In nearly every corner of the world, normal life has been upended, and Columbia College is no different. Thousands of Columbia College students and hundreds of faculty and staff have returned home. In a matter of days, the college has both completely transformed how it operates and yet continues to provide quality education as it has the last 169 years.
Higher-education institutions were among the first to begin large-scale efforts to aid in “social distancing” – a new term, “digital togetherness,” has already sprouted in higher-education circles – and those efforts ramped up after the World Health Organization’s pandemic declaration on March 11.
“The health and well-being of our students, faculty and staff around the country is our main focus every day, and this situation obviously requires increased scrutiny and action on our part,” Dr. Scott Dalrymple stated. “Making this transition allows our students to continue their educational pursuits while dramatically reducing the risk of possible exposure and transmission of COVID-19.”
For the latest information from the college related to the novel coronavirus, including current updates, resources, FAQ and more, please visit the college’s COVID-19 page.
The college’s Crisis Response Team, comprised of members of every department and division, meets regularly and had been discussing possible issues related to the novel coronavirus for several weeks. Thanks to their efforts, plans were first made public on March 4, with an announcement from Columbia College President Dr. Dalrymple that study-abroad programs in South Korea and Italy would be suspended.
Five days later, Dalrymple made the call to close the college’s three locations in the state of Washington and begin their transition to teaching Interactive Virtual Courses (IVC) to their in-seat students. A week ago today, that closure extended across the entire college.
The Transition to IVCs: Rooted in our online DNA
Columbia College has a pioneering tradition of online education, teaching classes virtually since 2000. After using Blackboard’s Collaborate software for years, the college converted all its existing nationwide IVC’s to Zoom Technologies last summer. So when it came time to move class sections – 10 in the state of Washington to begin, then another nine in California, before ultimately nearly 400 class sections, comprising both nationwide and the Day Program – to IVCs, the college’s Tech Services and Location Operations staff were ready.
“While the transition was challenging, our previous experience with the Zoom platform allowed us to make the transition more smoothly,” said David Humphrey, director of Location Operations for the college’s more than 30 locations nationwide.
Transitioning existing setups is one thing; sending the college’s entire corps of faculty and staff home to work virtually is not simply moving laptops and monitors home. Gary Stanowski, Chief Information Officer for the college, guesses his department handed out upwards of 250 Ethernet cables to employees. “For the folks that needed to be hard-wired, we had them measure how far it was from their computers to their routers at home, and in some cases, that was 100 feet.” Other employees work primarily from tower-based computers that don’t have webcams and microphones integrated like laptops do; Stanowski says he “cleaned out” a couple of local technology stores for handsets and other hardware to aid in the move.
“We found out about this on (last Friday morning, March 13). By Wednesday at noon, we were able to send all staff home. We basically had everybody out in 3½ days.”
The Transition for Students: Learning from home
As many new telecommuters are now discovering, working from home and being a parent is proving troublesome for many employees. “That is the hardest part of this,” says Brandi Herrman, an instructor in the Robert W. Plaster School of Business. “How the heck do you keep your kids learning and engaged and care for them, and create some sort of normal for them, while – this profession is a caring profession – while I’m doing that for my kids, I’m trying to figure out how to do that for my students, too.”
Brandi Herrman, an instructor in Robert W. Plaster School of Business, points out some of the challenges of teaching students from off-campus.
There are challenges on many students’ side as well: Herrman surveyed her students before they were dispersed from Rogers Gate in an attempt to discern what, if any, barriers would be in place to prevent class from taking place. Some students, who have their own bills to pay now that they’re living in apartments and buying their own meals, now are experiencing financial hardships.
In addition, Herrman and her colleagues are trying to find the best balance between synchronous (held at the normal time and day of the week) and asynchronous (on-demand) instruction, knowing that the new circumstances of her students’ lives might not necessarily fit into neat, one-hour blocks.
The Transition for Student Affairs: Creating community online
For Associate Dean for Student Affairs Erin Mazzola, some aspects of the “new normal” aren’t even new. “Our group works in crisis situations a lot, and we’re used to adapting on the fly, but this is unlike anything everyone’s ever worked in,” she said.
Associate Dean for Student Affairs Erin Mazzola points out that there is at least one structural positive to this disruption.
There are several student services the college offers that already existed online in a significant manner. For example, students use a system called Handshake to access job openings posted by the Grossnickle Career Services Center. Students needing assistance with accessibility issues can easily maintain contact virtually.
One area traditional colleges excel at is creating community within their residence halls and through student programming, and the coronavirus pandemic has created a tremendous void in that area. Mazzola, Dean for Student Affairs Dave Roberts and their team are actively seeking what they can do to foster authentic community in a virtual world.
“What we’re hearing is that students are wanting information, they’re wanting some connection, especially right now for people who are really feeling isolated,” she said. “They’re not hanging out with their friends, so I think they’re looking to us in a bigger way to provide that virtual connection.”
The Transition for Faculty: Teaching in an entirely new way
Faculty in the Day Program have been using this week – while classes have been suspended – to prepare for their own “new normal.” Dr. Lisa Ford-Brown, an associate professor of Communication Studies and dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, has approximately 40 faculty members who will begin teaching IVCs once classes return from Spring Break on March 30.
Ford-Brown noted that some Day Program students have taken online courses due to scheduling conflicts or other out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. “We’re also going to begin advising sessions with our students for the Fall Semester starting next week, and those will be either over Zoom or over the phone,” she said.
The Transition for Nursing: Not quite yet
Not all classes immediately moved to a virtual format: Because of state licensing requirements, students in the Nursing program at both the Lake of the Ozarks and in Columbia must complete in-person lab, clinical and practicum assignments. There were several students working at clinical sites last week at University of Missouri Health Care, Boone Hospital, the Boone County Health Department, and other organizations.
Dr. Tina Dalrymple, Director of Nursing and Health Sciences and department chair, purchased online virtual simulations to supplement the lab and clinical experiences.
“The virtual simulations literally walk you through the patient case scenarios. For example, before you can do anything, you have to identify the patient and wash your hands,” she said. “You get to look at the patient’s chart like you would in a normal clinical situation, and communicate with the patient, then carry out the patient-focused simulation.”
Because of the pandemic, the NCLEX test that nurses must complete before licensure has been suspended for the next several weeks, but graduating nursing students – many of whom already have jobs secured upon graduation – often may begin work at their new jobs as graduate nurses with the condition that they must pass the NCLEX in a certain amount of time. Given the rise of the pandemic, the certifying organization has extended the time in which graduating nursing students are eligible to sit for the licensure exam. Dalrymple doesn’t foresee her graduates having any problems entering the workforce.
The Transition for Us All: Being well
It has been an interesting first week without classes on Main Campus. Dr. Ford-Brown went as far as scheduling a virtual “happy hour” Friday afternoon with other deans and their teams to foster a better connection in potentially very isolating times.
“That’s particularly important to me; I have at least a couple of staff members that live alone, and I worry about them in ways that I might not worry about some other folks that have a spouse or kids at home,” she said.
Mazzola summed up the “new normal” well: “We’re still here, we still do care, your friends are still there, even though you can’t necessarily be right next to them, but we can still engage virtually.”