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Here’s how the Belk Center helped community college faculty shift to online teaching during COVID-19

When COVID-19 hit, community colleges across North Carolina had not a moment to lose in moving thousands of students to online-only instruction. The Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research at NC State immediately reached out to presidents and administrators to see how it could help.

Audrey Jaeger, executive director for the Belk Center, spoke with us on our podcast Hope Starts Here about what the center did.

“We heard from our presidents that faculty were supported by their institutions in terms of this remote learning,” Jaeger said. “But all faculty moving all their courses online all at the same time was difficult for institutions to support.”

The center moved quickly to offer webinars for faculty members, and more than 100 attended. Fifty faculty members requested support with needs including strategies for “active learning” in an online environment, ways to handle lab hours, development of video lectures and effective engagement tools. Jaeger said the center engaged with more than half of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges.

Michelle Bartlett and Carrol Warren of the Belk Center led the charge on the webinar side. One key point at the beginning, courtesy of Bartlett and Warren, was to remind faculty that students also felt anxiety around the transition to an online environment, given that they did not sign up for a remote learning experience at the beginning of the semester.

College leaders, administrators, and faculty were all pitching in to spark the system-wide transition, but the scale of the challenge was immense. While all colleges offered either online-only courses or hybrid courses of both online and in-person instruction, many students had still opted for in-person instruction for a variety of reasons. And, of course, many faculty members were not trained for, or accustomed to, digital-only instruction. 

Amy Poirier, a faculty member leading production agriculture classes associated with Agribusiness Systems at Mitchell Community College, was one of them. Poirier said her immediate concern was how to effectively teach online since her previous students were traditionally not as responsive to online learning.

“I had already developed a lot of my material from scratch,” she said. “When faced with moving online, I felt like I had to repeat this work since it was in a different format.

“The most challenging part of the transition was the time (and data) associated with recording online lectures. And the disappointment when a student stopped participating, especially when the student was doing so well in the traditional, in-class setting.”

In addition, other student support processes were also being shifted online. 

Catharine Curtis, director of the TRIO Student Support Services program for Central Piedmont Community College, a federally funded program for low-income, first-generation college students, was one support administrator facing the digital shift. TRIO programs house several support services for students.

Curtis told EdNC that her chief concerns were a lack of digital resources and a lack of experience with online courses for the students that TRIO serves. “Typically we discourage first-generation or underprepared students from taking online classes,” Curtis said, “and here we were, with our participants having to transition to online courses in a two-week time frame.”

Curtis praised the webinar for providing easy-to-use tips. “Michelle and Carol had such a great understanding of where we were, and broke it down into what we could do now, to bring our class/program up to speed,” she said. “Ideas such as create online Zoom office hours for students and staff, which we implemented immediately, to, a very easy to use free or inexpensive newsletter resource that we have purchased for our program. To ‘remember, everything doesn’t have to be perfect,’ give yourself and your students a break!”

Felita Carr, the head of TRIO at Johnston Community College, shared that the webinars provided new ideas for process, as well as technology, but that she had to quickly get up to speed on both video technology and web applications. Carr also pointed out that digital gaps for students persist. 

“Many students have shared their struggle with the lack of familiarity with the new technology, such as Google classroom, WebEx, or Zoom,” Carr said. “They are falling behind in assignments due to that fact.”

In addition to the webinars, the Belk Center established a website and a shared Google Drive that included a range of resources, including multimedia, that were either developed from scratch or identified as meeting the information needs and requests of faculty from across the system in hopes of helping those who were not able to join the webinars or needed additional assistance.

The Belk Center will continue to serve as a resource.

Poirer, the agribusiness instructor at Mitchell Community College, said she is fundamentally rethinking her own approach. “I realize the importance of instilling good online habits in my students,” she said. “I think that if I encourage them to complete more online assignments and increase their familiarity with it, they will be better able to transition to online in the future. My goal throughout the summer is to prepare my fall courses with an online lecture component. That way, my students and I can make better use of the class time that we have, including hands-on labs and field trips.”

Poirer concluded by saying she hopes to play a valuable role in moving career and technical education online in the future.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the chief of growth for EducationNC.