While Thomas Nelson students had an extra week of spring break, faculty and staff at the College were still on task. Both groups were preparing for the move to all online classes. The virtual or alternative delivery of classes is part of the College's response to COVID-19, and will be in place until further notice.
“It’s not easy for any of us, and we’re just doing the best we can,” Julie Young, head of the mechanical engineering department, said last week. “I’m really glad (the administration) gave us this week to work on it. It’s not like we’re off this week. We’re working like crazy to get ready for when (students) are there next week. It will be smoother. It gives us a head start.”
Probably the hardest part will be creating teaching experiences that can replicate hands-on labs.
“That’s been a big challenge,” said Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Lauren Williams. “We had the faculty in on Monday and they just had great ideas. They are talking about recording themselves and then the students can comment on what they are doing. There’s a lot of really great thinking happening.”
Young echoed those thoughts.
“At that faculty meeting we had online Sunday night, there were 88 faculty members there. It was really impressive,” she said. “The school is giving us ideas.”
One such idea is creative scheduling.
“For technology classes with a large portion of hands-on contact time required, instructors will be front-loading the course with online content and engagement,” said Dr. Susan English, Vice President for Academic Affairs.
Another adjustment is students won’t be required to participate in the online classes at a scheduled time. While Williams said some instructors will hold their sessions at the same times and days their class would normally meet, students won’t be required to participate at that time. All the sessions will be recorded and posted online, allowing students to view them as their schedule permits.
Williams is confident the College is prepared when it comes to technology.
“Canvas is our LMS (learning management system), which is a cloud-based system, and it is equipped to handle various size loads of users,” she said. “They have assured us they’re ready to do this. … From that point of view, definitely we feel confident.”
Adjustments also are being made in terms of technical support. Williams said there will be live virtual sessions for students from 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday. She said it will be similar to going to the library to seek assistance with technology. She called it a virtual library tech help desk.
The College will also offer, by appointment, help from the academic tech staff and the library staff. Williams noted short videos will be made showing basic things such as how to get on Zoom, and how to download the free Microsoft Office Suite available to students through their Virginia's Community Colleges (VCCS) affiliation.
Peer tutoring, math tutoring and writing tutoring will be available online for students by appointment. Williams is working on a schedule and will post it as soon as possible. And Brainfuse will continue to be an option. The online tutoring company is going to allow students to request a specific Thomas Nelson tutor if they want to, giving them an even wider range of options.
“There will be pretty much wall-to-wall coverage of tutoring support,” Williams said.
The College provided laptops and hotspots for students to sign out from the library. Students immediately seized the opportunity, and checked out the entire supply. As a result, a waiting list has been created. The Thomas Nelson Education Foundation has made funds available to obtain more laptops, and Williams said the College is doing research to see if any companies on the Peninsula can loan or donate computers to students.
Another option for students is to take advantage of the online community. There is a wealth of information on the Internet about how to make this transition. Search for tips on how to learn during a disruption or how to adjust your study habits.
However, relying much more on technology can present problems.
Young said teachers need to be aware some students might not have the Internet access, or tools, at home that they have at the College. She will hold Zoom meetings with her students to get a better understanding of students’ needs.
“That’s my biggest concern right now,” she said.
She also mentioned not to expect dual enrollment students to be as comfortable with online learning as their older classmates.
“I don’t know that they know how to do stuff online like we expect our college students to do,” she said. “That’s going to be a bigger learning curve as to what to expect out of them.”
And some teachers who don’t rely on technology as much will have extra learning to do also.
Williams and Young said two keys to getting through this situation are patience and flexibility.
“We’re all prioritizing patience, and trying to think about what makes the most sense to do with this very unusual situation,” Williams said. “Everyone is thinking about how can I help either my students or my colleagues just get across the finish line here. The emphasis is just making it through this really tough time. It’s not about ‘Let’s try to replicate everything that we’re doing.’ We really want to be as flexible as we can be.”
Young noted the students didn’t sign up for this, and it’s something no one could have predicted.
“I think it’s just really important as instructors that we realize that students are worried,” she said. “We just need to be reassuring, and help them.”
She knows school is just one aspect of their life. Many have family responsibilities, which are taking on greater importance at this time. One of her students, she said, has been working extra long shifts at a local grocery store.
“He doesn’t need another complication in his life like this,” Young said. “It’s really important that we be patient and understanding, and flexible.”