I’m having many more conversations with adjunct faculty members than I usually would. In many ways, we have all gotten closer.”

Students are also finding time to connect before and after classes, sometimes extending Zoom calls just to chat, Bianchi said. “It’s been inspiring to see that connection.”

Shifting Services Online

Dance instruction remotely

Just as classes have adapted, offices across the college are adapting services to seamlessly continue in a remote manner. From admissions information sessions to advising, offline processes have been reimagined. Staff members at all levels have had to think creatively and work nimbly to pivot their work online.

“We were very intentional about staying student-centered and making the transition easier for students,” said Cheryl Cudzilo, registrar, who oversaw changes to the graduation application process, transcript requests and course withdrawal deadline.

For the Learning Assistance Center, staff had to reschedule tutoring appointments to Zoom and establish new ways of offering tutoring by video calls. “We created a virtual office with our front desk staff on Zoom, so people could pop in and ask questions, and more easily connect students with tutors,” said Debra Greene, director of academic support services. 

Advisors supporting diverse groups of students, including international students and high school students in the JumpStart program, also started offering virtual appointments.

“Usually, students walk in when they have questions or needs. But now we’re doing appointments by Zoom, and students like the convenience,” said Lori Hartley, associate director of admissions for international students. “Hopefully we’ll continue offering some online appointments, even when we are back in the office.”

All of these changes signify an acceleration of the digital transformation process, says Sung Lee, director of student computer support. “As this continues, we have to keep rethinking what this means for the future, and how we can better support students remotely,” he said.

Darryll Jeffries, student government association president, had words of encouragement for fellow students. “I know, with this pandemic, it’s really crazy, you have to make adjustments, big changes,” he said. “I’m focusing on what I can control… Stay strong and stay encouraged. We will get through this.”

Math in the Time of COVID

When it comes to working out math problems, “it’s not really something you can type up,” says Greta Holtackers Cannon, mathematics professor and coordinator for statistics and flexible learning. “Math needs to be shown on paper.”

As math faculty began discussing how to manage the move to remote learning, Holtackers Cannon was eager to share successful strategies from her experience teaching classes online. 

However, she said, “the biggest challenge was that we all had different technology at home and different levels of technological experience.” 

While Holtackers Cannon had success recording herself on an iPad while working out math problems, it was not feasible for those with older computers, so faculty members got creative. One positioned her laptop’s camera to tilt downward and capture the math problems on paper. Another built a wooden structure to hold his phone above a piece of paper to record his work.

“The level of ingenuity and collaboration was remarkable,” Holtackers Cannon said. 

To review students’ work, faculty members found that students could use a phone scanning app. To facilitate tutoring, Larisa Gray, developmental math lab manager, created an easily navigable Google doc for sign-ups and scheduling. To build an online trove of resources, faculty members began video recording lessons for sharing across the division. 

For some students, recorded videos have been especially useful. “Some students have told me how helpful it is to be able to go back and watch a video,” Holtackers Cannon said. “Instead of binge watching on Netflix, they are binge watching my class—and doing very well!”

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