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Howard Community College students, faculty overcome obstacles to adjust to coronavirus remote learning

At the end of each of her online Latin American history quizzes, Howard Community College assistant professor Megan Myers asks the same final question to her students: “How are you doing?”

“It’s [a] really confidential and easy way to check in on them,” Myers said.

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HCC students have been logging online for classes since March 30, a measure taken to adhere to various social distancing guidelines as a result of the coronavirus health emergency.

Myers checks in with her students once a week via Zoom, a video conference service, where they go over lecture content, but Myers also makes sure to stay connected with her students.

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“A lot of [online learning] is making that connection with students, the way you would check in with students in the hall right before class or right after class,” she said.

In March, when school systems, national universities and community colleges announced closures as the coronavirus was spreading rapidly through the United States, HCC quickly jumped into gear.

Besides teaching, Myers is the college’s director of eLearning and, in March, she helped the college do a half-year’s worth of work in a matter of two weeks and two days.

“It was one of those things like, ‘Could this really happen?’ We were all watching for a while,” Myers said.

HCC, with an enrollment of more than 30,000 as of fiscal 2019, canceled classes March 12 and 13 to provide faculty with face-to-face training to prepare for potential remote instruction. A week later, the college announced online instruction would begin March 30 and continue through the end of the spring semester.

To further prepare faculty for weeks of online learning, HCC moved its spring break from the beginning of April to the middle of March and closed the college for an additional week through March 29, allowing for two weeks of virtual training for faculty.

During the two-day, in-person training, topics covered included: online course designs, teleconferencing, tips on how to offer assignments virtually and how to help students be successful in an online learning environment. From there, two weeks of digital training further prepared faculty and staff for the new way of teaching and operating HCC from behind various computer screens.

“That got us to the point that we were ready to launch remote classes. The biggest thing I’ve seen from faculty and staff [is] that the student focus is the primary focus. Everyone goes into every meeting, every training, with the mentality of putting the students first,” Myers said.

“I just really appreciate how hard our faculty are working and, to make it all happen, it’s a big lift.”

The college’s May commencement is postponed and all campus events are canceled through June 30.

A look into the ‘classroom’

Madison Poehlman, a first-year nursing student, understands her professors are doing all they can to conduct classes virtually; however, she said the transition has been frustrating.

“It sucks, it’s been terrible,” Poehlman, 27, said, who has been relying heavily on YouTube videos to help her understand the material since teaching moved online.

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“I give the teachers a lot of credit, but as a student, it has not been easy,” she added.

Poehlman went from attending nearly three-hour in-person lectures twice a week, plus completing clinical hours, to having Zoom lectures and online simulations. Beyond the differences from a traditional classroom setting, being stuck online has kept Poelhman away from her study group and being able to spend hours on campus daily, where she focuses best.

Online simulations include being tested on basic nursing skills, such as administering blood and insulin and changing a colonoscopy bag for patients.

“I love their effort in doing [creating online tests], but it’s helpful to practice the skills. Otherwise it goes in one ear and out the other,” Poehlman said.

Exams have also taken a new form. Before Poehlman can begin, she has to open up a lockdown browser that locks everything on her computer besides the online exam, and she must allow webcam access so she can be recorded and/or watched in real time to ensure she isn’t cheating. She also has to make sure the camera can see all around her desk so her professors know she doesn’t have any notes or materials out.

For the more hands-on classes, Myers said there were hundreds of answers for how to conduct labs online and other traditional in-person teaching objectives.

“It might not be the ideal situation, but we are finding ways to continue learning to meet the course objectives and to keep everyone safe. We have that obligation to keep our community safe,” she said.

Stephanie Hwang, an adjunct faculty member at the college’s English Learning Center, teaches an English as a Second Language class to students who have “little to no English education.”

When the college announced the transition to online learning, Hwang was worried because she doesn’t use any technology in the classroom, a measure she decided on as to not overwhelm her students.

“The use of technology is great, but those who have never used it and especially in another language, that’s where the difficulty lies,” Hwang said. “It was still worrisome for me. My students are very, very beginners as English learners.”

However, Hwang said the two-day faculty training in March was extremely helpful.

“HCC went out of their way to carve out time [to train us]. They went above and beyond to help us meet the students’ needs the best we could,” she said.

Mike Long, dean of mathematics, said his department is “coming close to providing the same level of [face-to-face ] interaction in a virtual environment.”

Besides working quickly to get all courses online, the department implemented a remote tutoring service so students who were receiving in-person tutoring or will now need extra help will still be able to receive assistance.

For Long’s classes, he has seen a majority of his students check in for the Zoom video lectures.

One Zoom tool used by Long and a majority of math professors is the whiteboard feature, allowing for professors to display various math problems in real time, so students can see the work step by step.

Initial feedback from mathematics students has included that many feel as though they are in the physical classroom, Long said.

“We put every ounce of energy into this and the students have appreciated our work,” Long said. “They know we are here for them and they appreciate that.”

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Like Long, Hwang is using Zoom to reach her students. However, her class attendance has drastically decreased.

In the physical classroom, there were about 16 students in Hwang’s class, but the highest number she has seen log on is seven.

“The first day [of online learning], zero students logged in, then three and then seven,” Hwang said.

For students who may not be able to attend the Zoom classes and for extra practice, Hwang uploads all of her PowerPoint presentations to Canvas, a digital learning platform, with a voice over, so students can hear her voice as if they were face to face in the classroom.

The voice overs allow students to go through the lessons at their own pace and check their work.

Hwang also is not docking points off any assignments that are being turned in late, as there could be a variety of reasons for the delay due to circumstances surrounding the health pandemic.

“Our heart is always for the student,” Hwang said. “Each student comes from such a different background and story. It’s not easy for anybody in these circumstances, and I can do what I can do.”

Non-classroom services

As professors and adjunct faculty members scrambled to get classes online, HCC’s counseling and career services had its own hoops to jump through.

The center is divided into three entities, said Jay Coughlin, director of career and counseling services: personal counseling, career counseling and career links.

The biggest hurdle, he said, was to figure out how to continue providing personal counseling with a HIPAA-compliant video conference service.

“No one [at HCC] has done teletherapy ever, including me, so we had to figure out how to do this ethically and get everyone trained remotely so we can get this underway,” Coughlin said.

“I think we are making an impact, from what I’ve noticed in the first weeks of the remote services and several of our clients are continuing with the services.”

Career counseling services are free of charge and are available to HCC and non-HCC students. Faculty members are holding Zoom video conferences to review resumes and help students and community members with internships and job opportunities.

As the preparations for remote learning began, HCC rolled out a survey to all students asking if they had access to a laptop and internet. The college received more than 2,500 responses, and Lorianna Mapps, associate vice president of enrollment services, read every single response.

The college hosted a laptop and hot spot drive, allowing for students to come and pick the devices up as loaners.

“The survey responses had me beaming. Some students replied, ‘Hey I don’t need anything, but thanks for checking,’ ” Mapps said

“HCC feels like a family. HCC is a community and that helps when you’re going through things like this.”

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