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Perspective | We’re still in the business of improving lives through learning

One, two, three, all in quick succession. That’s how many emails I’ve received since I opened this document to begin writing three weeks ago. These emails are not like normal student emails — the emails asking if I could clarify an assignment detail, the “I think number 7 on the quiz is wrong,” or “Can you help?” emails.

Instead, the most recent emails that have landed in my inbox have a twinge of anxiety in their sentences. Many of the messages are about lack of internet access or slow connection. Some are about textbooks. And a few are from students who now have added responsibilities due to the school closures — from babysitting to helping run the family’s essential business.

The remainder of the emails that trickle in are from support staff at the area high schools alerting me to a student’s limited internet access at home and asking if I would consider that as I grade assignments. And… it’s just the beginning.

I’ve worked in higher education for over 10 years. From enrollment to advising to college liaison for high school programs, I’ve experienced the gamut of postsecondary education. Now, I spend my free time as an adjunct instructor for Isothermal Community College. Well-versed in the world of College & Career Promise (CCP), it was a no-brainer for me to teach public speaking to high school students.

Although initially challenging, I have begun to hone the art of teaching public speaking online over the past three years. What I have learned is technology can sometimes be a problem. I’ve been fortunate that, along with Isothermal’s IT and Moodle support, most area high schools have phenomenal staff who help alleviate technology hiccups.

But we’ve entered into a season of unknown when it will be more difficult to troubleshoot with students. I also worry, along with Andrew Bradshaw, college liaison for high school programs at Isothermal, “that the lack of face-to-face support for college courses that students typically receive at the county public high schools from distance learning advisors will have a negative impact on course completion.” Despite these challenges, I’ve seen a proactive effort among Isothermal staff and the area high schools to address technology and student support concerns. These efforts will continue to be vital for these high school students during this difficult time.

Unlike other faculty members at Isothermal Community College, I did not have to scramble to move my entire class online in just two weeks — no doubt a tedious feat. I can imagine the anxiety associated with these quick changes. But I know the spirit of Isothermal, and it has always been one of “community first” — a community among each other and a community of support for all students, “especially those students who are already disenfranchised and will most likely be victimized by crisis,” said Kathy Ackerman, dean of arts and sciences at Isothermal.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve seen an onslaught of encouragement among my colleagues — faculty members reaching out to other faculty members offering help in any way they can. When I served as the college liaison for high school programs, I worked closely with math instructor Dale Gaddis. So, it was no surprise to me when Ackerman told me that Gaddis had built a non-transfer math class in MyMathLab for an adjunct professor who has never taught online. This was a tremendous amount of work, I’m sure. But that’s Isothermal staff and faculty — stepping up because it’s just what you do. When I left the college as a full-time employee over three years ago, it was a sad day indeed because I knew I was leaving a support system that I cherished.

Mebane Rash/EducationNC

While the shift online may be a challenge for many, Isothermal is in a unique position. Ackerman, pointed out that,

“Ten years ago the college slammed the accelerator to put courses online in order to serve our considerable CCP needs. We did not have a Moodle administrator then, we had few resources, and we had very little training. Yet, faculty rose to the occasion.”

Since then, Isothermal has gained a Moodle administrator and we have continued to improve the quality of online courses each year. And during the crisis of COVID-19, online course support continues to grow.

Isothermal’s Moodle administrator, Jo James, has centralized all academic continuity support, allowing her a single point of distribution for all information to faculty. “The 2020 Moodle On Demand course provides tutorials for basic Moodle content development, announcements about technology resources, as well as other resources,” said James.

The same is occurring in the Student Bridge course in Moodle, an academic support for students. “The Student Bridge offers on-demand tutorials for Moodle and Microsoft Outlook email,” James stated. As instructors, we are encouraged to direct students to this course when questions arise about assignment submissions, navigating Moodle, and other features in Moodle. “The announcement forum in Student Bridge also contains email posts from our public information officer as well as others about registration and advising and external sources of support, such as internet access and food pantries for families in need. It’s simply a conduit to share the information that others have collected,” said James.

Faculty members were fortunate that senior administration changed the dates of spring break so that we could all adjust to the new normal. This afforded us two weeks before returning to our existing online courses or transitioning from a face-to-face class to an online format.

I spent weeks one and two preparing messages to students about assignment adjustments, manually shifting due dates, and continuing to address my students’ growing concerns. I spent a few days during week one Googling free textbook options after learning the publisher of the textbook I use for my class hadn’t yet announced a free ebook option. Days later, I reached out to our liaison from the publishing company about incorporating items into Moodle, only to have Moodle crash (system-wide) that very day. Before I could send an email, a flurry of concerns from students about the Moodle outage flooded my inbox. Many had missed the announcement that no assignments were due, so it was a rush to alleviate fears about the typical late work penalty — something I now have to rethink amid COVID-19.

And that’s where the challenges arise. What is the expectation? I’m not in my students’ homes to know whether or not they are binging Netflix or if they truly cannot complete assignments. Isothermal Community College serves Rutherford and Polk counties, both largely rural. For many, having internet service may be a financial hardship, but for others, the internet literally isn’t available in their area.

Less than five miles off HWY 74 (the main road connecting Charlotte and Asheville), you find areas that do not have decent or affordable internet options and areas with no internet availability at all. I appreciate the proactive efforts made by both the Rutherford and Polk school districts to address the technology difficulties of their students. Kudos as well to Isothermal for offering parking lots and computer labs as options for Wi-Fi access.

Walter Dalton, president of Isothermal Community College, points to the college’s location on a map. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

However, despite these efforts, there will still be students left without access. Lack of transportation will prevent many students from driving to locations where Wi-Fi is available, and a few students who attend private schools have expressed concerns about not having a home computer.

The analogy I keep hearing over and over is, “We really are building the plane as we are flying it.” We’ve prepared as much as we can, but during the chaos, there is still so much we do not know.

As we enter into the fourth week of our new normal, I find myself trying to determine how I can offer levity while providing information and compassion and encouraging my students to remain disciplined in their studies. For many of my students, it’s their senior year. No proms. No high school games. Perhaps no graduation ceremony.

So this week, I decided to tweak an assignment. Instead of writing a paper to critique a persuasive speech, I made the assignment future-oriented. Their new assignment asks them to describe five things they know they do well and five things other people have told them they do well. They are to then think of three careers in which they believe their identified strengths could be assets. They will then research the careers and tell me the level of education needed for each and how they could go about earning that certificate, license, or degree. Finally, they will write out goals — what they would need in the next one-two years to move toward postsecondary educational attainment and their career goals. No, it isn’t a speech critique, but it’s a chance for them to remember that there will be a future after this period of quarantine and isolation. As Nation Hahn reminded us recently, “Our future remains brighter than any dystopian present.”

As I gear-up for week four, I glance at the words I’ve scribbled on a note beside my desk from Dr. Ackerman:

“We exist to improve lives through learning.”

Even when it feels like we are building the plane as we are flying it, we’re still in the business of improving lives.

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.