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Not all community college courses can be taught online. Here’s how colleges are responding.

Over the past month, community colleges across the state have trained faculty, handed out devices to students, and set up Wi-Fi hot spots in their parking lots all in the hopes of enabling students to continue their education during COVID-19. But some students and instructors are in a holding pattern.

“There are certain concepts and theories that we can put online,” said Stanly Community College President John Enamait. “But at the end of the day, employers want to know students can actually weld and not just watch videos.”

Enamait is talking about classes like welding that require in-person, hands-on instruction for at least a portion of the class. A month after the North Carolina Community College System recommended pausing face-to-face instruction and moving courses online, instructors in these classes are checking in with students, posting videos of themselves demonstrating various techniques, and doing whatever instruction they can online. However, there is a limit, as Enamait recognized, and many of these courses have been put on hold until face-to-face instruction can resume.

“We’re trying to make good public health decisions,” Enamait said. “Unfortunately, it’s going to come at a cost for the college and at a cost for our students because they’re not going to be able to access some of the education that they want.”

President Enamait donating supplies to Atrium Health. Courtesy of Stanly Community College

Community college courses are split between the curriculum side of the house, which includes courses like biology, English, and math that students need if they plan to transfer to a four-year institution, and the continuing education side of the house, which includes short-term workforce courses, adult basic skills courses, and courses for students wanting to learn new skills, like pottery. It is these continuing education courses that colleges are finding most difficult to move online because so many require hands-on learning.

Take, for example, automotive repair. During a visit to Stanly Community College (SCC) a year ago, I visited the collision repair and refinishing technology program. Uri Osorio, a student in the program, described what he loved about his classes:

“We’re always hands-on. I see that as a benefit for us because we’re not in the classroom just workbook, workbook, workbook,” he said.

These days, instruction looks quite different for students in this program. For now, the instructor, Billy Huneycutt, is recording himself taking apart a car and reassembling it and posting the videos online for students, Enamait said.

“But there comes a point in time where students are going to have to lay their hands on whatever it is that they need to work on,” he added.

In SCC’s welding program, students were able to do much of the hands-on learning required in the two months before courses were paused. William Beaver, head of the welding program, explained that this is a result of a group of his students who wanted to compete at the SkillsUSA Championships, a national technical competition held each June. Because the time required to prepare for the competition is so great, Beaver pushed students early in the semester to get their coursework done before prepping for the competition.

“I put a stool in the middle of the shop and every time they pulled the curtain back I said, ‘What are you doing?'” Beaver said. “Without SkillsUSA, I don’t know if I would be at the point I am now, because I pushed them really hard. The majority of the students finished the lab work they needed to complete the course, and some even got stuff for the summer semester done.”

A welding student at Pitt Community College
Welding requires both technical knowledge and an eye for artistry. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC.

Now, students are using this time at home to take online courses from the American Welding Society (AWS). After completing the online lessons, they have to pass a test to earn a certification. Beaver uses the college’s online learning management system, Canvas, to assign the lessons and keep up with students.

“Without Canvas or the AWS online program, we’d be dead in the water right now,” Beaver said.

The move to online learning for some classes is also complicated because many classes have governing agencies or regulating bodies that determine the instructional format and the number of hours required to pass the class or earn an industry-recognized certificate. John Paul Black, vice president of workforce development and continuing education at Lenoir Community College, gave an example of this.

“If you wanted to teach defensive driving,” Black said, “which is a very popular continuing education course, you have to reach out to your local court system in the county to be able to request approval to offer defensive driving in an online format.”

In cosmetology, Black said Lenoir Community College received approval to offer 450 of the 1,500 required hours in an online format, and the college is exploring if it can offer barber courses online as well.

“Some of the challenges are because of regulation,” Black said, “and other challenges are because the content or the nature of what you’re teaching may not lend itself to an online environment.”

A row of cosmetology mannequins with multicolored hair sits atop a cabinet
Cosmetology students practice hair coloring on these mannequins at Sampson Community College. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

Deborah Wright, the vice president of economic and workforce development and continuing education at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College (A-B Tech), moved to Asheville and started her role at the college on January 2. She has worked in higher education for years, but she is new to the community college system.

Wright recognizes that this can be a disadvantage, because she is still learning the system, but she also sees it as an advantage, especially in these times. As A-B Tech is figuring out how to respond to the pandemic, Wright believes her inexperience in the system means she is more willing to try new things and think outside the box.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” Wright said. “I tend to look at everything as an opportunity without clearly knowing what those barriers and challenges are.”

Wright’s approach has been to work with and support the continuing education instructors who want to develop online instruction and use those courses as test cases for the rest of the instructors.

Deborah Wright. Courtesy of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College

“I decided … to start with some of our instructors and say, ‘We will meet you where you are, if you’re willing,'” Wright said. “So I’ve been working with our team internally, to say, first of all, do we have somebody who’s willing? Then, let’s look at the program, and we have to see if the rules and regulations allow us to teach any of this in an online format.”

“Today, I got an email,” Wright continued, “that said the fire department, you can’t teach any of their instruction online. So you’re done. End of conversation.”

Wright and her team developed a checklist to figure out which courses they could move online and started training faculty on using online software like Zoom. At the same time, they are working on a re-entry plan for whenever the college can resume face-to-face instruction and developing plans for summer classes, whether those are online or in person.

It’s a constantly changing situation, Wright said, and they are just trying to stay two to three steps ahead. With all of these decisions, though, Wright emphasized the importance of listening to their students and being mindful of their current realities.

“One of the things we’ve really had to realize is that our students are not just students,” she said. “They are family members. They are juggling some of the same things that we’re juggling with being at home, taking care of their kids, and can I find groceries if I run out now? And so we have to keep that in mind too, that we’re dealing with a community of adults who are going through some of the same transitions that we are, not just students.”

Molly Osborne

Molly Osborne is the director of policy for EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.