Spokane Journal of Business

Community colleges adapt to online curricula

Teachers use online resources, simulations, virtual labs for now

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The coronavirus outbreak has presented a number of challenges to every facet of life, as businesses shutter or adapt practices to keep serving their customers. 

Community colleges in Spokane are no exception, and have made the jump to digital, moving their courses online for the spring quarter.

Kevin Brockbank, president at Spokane Community College, says despite the high number of programs provided by the school that are typically more hands-on, the college’s professors have found innovative ways to move their programs online for the quarter.

“We do have a very heavy number of programs and students who participate in hands-on skills training,” says Brockbank. “Every program has developed a plan to deal with that situation.”

Spokane Community College offers about 100 programs ranging in subject from accounting to machine welding. Full- and part-time student enrollment for spring quarter averages about 9,500 students, Brockbank says. 

He adds that he anticipates a slight dip in enrollment, given that not every program was able to move online — truck driving, for instance, is impossible to do remotely, and apprenticeships were included in the governor’s list of prohibited activities during the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order.

The rapid shift online wasn’t without its challenges, Brockbank says.

“Our model is based on the ability to walk on campus and have an interaction with an individual at their desk,” he says. “Trying to recreate that in a way that students feel comfortable and well-served is really hard.”

Some programs, such as cosmetology or nursing, also require special consideration to ensure they are still meeting state licensure requirements.

“Everything had to be considered,” says Brockbank. “How do we make sure that we provide quality instruction so students are still able to fulfill their academic goals and dreams and that we do it in a way that puts them out in the workforce qualified?”

When the campus reopens, social distancing measures will be implemented in the classrooms to ensure student and faculty safety, which means, for example, that labs that once hosted upwards of 20 students will likely drop to around 10, he says.

In the meantime, faculty in programs that are typically more hands-on, such as cosmetology, automotive repair, and welding, will focus on theoretical practices for the first portion of the quarter or take advantage of virtual labs, videos, and simulations, Brockbank says.

“As challenging as this is, this also opens up access for students that we’ve never had before,” he says, adding, “There are some really fantastic things that are coming out of this that are going to be really beneficial for us down the road.”

At Spokane Falls Community College, President Kimberlee Messina says that the school’s existing online program created a solid foundation to build upon as more programs shifted online.

SFCC also decided early on, prior to the extension of the stay-home order, it would shift online for most of spring quarter, so the team had more time to figure out its online strategy, Messina says.

“It was still a huge effort for our faculty, because many of them hadn’t taught online before or had just done a little bit by putting some of their information online,” she Messina. “This was really a very rapid kind of conversion by fire effort into getting everything online.”

The college pushed its spring quarter start date a week back, to April 13, and ended its winter quarter a week early to provide ample time to train teachers on using online teaching methods, so teachers could get their courses up and running online, Messina says.

She adds, “We had the benefit of learning a little bit from what was happening in other parts of the country,” as Washington’s stay home order followed a similar mandate in California.

The college also had the benefit of being 77.5% transfer programs and the rest career technical, so its courses generally require less hands-on training than many of those at its sister school, Messina says.

Like SCC, the strategy as it stands is for those programs that felt they couldn’t go fully online to front-load theoretical learning in the first portion of the quarter and then plan for face-to-face hands-on learning in the back half of the quarter, under the assumption that the order is lifted in early May, Messina says.

Once, or if, that happens, Messina says that classrooms will implement social distancing measures for the remainder of the quarter. If the campus doesn’t reopen this spring, the programs will likely be extended into the summer quarter, she says.

However, the occupational and physical therapy programs, as well as orthotics and prosthetics likely will extend into summer quarter or shift fully to summer, she says.

SFCC has about 5,000 full-time and part-time students enrolled for the spring quarter, she adds.

Beyond the classroom, Messina says student services have moved online completely to provide counseling, tutoring, and other student support throughout the quarter.

She adds that the Community Colleges of Spokane Foundation has awarded a $30,000 grant to the school to provide laptops, wireless hot spots, and other tech for students to borrow for the quarter to ensure they have access, she says.

Both SFCC and SCC are loaning devices to students and faculty, and students will have access to a virtual campus that hosts online resources, support, tips for learning online, online virtual support, and libraries.

“What this has highlighted, especially in the state of Washington … is the huge equity gap for those that do not have access to reliable internet,” Messina adds, noting that those in rural areas likely don’t have as reliable connectivity as those who live in the city. 

“I’m hopeful that as we come through this crisis that it becomes much more of an awareness and support for providing equitable access,” she says. 

The virtual campus was revamped by the Community Colleges of Spokane team, Messina adds, which worked to consolidate the needed resources in one easy to find spot online so students wouldn’t have to search for it. 

Natasha Nellis
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Reporter Natasha Nellis joined the Journal in May 2018 and covers real estate and construction. Natasha is an avid reader and loves taking photos, traveling, and learning new languages.

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